There was a time when I totally rejected the idea that self-talk – the kind so often portrayed laughingly on Saturday Night Live by a character named Stuart Smalley – could be a powerful tool in navigating emotionally charged situations.
But, as I’ve grown older and more thoughtful, I’ve come to understand that I often have engaged in self-talk to moderate and gain control of destructive emotions. My early Krav Maga instructor training is a perfect example of a time when I needed to navigate the unknown with positive, reassured self-talk.
My first Fear & Adrenal Stress Training (FAST) fight was another. I specifically used internal dialogue to stay calm, regulate breathing, and project competency. The process started as a female coach pulled each trainee aside to talk; in reality she was checking my breathing rate, hand tremble, and other signs of stress. My internal self-talk was working – she smiled as she checked my eyes remarking, you’re not afraid of anything are you… Of course I am, but in that moment, I had control of the emotions that could have allowed fear to ravage my perspective and my performance.
So what do scientists Ethan Kross, Charles Fernyhough, Lev Vygotsky, Laura Berk, Clayton Critcher, and David Dunning have to do with self-talk? They are all leading research in the area of self-talk. And, interestingly, these scientists from universities and research institutions from the U.S., Britain, and Russia all agree that well articulated self-talk is a powerful tool.
The basic premise, as stated by Kross, for an interview in Psychology Today was put as such:
“INNER TALK IS ONE OF THE MOST EFFECTIVE, LEAST-UTILIZED TOOLS AVAILABLE TO MASTER THE PSYCHE AND FOSTER LIFE SUCCESS.”
The real question then becomes, what kind of self-talk is best? Better yet, should we consider that some self-talk might be destructive? Growing up, my Dad often told me to stay positive due to SFP. SFP was an acronym for self-fulfilling prophecy. He was right. If I stressed about a test at school, and decided I would never understand the concept, I was allowing myself to give into destructive emotions (and focus only on that narrow, fearful idea).
The results of early testing conclude that self-talk should be done exclusively by addressing yourself in your given name. This style of self-talk allows the talker to draw closer to the cerebral cortex of the brain – moving further away from our sense of self and destructive emotional intensity.
Summarizing effective self-talk at an operational level can be done in three steps:
- Distance yourself from the stress and emotion of the situation.
- Tell yourself how to act in this moment; provide brief instructions
- Gain perspective and accept the moment for what it is
This three point self-talk roadmap might sound like the dialogue provided here:
Jim, you’re ready for this. All your training pays off right now (distancing). Stay calm, hit hard, and don’t stop (provide brief instructions). You’re strong and fast; let the chips fall where they will (perspective).
Kross asserts that it’s “very easy for people to advise their friends, yet when it comes to themselves, they have trouble.”
But, by engaging in effective self-talk, scientists believe we can detach ourselves from emotionally charged situations. And, by doing so, advise ourselves as our own best friends.
This process widens what would otherwise be narrowing creativity and thought mired in the low brain as stress increases.
Recently Kross, working with another scientist (Moser), obtained evidence from brain scans that self-distancing through internal self-talk provides clarity of thought (and can be illustrated using the brain scans of subjects talking through problems using first and third person identifiers).
In summary, effective self-talk can increase performance and be a powerful intervention during times of stress and anxiety. Try it, and stick to the three point plan provided above.