We all talk to ourselves, either in our heads or out loud. It’s called self-talk. And according to Tom Brinthaupt, PhD, a self-talk researcher and professor of psychology, it’s very natural: We start doing it as kids, usually out loud during playtime, and gradually most of our external talk becomes internal dialogue.
Why do we do it? Experts theorize that we talk to ourselves to self-regulate—create to-do lists, set goals, and monitor emotions—but they aren’t entirely sure. According to Brinthaupt, emerging research suggests that socially isolating situations, like living alone, being an only child, and quarantining, can increase the frequency of self-talk.
Surprisingly, some research indicates that observing someone else talking to themselves can create connection. “It kind of gives you empathy [for them],” says Brinthaupt. Researchers are testing this theory by programming robots to voice self-talk (like saying out loud, “Oh, I need to do this,” or “Oh, maybe I should do that”). And they’re finding that when people see a robot talking to itself, they feel more comfortable around the robot.
The 4 Types of Self-Talk
After collecting data from hundreds of people, Brinthaupt and his research team noticed four common categories of self-talk: self-management, social assessment, self-reinforcement, and self-criticism.
- Self-management is using self-talk to get things done. It’s when we say things like: “What do I need to do today?” “What time is my first meeting?” “What should I have for lunch today?” etc. You could also engage in self-managing talk—internally or externally—trying to fix your computer (e.g., “I’ll restart it first,” “Do I need to update my software?” “Should I reach out to IT?” etc.).
- Social assessment is when we replay a conversation or rehearse what we plan to say to someone. Brinthaupt says that it may help us process what has occurred and prepare for what’s to come. And he suspects that people with social anxiety may engage in more of this type of self-talk.
- Self-reinforcement includes the things we say to ourselves like: “Good job,” “That worked,” or “I’m glad I said that.” “It’s when we verbally pat ourselves on the back,” says Brinthaupt.
- Self-criticism is the talk that is judgmental. It says: “I’m such an idiot—why did I just say that?” According to Brinthaupt, emerging research shows that people experiencing anxiety or depression tend to have higher levels of critical self-talk.
Researchers are currently working to understand what it means if you use the first, second, or third person during self-talk. But Brinthaupt speculates that perfectionists may have a greater tendency to use second person in their self-talk (e.g., “You shouldn’t have done that”)—as if there’s an internal parental or authority figure telling them what to do.
When to Interfere with Self-Talk
Each type of self-talk is valuable, but the less self-criticism, the better. To minimize it, Charlynn Ruan, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, suggests you take three simple (but not always easy) steps: Become aware of your thoughts, reframe them, and repeat.
- Become self-aware. Ruan says that being aware of your thoughts helps you change them. For example, if you spill something, you may immediately think, Ugh, I’m so clumsy, without being conscious of it. Take a pause in those reactive moments to see what thoughts come up for you. Journaling and meditation practices can also help reveal your internal dialogue.
- Reframe your thoughts. When you notice a critical thought (e.g., I’m so clumsy) choose a more compassionate, accurate, and neutral statement: I’m human, and sometimes I spill things.
- Repeat the process. Many self-critical thoughts are strongly embedded in our brains—in neural pathways that are typically created during childhood. Rewiring these circuits takes time and effort, so have compassion and patience with yourself throughout the process.