When I was about 7 years old, I loved playing with Weeble Wobbles, you know…the plastic little egg people who don’t fall down. I remember spending endless hours entertaining myself by creating narratives in my head about these little peoples’ lives and physically manipulating them to act out my stories. My brother, who is about 2 years younger than me, often wanted to join in my Weeble Wobble game. I was skeptical about his participation, I mean he was barely 5 years old, but I let him play.
I remember his big blue excited eyes as he enthusiastically lifted his Weeble Wobble and loudly exclaimed, “Hi, I am John! What is your name?”
“Shhh,” I said, feeling instantly annoyed that he would verbalize his play, “You have to talk in your head.”
He looked at me like I had 3 heads. Oh right, you can’t hear what I am saying in my mind. It was the first time I realized the difference between my external and internal voice.
Why We Talk to Ourselves in Our Head
Developmentally, we all start out babbling and vocalizing most of our thoughts out loud; it is one of the ways we learn to speak. As we mature many of our thoughts become internalized to form our inner voice and we stop vocalizing all of our feelings and thoughts out loud. Scientists theorize that our inner speech evolved over time as a protective measure. Makes sense! We probably wouldn’t have survived as a species if we yelled, “Oh, there’s a lion!” while trying to hide from being eaten by a lion.
Even though most of us don’t have to worry about being eaten by predators our inner speech remains fully evolved. How we talk to ourselves with our inner voice can be beneficial or detrimental to our own well-being as well as our relationships.
How Negative Self-Talk Can Hurt Our Relationships
Many of us understand the negative impact a critical inner voice can have on an individual but have little consideration for the effect it can have on our relationships. Our inner self-talk affects how we respond physically and verbally to our partners and friends. For instance, if my inner voice is screaming that my boss is a jerk while I am standing in front of him/her, even though I may not vocalize this out loud my body language and facial expression may give this feeling or thought away. If we are not mindful, our self-talk can become distorted having an insidious effect on our connections with others.
All or Nothing Thinking – A Cognitive Distortion
The cognitive distortion of “all or nothing thinking” is when you interpret a situation in an inflexible and rigid way, there is no compromise. Your self-talk is extreme in its judgment of people or situations and your inner speech is littered with absolute statements such as “always” and “never.” I often observe this type of distortion play out in couples who have young children, where the caretaking is both physically and emotionally draining. A common complaint among couples with young children is that their partners are not doing their fair share of caretaking and house tasks. For example, the wife of one of my couples’ clients often vocalizes that her husband “never” helps with evening childcare duties and the husband communicates that the wife “always” leaves the house chores up to him. They both are exhibiting cognitively distorted inner dialogues, causing a significant amount of conflict and negative treatment of one another.
Changing Your Inner Dialogue Will Change Your Relationships
One of my primary goals as a psychotherapist is to help couples shift from the negative narrative of their relationship to a more positive one. One of the ways I achieve this is helping couples identify the individual cognitive distortions that are playing out negatively in their relationship. Here are 3 steps to help you manage your own self-talk:
- Identify your critical inner voice.
- Identify how your critical inner voice impacts your relationships.
- Challenge and reframe this distorted self-talk into a more positive inner voice.
This three step process seems simple but is not easy. Adjusting your inner dialogue takes time and deliberateness, but the payoff for your own mental health and the well-being of your relationships is priceless.