One of the oldest jokes in psychology is that talking to yourself or hearing voices means you’re crazy. Yet in the privacy of our own minds, we tell ourselves things all day long. These communications to ourselves are nonstop and so familiar to us that we consider them thinking. But there is a difference. Sometimes we are thinking, and sometimes we are just talking to ourselves.
Usually you can tell the difference by the way you feel. Real thinking feels interested, goal-directed, and practical. You examine an issue from all sides, coming up with ideas to make it work. You might playfully wonder about an idea or fantasize about the future or past. You are doing the thinking, and you feel like the active agent in your own problem solving. You can change your focus at will, and you redirect your thinking depending on what is needed. Real thinking is like the car you drive. You use it to meet your goals, to get you where you want to go.
Talking to yourself, on the other hand, is a whole other ball game. This is in no way true thinking. Any kind of commentary or critical remark that goes on in your mind is self-lecturing. The fact that it is going on between your ears does not make it thinking. Critical commentary is especially common when we are evaluating our own or someone else’s performance or behavior. These self-critical opinions were probably swallowed whole from an outside source, often a parent or sibling, but also peers and the media. They have soaked into your brain and love to carp about what you and everybody else ought to be doing.
We absorbed this kind of “thinking” from the canned commentary we got as children when we went to someone with a problem. We were told what we needed to do, what we should have said, and how we should think. When we grew up, we applied the same non-helpful advice to ourselves in similar situations. It did not matter if these internal judgments helped or not. They were applied rigidly and automatically over and over, regardless of the result.
No one ever told us that this useless commentary, probably from generations back in time, was not real thinking. Consequently we don’t see that telling ourselves things that begin with “I really should…” or “ I need to…” or even “I just have to…” will never help us solve our problems. Anytime someone who wants to improve uses one of these phrases, I know they are not going to sustain the change.
Self-lecturing does not lead to change because these phrases are not connected to real thought and therefore have nothing to do with solving a problem or moving in a new direction. Such self-badgering only makes us feel like a reluctant child enduring yet another scolding.
The New Year always evokes this moralistic self-prodding to change our behavior for the next twelve months. We make resolutions in the spirit of how messed up we are. We shame ourselves and scare ourselves with all the compelling reasons why we should change. But it never works. We are hosting a forum for self-exhortation, instead of thinking and planning.
If you want to change anything about yourself, there has to be some thinking involved. Thinking plus honest desire. People who state clearly what they want have a chance of making it happen. Once they know what they really want, they can look with pragmatic honesty at each action and ask whether or not it is taking them closer to the goal they want. No moral judgment, just assessment. This is all you have to ask yourself in order to start a new direction: will this thing I am about to do take me closer or further away from what I really want?
It is not about what you need to do, should do, or have to do. It always comes down to what you want to do. That is the only thing that makes any of us do anything. Wanting something makes us think about how to get it, and we start planning a series of causes and effects toward what we want. Instead of self-lecturing, we are thinking.
When you consider changes for the New Year, pay close attention to how you talk yourself through it. Anything starting with “need to,” “have to,” or “really should” ought to send you back to the drawing board. Real change is not about you talking down to yourself. It is about owning up to what you really want and being willing to think out how to get there. Nobody can make you do anything, not even that voice in your head.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Va. Beach. For information, call 757-490-7811.