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Weighing the words of our different inner voices Add to ...

Excuse me while I try to get a word in edgewise. I have someone in my head at the moment, and she’s talking very loudly.

It’s Wobbly Wendy doing her thing in my left lobe. She natters away, worrying about Mayan prophecies and the cancer that’s surely the reason for the pain in my right knee. I imagine she wears a track suit and slippers and obsessively twiddles with a strand of her hair.

Oh phew, she is wearing herself out now, as she always does, which is a relief.

I much prefer to listen to Cheerleading Cindy, who tells me things I like to hear – that everything is possible, the credit card will be paid off, a holiday is deserved, and, sure, go ahead and book yourself a massage because you’ve worked hard. (Still, she often cajoles me into erring on the side of overconfidence, so sometimes I tolerate her like I would a salesman who’s trying a little too hard to sell me something.) The Editor from Hell is in my head, too – believe me, it’s a happening place in there. He questions every word, and likes to come up with the perfect witty rejoinder I should have made but failed to think of at the time. There’s Happy Hannah, a lovely peach of a girl, who urges me to think that the world is a beautiful place filled with good people.

And then there’s my mother, of course.

Listen for a moment, and you’ll hear your own voices. As Carl Jung said, “In each of us, there is another whom we do not know.” (Guess he wasn’t hearing his mother.) But now, thanks to a wealth of research in the last two decades about how our brains work, there’s new insight into what’s known as “self-talk” – those inner voices who are having a constant cocktail party inside the mansion of your head, whom you must entertain, even though you never invited them.

Some experts argue that unhappiness is caused when we passively listen to those voices rather than pro-actively talk to ourselves. It’s true that depression can be caused by excessive negativity such as self-criticism and self-recrimination. But I’m not so sure of the talk-yourself-happy crowd. That line of thinking sends a person down the leafy, sun-dappled New Age path, believing that as long as you keep repeating positive affirmations – basically telling yourself that you’re brilliant, beautiful and bound for greatness – you can create your own reality.

Personally, I find that the sort of people who wake up every morning, gaze at themselves in the mirror and profess self-love, often look as though they like themselves too much, which is a bit off-putting.

Researchers suggest a far more nuanced approach to self-talk. We should pay attention to the inner voices, all of them, because they’re useful, and there’s an art to what we can tell ourselves in order to perform our best and achieve the goals that will make us happy.

Two years ago, researchers at the University of Toronto set up a lab scenario to test how self-talk influences self-control. Seated in front of computers, 37 participants were told to press one button when a yellow symbol appeared and another when a blue symbol popped up. The yellow one came up far more often than the other, leading participants to feel an impulse to keep hitting the corresponding button. While doing the task, some of the participants were encouraged to talk to themselves, while others were told to keep repeating the word “computer” to prevent them from using their inner voice. “We found that when you prevent people from using self-talk ... they behave more impulsively,” says Alexa Tullett, PhD student in social psychology and lead author of the study.

David diSalvo, author of the new book What Makes the Brain Happy And Why You Should Do the Opposite, is familiar with research on the value of self-talk. “If you removed the inner voice, if we are just reacting to events as they happen externally, we’d be like monkeys going after the banana.”

Our inner voices ground us, and ensure our survival. “Brains default toward consistency and stability, the things that all amount to a comfort zone,” explains Mr. DiSalvo, a popular writer on cognitive science. “And the inner voice reinforces that. It’s saying, ‘Be careful about what you’re about to do. Is it a good thing? Is it in your best interest?”

How much weight one should give to Wobbly Wendy’s warnings or, for that matter, Cheerleading Cindy’s encouragement, depends on the nature of the situation you face, says Lisa Sansom, a coach and consultant in positive psychology, based in Kingston. “When risks are low and the opportunities are great, you should use an optimistic thinking style, and if the risks are high, you want to use a very pessimistic style,” she says, referring to the work of learned optimism by happiness guru Martin Seligman.

Self-talk is a tool that can enhance performance in terms of making the right decisions and achieving goals. Research at the University of Illinois showed that those who asked themselves if they can do a task did better than those who told themselves that they could do it. In other words, what your mother said about being able to do anything if you tell yourself you can is not necessarily true. If you ask yourself if you can perform a task, you are more likely to achieve it as it sets up a more preventative frame of mind that anticipates obstacles and figures out how to overcome them.

“It’s the sort of self-talk you see as most successful in weight-loss studies,” notes Ms. Sansom. “Women who think losing weight is going to be easy don’t do as well as women who are thinking about strategies for what to do over the holidays or at that pot-luck supper where there will be a lot of food.”

A happy life, it would seem, is a matter of listening to and evaluating those inner voices. My strategy is to wade into my inner cocktail party, where I can see all the participants. And I greet them all. There’s Wobbly Wendy – and boy do I wish she would put on something nicer than that stained Gap sweatshirt. Cheerleading Cindy is holding court with some fantastically pink drink in one hand. Happy Hannah is reclined on a sofa, feeding herself grapes. The Editor from Hell is listening to everything I say with a wrinkled brow. Ah, and there’s my mother, seated in the corner, ready to give me her most well-intentioned advice.

I listen to them for a while, and then I politely excuse myself. I know that later, when they’ve all gone back to their rooms, I will hear a much quieter voice, the one who has been weighing all the input. That’s the real me, the hostess of the party, after all, the one (in the nice dress and killer heels, of course) who is well-acquainted with all these characters. She has lived with them all her life and knows what value each brings to the party.

Just like in this column, she gets the last word.

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