Me, Myself and I: 4 Ways to Harness That Nagging Voice in Your Head
Internal dialogue is real, constant and often irrationally critical and pessimistic. Changing that tone is a powerful personal improvement.
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How often do think to yourself in conversational snippets? If you're like most of us, there's a constantly running conversation in your head: Why would he say that to me? Did I do something wrong? Or, What's taking so long? How about, Just 20 more minutes and we're out of here!
Psychologists refer to this ongoing, self-contained conversation as internal dialogue or self-talk. And it happens more often and more quickly than most people probably realize. One study from 1990 clocked the pace of inner dialogue at 4,000 words per minute, or about 10 times faster than everyday speech.
It shouldn't surprise you that these conversations exist in almost everybody's minds, but you might be surprised at just how powerful they are. If you let your internal dialogue fly freely, as most of us do, your emotions, actions and habits could become warped to fit what it's saying. But, if you find a way to control your internal dialogue, you could ultimately change your life for the better.
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The power of internal dialogue.
Your internal dialogue is more than just abstract thought. A study headed by Gary Lupyan and Daniel Swingley proves it; their experiment found that assigning verbal labels helped test subjects locate objects better than just abstractly thinking about the object. In other words, thinking about a chair won't help you locate a chair in your environment as much as thinking about the word "chair," and using that word in sentences of internal dialogue.
The "power of positive thinking" is more than just an annoying catchphrase -- it's a description of a real phenomenon. When we focus on negative thoughts, they trigger the release of cortisol, a stress hormone, which breaks down the hippocampus, which is a portion of the brain responsible for forming new memories.
Negative thoughts are also precursors to negative emotions, like sadness, anger and anxiety. The more we dwell on them, the more entrenched they become; ruminating on negative thoughts -- even ones as simple as the word "no" -- can have a physical impact on your brain structure, making you more prone to negative thoughts in the future.
Furthermore, researcher Robert M. Schwartz found that the relationship between positive and negative internal dialogue is disproportionate; mildly dysfunctional groups tend to have a 1:1 ratio of positive to negative thoughts or lower, while functional groups have about a 1.7:1 ratio. This suggests that negative thoughts are more powerful than positive thoughts, and are more likely to change in frequency with cognitive-behavioral therapy and conscious control.
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At this point, you're probably wondering how you can change something that seems to spring up naturally, without forethought or conscious control. But, scientists have demonstrated that it is possible to reshape your thoughts and feelings with directed self-control; participants asked to inhibit negative thoughts show reduced activity in the amygdala, a portion of the brain responsible for strong negative feelings like sadness and anxiety. And they showed increased activity in the frontal cortex, which is responsible for emotional regulation.
So, what can you do to improve your internal dialogue?
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1. Form complete sentences in your head.
If you want to get the most out of your internal dialogue, deliberately try to form complete sentences. Your brain is better at working with words and sentences than it is at working with abstract thoughts, so try to focus your thoughts accordingly.
2. Use the Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES) method.
Part of the lack of control over your internal dialogue comes from a lack of awareness that it exists; it serves as background noise in our daily lives. DES is a method designed to bring your attention to those thoughts, so you can get a better understanding of what you're thinking and when you're thinking it, and get one step closer to controlling those thoughts.
In formal settings, subjects carry a beeper, and whenever a randomly timed beep goes off, they write down their current thoughts. You can simulate this in your own life with randomly set alarms on your phone -- as long as you aren't anticipating their arrival, which can distort your thoughts prematurely.
3. Recognize common traps.
Many instances of negative self-talk fall into a specific category. For example, "all or nothing" thinking makes you see the world in black and white: "If I don't get this raise, my entire career's been a waste of time." Overgeneralization applies a specific incident to a bigger picture, unnecessarily: "They didn't appreciate my work on the last project, so I shouldn't try again this time."
Discounting the positive puts a negative spin on an otherwise positive experience: "My performance review was good, but that's just because they rushed through it to get it over with." Recognizing thought-traps when they happen gives you a sense of your own biases and cognitive distortions, so you can reset your mind and think more clearly.
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4. Replace negative thoughts with a challenge.
When you notice yourself thinking something negative, even for a moment, stop yourself. Don't allow yourself to ruminate on that thought any further, and instead, try to rephrase that thought as a challenge.
For example, instead of thinking, "There's no way I can finish this today," ask, "How can I finish this today?" Instead of thinking, "I hate being on a team with this idiot," ask, "How can I work more efficiently with this person?" Simple word changes like these can be enough to reframe your entire perspective.
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Never underestimate the power of your thoughts. Learning to think more descriptively, and learning to recognize and transform your negative thoughts will leave you happier and more functional, and will give you a better perspective on your reality.If you're used to dwelling on negative thoughts after years of habitual experience, remember that your brain is plastic and constantly changing. You may struggle to adopt these habits at first, but if you keep at it, you're going to be successful. And once you have instilled those positive thoughts, you'll wonder how you got along without them.