What Do You Say When You Talk to Yourself?

Do you have a critical inner voice that makes you feel bad about yourself?

Posted Jul 08, 2020

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We all have conversations with ourselves that involve an interplay between what social psychologist George Herbert Mead called the "I" and the "me." The "I" speaks or has a thought and the "me" responds to it. The "me" is the internalized attitudes that we apply to ourselves as well as other people. Most of the time, while we are familiar with the process in ourselves, we are not privy to it in other people. However, two ways of getting to know other people's internalized attitudes toward themselves are when they talk to themselves out loud, and when they project their attitudes toward themselves onto us.

As a tennis player, I have gotten to know a great deal about my fellow players by listening to what they say to themselves when they miss a ball or hit it out. Sally, a successful commercial real estate broker, hits the ball into the net and exclaims, "Oh Barbie, you don't want to do that!" No one calls this woman "Barbie"; it is her little-girl name for herself. While Liz, the Chief Operating Officer of a corporation, lobs the ball past the line and yells, "Idiot, what did you do that for?!" There is a distinct difference between the voices that each of these women have internalized and now use on themselves.

If we pay attention to what we say when we talk to ourselves, we get insight into our earlier experiences with significant others. Whose reassuring voice is it that talks to "Barbie"? Who yells at Liz when she makes a mistake?

When those voices are negative, they are more likely to get projected onto other people. As a psychoanalyst, I learn a great deal about my patients from what they imagine I think when they do or say something they deem wrong. "You think I'm a liar," Jonathan says when he tells me something he omitted from a story he told me last session. He has a harsh response to himself and projects it onto me; then he gets angry at me for being so harsh and says, "It's not fair." He externalizes his internal conversation and turns it into an interpersonal interaction. It has taken years for him to realize that this is not about my judgment of him, but rather his judgment of himself.

Can you change what you say when you talk to yourself? Yes, but it takes time and work to internalize a kinder, more accepting voice. People who believe in rational therapy may offer exercises. But from an interpersonal psychoanalytic perspective, changing your inner voice involves, first, becoming conscious of it and then internalizing a new voice. That is why psychoanalysis is a lengthy process: First, the patient projects the critical inner voices on the analyst in the transference; then the patient becomes conscious that the judgments are his/her own; then the patient begins to internalize the analyst's voice.

Unfortunately, many patients resist giving up their harsh inner voices, despite the unhappiness it causes them, because it is a connection to a significant person, albeit negative. That is why exercises and mantras frequently do not lead to sustained change.