Sometimes it happens to talk to yourself, or to see other people do it, such as friends, relatives or even strangers in the street. Depending on the situation, this behavior can seem more or less weird, but it isn’t always easy to understand when it’s time to get worried and look for help, especially if it happens to us or people we’re close to. When is this behavior considered a real pathology? When does it have a completely healthy purpose?
Talking to yourself isn’t always linked to a mental disorder, but can be helpful to carry out a task. For example, it improves the retention of information (a sequence of numbers, a series of steps and so on): verbal evocation helps us to follow the order linearly. These processes of sub-vocally rehearsing keep the memory trace alive through a revision (Baddeley, 1986) and grant more focus on the task.
Dr. Vinciguerra explains how talking to yourself is quite normal (if you don’t suffer from mental disorders), since it helps to have better control and awareness of their own actions and feelings. Anyway, those who do it too much show a high level of anxiety, which finds its outlet in talking to oneself out loud too frequently, in order to satisfy the need to check his physical and mental state. Vinciguerra explains that “tension and stress create a sense of instability and uncertainty in people. And though talking to yourself isn’t a bad thing, those who do it a lot should understand that maybe his anxiety and stress levels are very high”.
Those who talk to themselves use an auto-reflective thinking that allows them to better think an action through before performing it. In 2010 doctor Michael Inzlicht conducted a study showing the link between self-talking and the ability to control an impulsive behavior. The 37 subjects underwent impulsive response assessments (press/don’t press the button). Half of them were given the chance to talk to themselves about the task before giving an answer, while the others were told to just say the word “computer”, so that an internal dialogue about the task couldn’t be induced. The results showed that subjects who could talk to themselves were able to control their impulses better than the second group. Dr. Inzlicht explained that the ability to think out loud has made a connection between “self-talk” and “self-control” possible, which helped people in decision-making, thus avoiding impulsive answers.
Besides a general self-control function, “self-talk” is used in the sports field to make the athletes focus on positive thoughts and reaching their goal, before, during and after a performance. One of the pillars of cognitive-behavioral psychology, indeed, postulates that what people tell themselves (and what they think) can influence the subsequent behavior. Repeated keywords or stimulating phrases help to obscure fears and weaknesses, favoring positive and reinforcing thoughts. The results of this technique have been optimal, as to be frequently inserted in the psychological preparation training of athletes. (Francesconi, 2015).
“The phenomenon of self-talk in itself is common and not pathological” explains dr. Flavia Massaro, but “it can become worrying in three situations”: when it occurs too frequently, when speaking to an imaginary friend beyond childhood and when you hear answers to what you say out loud. Loneliness could explain why people tend to talk to themselves, but when it happens every day you need the intervention of a professional to help you understand what hinders the existence of satisfactory social relations.
There are also people who start talking to themselves because they hear voices. Having an imaginary friend isn’t pathological at all for kids, but beyond childhood it’s necessary to analyze what this figure represents for the adult: it could be some kind of game or a persecutory figure from which the person can’t get away. Sometimes, they hear offensive and critical voices, or “great voices” that for the subjects come directly from God, or “teleological” voices that point out to the subject targets and goals to achieve. In many cases, these symptoms are directly related to schizophrenic disorder or are typical of those who abuse alcohol or drugs (Cantelmi, 2010). There are also cases of people who only hear a voice that doesn’t interfere with every day events and who haven’t been diagnosed with any other problem that might suggest a psychopathological disorder. These individuals often don’t admit to hear voices, because they are still able to live a normal life and they are afraid to be considered “crazy”.
Talking to yourself out loud has various positive functions: it helps the person to stay focused on a goal, it promotes memorization and learning, it provides security and motivation, it allows you to manage impulsiveness and favors greater self-control, it supports decision making and allows you to reorganize thoughts and attitudes. However, behaviors that deviate from the “normal” must not be ignored and it is advisable, in this case, to intervene by asking for help. Professionals will assess the presence of other symptoms and their severity, in order to understand if these symptoms are temporary and functional to the patient’s needs or more serious signs of a psychosis.
Student in Psychological sciences and techniques at Parma University
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Cedro, V., (2014) La Memoria di Lavoro: un sistema on-line. Metaintelligenze.
Nauert, R., (2016) Self-Talk Helps Self-Control. Psych Central.
Adnkronos, (2014) Salute: sempre piu’ italiani parlano da soli, spia di ansia e tensioni. (http://www1.adnkronos.com/IGN/Daily_Life/Benessere/Salute-sempre-piu-italiani-parlano-da-soli-spia-di-ansia-e-tensioni_312581414198.html)
Francesconi, C. ,(2015) La tecnica del SELF-TALK in ambito sportivo. (http://www.chiarafrancesconi.it/letture/psicologia-dello-sport/33-self-talk-psicologia-dello-sport.html)
Massaro, F.,(2014) Parlare da soli è normale? (http://www.serviziodipsicologia.it/parlare-da-soli-e-normale/)