- Self-talk can negatively or positively influence our physical, emotional, and mental health.
- We have influence over our inner voice.
- The first step toward healing is listening to our inner voice.
I’ll admit something. I talk to myself…a lot. And there was a time when I noticed that my inner silent dialogue was critical…of me! That got me thinking. How much influence does that inner voice have on our physical, mental, and emotional health? And, even more important, how much influence do we have on that inner voice? Here’s what I found.
We All Hear Voices
It was Plato who first introduced the concept that speaking and thinking are intimately intertwined as he declared “when the mind is thinking it is talking to itself” and referred to this dialogue as a conversation with the soul. Today this is commonly referred to as self-talk and research shows that we all have these conversations that the brain recognizes in the same way as if we were talking out loud.1 What’s more, this voice greatly influences us, positively or negatively, depending on the conversation.
From a positive perspective, our inner voice can serve many important purposes including2,3:
- rehearsing something
- creative thinking
- stress management
- identity construction
Research also demonstrates that the inner voice can positively influence cognition, learning, and working memory.4 Our inner voice helps us contemplate the context and meaning of our lives. It can be an inner knowing providing us guidance on our journey. But what happens when our inner conversations feature a critical, negative, and/or insecure voice?
From a negative standpoint, a repetitive critical inner voice is linked to depression, anxiety, and excessive rumination.5 Research also shows that our emotions, behaviors, and health mirror the tone of our inner voice. If our self-talk is anxious, depressed, or angry, we will become anxious, depressed, or angry.4 And, just as positive self-talk can positively influence cognition, memory, learning, and other factors, a negative inner voice or not enough positive self-talk can reduce cognition, memory, learning, and other factors.6 Interestingly, one study found that when the inner voice was blocked, study participants exhibited more impulsivity and lack of control.7
So, now that we know that the inner voice has power over our physical, mental, and emotional health, what do we do about it?
We’ve all heard about the benefits of a solid list of conversation starters that can lead to enjoyable banter among friends, family, and colleagues. But what about conversation enders? That’s exactly what needs to happen when we hear a negative, pessimistic, judgmental, self-deprecating, and/or angry inner voice.
The first step to ending that harmful inner conversation is awareness. If there is no acknowledgment, there is no healing. To encourage this awareness, I pay attention to the messages my inner voice sends me, especially on stressful days or days when I’m feeling down. I also try to identify a somatic sign to cue my awareness. Do I have butterflies in my stomach? Is my breathing more shallow? Is it difficult for me to talk or express myself? At that moment, I pause and listen to the messages I’ve been telling myself. Could the language I’m using inside my head be adding to my stress, depression, or whatever I am feeling? That’s my cue to end the conversation and start a new one.
Once I know what I’m saying to myself, I can shift the conversation to a more positive one. Sometimes I even conclude, “Wait a minute, that’s just not true!” It’s important to understand that we are in control of our inner voice, not the other way around.
I also try to infuse positive thinking into my routine by beginning my day with a gratitude prayer. Sometimes I even bookend my day by reviewing my gratitude list in the morning and evening. It’s far easier to have a positive inner voice when we are feeling grateful.
Another aspect I consider is the company I keep. Are the people I see most often critical, negative, or stressed out? Or are they positive, uplifting, and a joy to be around? We humans are energetic beings with a tendency to feed off each other. Like a sponge, we can soak up the negative self-talk of others.
Changing the Conversation…With Ourselves
When it comes to our inner voice, the first step toward healing is listening. Whether it is a scream or a whisper, if that inner voice is negative, self-deprecating, or generally critical, we have reached an important inflection point. It’s time to change the conversation.
Buddha has said, “We are shaped by our thoughts. We become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” A pure mind is free of negativity and filled with self-love. While that may not be possible 100 percent of the time, the more we emphasize positive thoughts and words, the more joy and good health we are likely to have.
If you’d like further perspective on this subject, check out the podcast I did with my good friend and co-host Dr. Lise Alschuler.
1. Fernyhough C. What self-talk reveals about the brain. Scientific American. 2017; Aug 1.
2. Kompa NA. Inner speech and ‘pure’ thought—do we think in language? Review of Philosophy and Psychology. 2023; Jan 31.
3. Oles PK, Brinthaupt TM, Dier R, Polak D. Types of inner dialogues and functions of self-talk: comparisons and implications. Frontiers in Psychology. 2020;11.
4. Alderson-Day B, Fernyhough C. Inner Speech: Development, Cognitive Functions, Phenomenology, and Neurobiology. Psychol Bull. 2015;141(5):931–965.
5. Moffatt J, Mitrenga KJ, Alderson-Day B, Moseley P, Fernyhough C. Inner experience differs in rumination and distraction without a change in electromyographical correlates of inner speech. PLoS One. 2020;15(9):e0238920.
6. Vissers C, Tomas E, Law J. The emergence of inner speech and its measurement in atypically developing children. Frontiers in Psychology. 2020;11.
7. Tullett AM, Inzlicht M. The voice of self-control: blocking the inner voice increases impulsive responding. Acta Psycholgica. 2010;135(2):252–256.