I’ve tried to stop talking to myself, but I haven’t had much luck. I’m referring to the silent internal conversation that accompanies almost every waking moment when my attention is left on its own. I’ve often wondered why the talking has to keep going.
Listening with Awareness
As part of dealing with depression, I’ve worked a lot with the techniques of cognitive therapy, and I’ve learned some of the methods of mindful awareness. Both help me become more conscious of the flow of self-talk that keeps running through my head. I’ve learned to observe what I say to myself and either correct its depressive symptoms of self-blame or accept its flow as the chatter of the moment and nothing more.
These are good skills that have benefits for relieving depression, enhancing awareness of life moment by moment and sharpening the neural networks that underlie everything we experience. So far so good. I don’t need to take at face value everything I think about myself, and it helps to be able to gain some control over where I focus my attention.
But I still talk to myself – most of the time silently – and I wonder why I need to keep doing it. Who am I talking to when I’m talking to myself? I usually talk as if I’m sharing a thought or explaining it to someone. Who is that? I don’t need the words to know what my own thoughts are.
Reaching Out with Words
After all, thoughts are pre-verbal. They seem to arise from a half-conscious mix of primordial feelings, intentions, memories, beliefs and ideas that coalesce in a silent sense of knowing. It’s only after they’ve formed that I put them into words. Coming up with the words is a much slower process.
If I’m trying to solve a problem or make a decision or write a blog post, it helps to slow down thought, refine its meaning in words and give it a test run. But often, the flow of thought isn’t that purposeful, and putting each little detail into words feels unnecessary. They start to sound like empty chatter because I already know what I’m thinking.
It’s not that I need to hear the words but that I need to communicate with someone. When talking to myself, I’m imagining that I am expressing an idea or feeling, to someone, even if I don’t have a particular person in mind. Often I’m explaining something, enjoying a funny moment – or whatever it might be – and I need to tell someone about it. The bare thought isn’t quite enough.
I guess the drive to feel in touch with other people is so strong that talking to myself is the constant reminder that I need to reach out. The spoken thought needs a response from another human heart to feel complete.
Daniel Siegel refers to a process of attunement that brought all this to mind. In The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, he says:
Interpersonal relationships have been shown to promote emotional longevity, helping us achieve states of well-being and medical health. I am proposing here that mindful awareness is a form of self-relationship, an internal form of attunement, that creates similar states of health. This may be the as yet unidentified mechanism by which mindfulness promotes well-being.
Mindful awareness is usually contrasted with the ceaseless chatter in our inner streams of consciousness, but the idea of attunement to oneself strikes me as a basic need that we’re trying to fulfill all the time.
Most of us lack the discipline of mindfulness to calm a wild mind. The daily chatter could be the impulsive, crude way of trying to get in touch, to integrate the various parts of inner lives so that we have a sense of wholeness – a person we can resonate with.
The Need for Connection
Depression tends to break that whole person into unrelated parts that don’t match up comfortably. We can see a self there, but we don’t like what we see. The internal talk becomes abusive, and we can’t attune with who we are.
As Siegel puts it in Mindsight, we have no “me-map.” No surprise, then, that we can’t attune with others and create what Siegel calls the “we-map” of relationship.
Talking to myself has been a healthier and more cheerful experience as I’ve been learning how to live well again. I’ve also come a long way in talking to my partner and lots of other people as well.
I never used to articulate the everyday moments, impressions, reactions that make up the day because they seemed pointless, or worse – more of the gray background of depression. I had a hard time connecting in this simple way.
Talking to myself is often a rehearsal for talking to another person, but most of the time, I need it to connect with myself. Perhaps it’s a way to give voice to all the feelings and impulses I have and help them hold together.
Who do you talk to when you talk to yourself?