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Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D. Headshot

Talking to Yourself: Crazy or Crazy Helpful?

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Talking to yourself isn't just for preschoolers and wild-eyed conspiracy theorists.

When do you talk to yourself? Consider these scenarios: trying to remember what you needed at the store, working to stay calm when you're angry; practicing asking for a raise; rehearsing asking for a date; calculating a tip; looking for your lost phone; peering into a jammed photocopier; telling yourself to stop eating; trying to psych yourself up for a race or game; getting yourself to do one more sit-up; or thinking of a witty retort to that jerk an hour after the fact.

These, to name a few, are the times we talk to an audience of none.

Talking to yourself is universal. It's so common that it has a name: private speech.

Most research on private speech is done with kids aged 2 to 7, among whom private speech is a part of normal development. Private speech is kids' external version of thought -- truly thinking out loud. Kids start out their verbal life just playing with words, but eventually start to narrate tough tasks like learning to tie their shoes: "Now, the rabbit goes into the hole," or make comments to themselves, like "I did it!" or "This is hard." As kids get older, the speech goes silent and is internalized as thought.

Now, just because you can tie your shoes without chatting about a bunny doesn't mean you have to stop talking to yourself. The need to talk to ourselves pops back up whenever we learn new things or find ourselves in a difficult situation.

For example, in a study of private speech in adults, over 80 percent of participants talked to themselves during all six novel study tasks, and 100 percent of the participants talked to themselves at least once over the six tasks.

In another study, while taking an exam, adolescents whose private speech included self-guidance or description got the highest test scores.

The take home lesson: when kids or adults talk to themselves through difficult tasks, performance improves. There's some controversy as to whether it improves immediately or whether it takes awhile for the self-coaching to add up, but either way, self-talk has a positive influence.

So next time you tackle something new, like assembling IKEA furniture or studying for a Spanish quiz, go ahead and talk yourself through it. Hearing yourself say it becomes another form of input and helps you learn in multiple ways.

Same goes for the little ones in your life: in a study of preschoolers and private speech, kids were asked to do a task twice. Once they were encouraged to talk to themselves, while the other time they were asked to stay quiet. Performance was better when the kids talked themselves through tasks. Researchers concluded that teachers should allow and even encourage kids to talk to themselves during problem-solving.

Finally, as a psychologist, I am frequently asked if talking to yourself means you are going crazy, because folks see people on the street doing the same thing. These souls most likely have a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a chronic yet treatable illness that has many symptoms, including interpreting reality in an abnormal way such as hallucinations or delusions. It can be terrifying and disorienting to experience schizophrenia. Seek out a qualified mental health provider if you are concerned for yourself or an important person in your life. In the absence of other symptoms, however, talking to yourself is not a cause for alarm.

For example, like a song stuck in your head, you may get words stuck in your head: lines from movies, silly phrases, or old conversations. You may find yourself muttering them, much like you may unwittingly sing snippets of "Wrecking Ball" to yourself after hearing it at the gas station. Again, in the absence of other symptoms, it's not a problem.

The only problem with talking to yourself is if your commentary is both personal and negative. Zingers such as "I am so stupid," or "I'm an idiot!" don't help anyone. I'd be willing to bet your reaction doesn't really match whatever you're berating yourself for. I'll also bet you wouldn't say the same thing to a friend. If you hold a double standard -- hard on yourself, forgiving of others -- allow yourself some kindness. Perhaps it's not even really "you" talking, but someone critical or abusive from your past whom you've internalized. Next time you tell yourself off, note it. Then, treat yourself as you would anyone else -- with compassion and respect.

In sum, think of talking to yourself as a tool to coach yourself through a challenge, or to narrate your own experiences to yourself. In any case, treat yourself with respect and you just may find you enjoy your own company.

For more by Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., check out the #1-ranked Savvy Psychologist podcast on iTunes or at the Savvy Psychologist on the Quick and Dirty Tips network.

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