By Eric Barker
That critical voice in your head. Always telling you how you’re screwing up. Always putting the worst-case-scenario front and center. We all have it. (I call it “Lefty.”)
You’re hearing a lot these days about how to turn down the volume on your critical inner monologue. (Um, sometimes from me, actually.) But let’s try looking at it a little differently for a sec, shall we?
What if you don’t need fewer voices in your head — what if you need more of them? There’s plenty of evidence that the right voices in your head can make you smarter, more confident and more resilient.
When you want to muster your energy or self-control for a challenge, you might say, “I can do it.” And if that’s what you’re saying, well, I’d reply, “No, actually. No, you can’t.”
Because here’s what’s crazy: research shows talking to yourself using the word “you” is more powerful than using the word “I”:
Altogether, the current research showed that second-person self-talk strengthens both actual behavior performance and prospective behavioral intentions more than first-person self-talk.
So a voice in your head that seems to be another person actually has more power to get your keister moving than “you” talking to “you.”
So pull a few extra chairs up to your mental table. We’re putting a Brain Trust together — but they’re all in your one brain. Here are the three voices you need chattering away in your head…
The Voice That Makes You Resilient
You need a cheerleader in your noggin. No, pom-poms and short skirts are not required. Who’s someone that has always believed in you? Who always had your back? Someone who believed in you more than you did.
That’s the voice you need to keep you going when things get hard.
And where’s the proof that you need a cheerleader? Well, it actually comes from what would seem to be the total opposite of a cheerleader — a Navy SEAL.
A Navy study revealed a number of things that people with grit do—often unknowingly—that keep them going when things get hard. One of them comes up in the psychological research again and again: “positive self-talk.” Yes, Navy SEALs need to be badass, but one of the keys to that is thinking like “The Little Engine That Could.” In your head, you say between three hundred and a thousand words every minute to yourself. Those words can be positive or negative. It turns out that when these words are positive, they have a huge effect on your mental toughness, your ability to keep going. Subsequent studies of military personnel back this up. When the Navy started teaching BUD/S applicants to speak to themselves positively, combined with other mental tools, BUD/S passing rates increased from a quarter to a third.
I know what some people might be thinking: “I’m not an elite military operator fighting terrorists, so how is this relevant to me?” Because grit is grit, bubba.
Manz (1983, 1986, 1992) and Manz and Sims (1989) have suggested the potential of self-talk as a self-influencing tool for improving the personal effectiveness of employees and managers. Various studies in a number of different fields have provided support for the relationship between an individual’s self-talk and performance.
(For more on the subject check out my book, Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong.)
Alright, so you’ve got a supportive cheerleader chattering away in your head saying, “You can do it.” Awesome. But what if it’s not an issue of resilience? What if the challenges ahead require extra brainpower?
Oh, we’ve got a voice for that too…
The Voice That Makes You Smarter
You know this voice pretty well: it’s your own. But you actually need to talk out loud to get the boost.
When older adults think out loud, intelligence scores shoot up dramatically:
Performance gains on this task were substantial (d = 0.73 and 0.92 in Experiments 1 and 2, respectively), corresponding to a fluid intelligence increase of nearly one standard deviation.
But maybe you’re not an older adult. Doesn’t matter. Keep talking out loud. It creates a huge boost in your ability to remember things you read:
The production effect is the substantial benefit to memory of having studied information aloud as opposed to silently.
Want to learn a new skill? Keep yakking:
…self-talk is a technique which mostly improves concentration. Self-talk is more effective for novel tasks rather than well-learned tasks; because it is easier to improve at the early steps of learning.
(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)
Alright, you’ve got two voices going and now you’re grittier and smarter. But what if the problem isn’t about improving performance?
What if you just don’t feel good about yourself? Maybe you’re feeling guilty or you just have low self-esteem. Third voice, coming up…
The Voice That Makes You Feel Better About Yourself
Everybody always wants to improve self-esteem. If people just felt more confident, they’d be better at their jobs, be better leaders, and kids wouldn’t smoke, drink, take drugs, or get bad grades.
Well, too bad they’re wrong. Research shows self-esteem doesn’t cause all those good things. It’s just a side effect of healthy behavior. So artificially boosting it doesn’t work.
In one influential review of the self-esteem literature, it was concluded that high self-esteem actually did not improve academic achievement or job performance or leadership skills or prevent children from smoking, drinking, or taking drugs. If anything, high self-esteem appears to be the consequence rather than the cause of healthy behaviors.
What does raising self-esteem do? It probably increases narcissism. So what do we need instead of self-esteem?
Self-compassion. Stop lying to yourself that you’re so awesome. Instead, focus on forgiving yourself when you’re not. In my upcoming book I talk about why self-compassion beats self-esteem.
So why does compassion succeed where self-esteem fails? Because self-esteem is always either delusional or contingent, neither of which lead to good things. To always feel like you’re awesome you need to either divorce yourself from reality or be on a treadmill of constantly proving your value. At some point you won’t measure up, which then craters your self-esteem. Not to mention relentlessly proving yourself is exhausting and unsettling. Self-compassion lets you see the facts and accept that you’re not perfect. As famed psychologist Albert Ellis once said, “Self-esteem is the greatest sickness known to man or woman because it’s conditional.” People with self-compassion don’t feel the need to constantly prove themselves, and research shows they are less likely to feel like a “loser.”
And that leads us to our third voice: Grandmom.
You don’t need the booming voice of self-esteem in your head. You need that warm, forgiving voice of Grandmom telling you that, yeah, you screwed up, but we all do. It’ll be okay.
Practitioners first instruct patients to generate an image of a safe place to help counter any fears that may arise. They are then instructed to create an ideal image of a caring and compassionate figure… The training resulted in significant reductions in depression, self-attacking, feelings of inferiority, and shame.
(To learn more about how to increase self-compassion, click here.)
You’re tougher, smarter and you feel good about yourself. All three of you. So let me round this up and we’ll also learn why the voices in your head can be much more important than the voice that talks to others…
Here are the three voices you need talking to you:
The Cheerleader: If positive self-talk helps Navy SEALs get through training, it’ll help you get through the workday.
Talk out loud: You might look weird doing it, but it can make you smarter, improve your memory and help you learn skills faster.
Grandmom: You screwed up. And Grandmom’s soothing voice told you it was okay. Give her a permanent rocking chair in your skull.
We all know that how you talk to others makes a big difference. Fast talkers are more persuasive. Repeating yourself makes you more influential. Swearing does too. Put all of those together… well, that’s probably overdoing it.
But even talking a little crazy can make a big difference in your life. Do you babytalk with that special someone? Well, that kind of adorable silliness is associated with better relationships.
So don’t be afraid to be a little whacky. Next time you’re out getting sake and sushi with the one you love, before you get that all-important parking validation and head out the door, don’t be embarrassed to say, “I wuvs you so vehwee vehwee much.”
But the voice (or voices) that’s most important is the one that’s always with you: the one (or many) in your head. Get those good voices talking so they drown out that critical one. Make sure they outvote the jerk that’s bringing you down.
As researcher Kristin Neff explains in her book, Self-Compassion:
Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.
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