Self Talk Matters

As a kid in elementary school I followed the rules and showed up mostly on time and prepared. But there was always a sense of satisfaction in getting away with something. It wasn’t so much about beating the system as it was finding out where the boundaries were and what I could do to to push that edge. I developed a self talk that had the angel in me argueing with the devil.  Most would call the process “growing up.”

As I grew up I found the same internal conversations took place and attitudes came into play to shade the internal self talk. I became opinionated. As decisions became more complex and impactful I found myself making judgements based on feelings rather than facts. In some areas that’s fine…go with your heart not your head. In other areas…not so much. 

The self talk I refer to is not a new concept to you. It’s what we do as thinking mammals. But the process doesn’t begin with a rational thought.

Each time we are confronted with a sight, sound, touch, decision or idea, the primitive part of the brain reacts. Either it produces oxytocin and dopamine which attach positive feeling to the situation or it produces cortisol that produces negative feelings of stress, anxiety and cloudy thinking. The rational mind then takes over to justify the feeling we first impulsively received.

Because our mammalian brain goes back at least 100,000 years, the scary world at the time made man a delicacy on more powerful animal’s menus. We were no match for saber toothed tigers and other large predators that went bump in the night. Early humans took to caves and trees for night-time safety and regeneration (developing our circadian rhythm). We also developed a quick “fight or flight” mechanism to move us toward opportunities, like food or other basic necessities. The “flight” part of this instant biochemical reaction by the brain brought blood to our heart and limbs to escape quickly. The latest opinion about people’s mostly negative, “nay sayer” attitudes is traced back to initial self protection reactions. Self talk, positive or negative goes back to the beginning of early man. Not very surprising.

But here’s what’s up to date and useful about our self talk. When subjects are hooked up to today’s scans that measure what’s happening in real time in the brain they find that whether a person is listening or speaking out loud or speaking silently to themselves, the scans light up. This means that sounds are being acknowledged and recorded in the brain, whether spoken or thought silently. Giving yourself positive words to accomplish or negative words that limit excellent performance are all recorded in the brain.  Where do you think your next decision comes from? In part, from the recent and continuous self talk, even in your quiet moments of reflection. Knowing about this is scientifically interesting but the practical use is more than just interesting. 

A Great Idea to Change Stinkin’ Thinkin’

Here’s a small easy system to change negative thinking and the behavior that comes from it. When you find yourself in a negative mental monologue, cussing yourself out or just feeling low, use a small ritual like snapping your fingers or taking 2 deep breaths or saying, “cancel, cancel”  to change the moment. Then silently (or out loud) tell yourself a better story. Doing this mindfully for 2-3 weeks will have you eliminating self destructive thinking and attitudes forever. Attitudes can and will change, but first the foundation needs to be established.