Soliloquies and Self Talk: Absentminded Habit or Powerful Tool of Self-Control?

Anyone who has taken even a 10th grade literature course has come across a Shakespeare soliloquy at some point. Richard III goes through the list of all the reasons for his discontentment then boldly declares he will be a villain. There are seven soliloquies in Hamlet in which he walks himself through more possibilities than a Rube Goldberg Machine. And the Macbeths talk to themselves through everything they do. Perhaps most memorable is the example of Juliet, who uses logic and reason to validate her love for someone her family wants her to hate. Many teachers (and others) have declared the soliloquy to be a necessity of the stage, calling it a precursor to voice over narration. The characters are only thinking these things.

But what if they’re not? What if Shakespeare, over 400 years ago, understood the power of self-talk?

Flash forward 400 years to the work of leading expert in the field of self-talk, Ethan Kross, director of the University of Michigan’s Emotion and Self-Control Lab. He describes “self-talk” as the running monologue that we have with ourselves most of the day. Mentally working through the scenarios, whether asking ourselves where we left our keys, saying the steps of a recipe while we make something, or whether we should kill the usurper king of Denmark—and especially going through the scenario out loud—actually helps us to focus. Saying a word out loud helps us to keep an image of that object in our minds, which often helps us find the object more quickly. But Kross wanted to take this further, to see how self-talk could make us, without sounding like something out of pop-psychology, more confident and in control.

Kross conducted a series of experiments studying how people conducted their soliloquies. The most significant observation was not only the internal monologue of self-talk spilling into open speech, but the way in which successful people used it. They spoke to themselves in the third person, using their own names.

During Kross’s study, people who spoke to themselves using I or me tended to become more flustered and have a diminished performance on a particular task, or found difficulty in overcoming a problem. Those who used their names to talk themselves through the same tasks or problems in a self-advocating manner had success rates that shot through the roof.

While some self-talk can become negative, especially for those trapped in a cycle of self-defeat, self-talk itself is not an optimal solution. We learn self-talk as babies, babbling, then repeating sounds and words, and then walking (or singing) ourselves through various steps in the education process. Positive and negative feedback then influence the ways in which we continue this self-talk; children who hear they aren’t good enough or are doing something wrong will often tell themselves they can’t complete a task because of this negative feedback. The corollary is that positive feedback fosters positive self-talk. This continues as we age.

Negative feedback can be rewired with positive self-talk. What is impressive is how this can be achieved through switching to the third person. It’s a way to toggle how we can address the self. Switching our self-address is the same as flipping a switch in our amygdala, which controls our fear, and our cerebral cortex, which controls thought. These switches can increase or lessen the intensity of how we feel about a situation (or our sense of self within that situation). Third person helps us to gain psychological distance, which helps us gain self-control. This aids us in performance of tasks, critical thinking, and taking over an empire (or not). It also minimizes anxiety and dwelling on a task after its completion.

Further research will be conducted on the topic, but it may revolutionize the ways psychologists approach behavior modification therapy, as early results show that test subjects and patients seem to go through much less stress during third person self-talk. It can be a useful strategy to keep in mind.

And then next time you catch yourself asking yourself or your pet where you left your keys, keep in mind you’re in good company, and this is part of your biological process of development.

If you find yourself in the cycle of self-doubt and negative self-talk and wish to learn strategies for gaining psychological distance, contact me at Stephen@PfeifferPhD.com or visit my website www.pfeifferphd.com.

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