“If other people could hear my inner dialogue during competition, they’d think I was certifiably crazy.” That refrain is one I’ve heard from countless people, regardless of the sport or activity they are pursuing. Our self-talk can be a strange world. One filled with bitter arguments among ourselves, a self-flagellation of negativity, or a Tony Robbins Esque motivational speech. Sometimes, our inner dialogue breaks the barrier of our brain and manifests into an embarrassing moment where we are caught talking to ourselves. Add in some stress and anxiety, and it all gets even weirder.
While scientists are still uncovering the intricacies of this phenomenon, one theory posits that our inner dialogue is a result of external speech going inward. Watch any 2 or 3-year-old child and you’ll see this on display. A mumbling, self-referential dialogue that’s directed at either the child himself or an object. Our youngster is using speech to guide action. According to Vygotsky’s theory of cognition, this external speech gradually went internal. Instead of telling ourselves what to do (“Get ball!”) out loud, and having debates between what to do or focus on that anyone could hear, those processes went internal. Vygotsky believed that our inner dialogue then serves the dual function of self-regulation and action; the same role it did when we were marching around as a 3-year-old.
Modern neuroscience largely confirms this theory, but when we have a back and forth debate in our head, who exactly are we debating? We experience these competing voices as individual selves having different motives. One might be looking after your health, while the other cares only about the potential reward or pleasure. Psychologists refer to this type of self-talk as confrontational dialogue. Where a negotiation of sorts takes place, with different selves competing for the ‘win.’ We have two self’s clashing, like prizefighters trying to win the day.
A group of researchers attempted to sort through our vast array of inner voices based on the emotions and motives attached to them. After analyzing participants descriptors of their self-talk in a number of different scenarios, researchers narrowed down to five different voices that appeared to be the most prevalent.
- The Faithful friend: tied to personal strength, relationships, and positive feelings
- The Ambivalent Parent: associated with strength, love, and caring criticism
- The Proud Rival: a voice that appeared distant and success-orientated
- The Calm Optimist: a relaxed voice with a positive outlook
- The Helpless Child: negative emotions, lack of sense of control
This isn’t supposed to be an all-inclusive list of the inner dialogue that we experience. But what it clearly demonstrates is that our different voices tend to serve different purposes. Whether they are positive or negative, supportive or detrimental, excited or calm, appear to be close to us or as if they are disconnected from our sense of self, and whether they are outcome-focused. Each different voice compels a different message, pushing us towards a different behavior. Some inform others urge. Some are employed to keep us out of danger, others to motivate. Some focus our attention, others try to distract.
When it comes to dealing with our inner thoughts, the key isn’t to shun them, be alarmed by them, or think that we need to be sent off to the psychiatry ward. Instead, think of them as different indicator lights on your cockpit dashboard. Each trying to inform or nudge you in a different direction. They serve a purpose, but what one you give power and attention to, is up to you. You can train to listen to the calm optimist more so or the helpless child. It’s up to you.