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When You Talk to Yourself, What Do You Say?

*Editor’s Note: Mark McCoy is a discipleship minister whose passion is to walk with people as they grow as followers of Jesus. He has noticed that one of the obstacles that can get in the way of people’s growth is false “self-talk.” I recently caught up with him and asked him to explain self-talk and how God is able to redirect it. 

Q: What is self-talk?

We all have attitudes toward ourselves. Sometimes they come in the form of very specific thoughts we articulate in our own heads about ourselves and to ourselves. Other times, they’re just vague feelings.

However we express it to ourselves, there are roles we tend to play toward ourselves. Sometimes we feel like we need to judge, so we express judgmental thoughts toward ourselves. Other times, we think we need a cheerleader, so we begin to repeat the things we want to hear. Or we may play the role of adviser or coach. We might even play the role of a comedian, making light of things and helping ourselves relax and loosen up.

Sometimes this self-talk is intentional, but other times it’s habitual—it’s such a habit that it’s just there. Sometimes it takes the form of an argument with yourself. You hear one thing in your head and decide to tell yourself something else.

Q: Why is your self-talk something you need to do some serious thinking about?

Because it’s real. When I form a thought toward myself, it’s an active conversation. By what I tell myself, I I have the potential to cause myself to rethink things and feel differently. I can increase my resolve or I can break it down. I really have the ability on some level to manage what I think and feel, my attitudes, and what I end up doing.

Jesus’ command to love others as ourselves presupposes that we treat ourselves well. The self-aware side of ourselves often doesn’t understand our own soul. We’re bewildered by our own propensities. I think there’s a sense in which we need to have some awareness of how we actually treat ourselves behind the scenes. Maybe it’s not always well-developed thoughts. Maybe it’s just attitudes. Whatever it is, we’re very vulnerable to it.

Think about what fills someone’s mind when he or she looks in the mirror. What happens every time someone comes into a stressful social situation? The judging, the stressing. We admire children because they aren’t so inhibited by some of the self-talk and attitudes that the rest of us have adopted over time. We get to where we’re stuck in self-talk that keeps us in our ruts.

Q: Is self-talk a good or bad thing?

It can be either. Good self-talk can be like when David talks to his soul (e.g., “Why so downcast, O my soul?”). He acknowledges his feelings and his own ignorance. He was observing something in his own soul he didn’t understand. It’s a gentle inquiry not in order to point the finger at himself, but rather he was acknowledging his vulnerability and treating himself patiently and kindly in it.

The classic negative scenario is when somebody was a child, and they had somebody in authority who didn’t understand or appreciate them and gave them a negative view of themselves. The kid internalizes it and it can become a lifelong pattern of saying to themselves, “I’m not that smart.” “I’m not able to do that.” “I’m not that important.”

Q: Either way, it sounds inevitable.

Whether it’s good or bad, it’s constant for everybody at some level. It can be an active set of thoughts or just a passive set of attitudes. Usually it’s the voices from the people we trusted who taught us how to think about ourselves. It was the voices of parents, coaches, and older siblings who told us who we were. Some received positive messages. Others were given horribly negative messages.

The analogy I give a lot of people to show them that this happens is this: When you look in the mirror, you can almost see a relationship with yourself like you have with other people. Conversation, attitude, judgments. You actually decide how you’re going to feel about that person. You have a relationship of sorts with the person in the mirror.

Q: As Christians, what does healthy self-talk look like?

The point of healthy Christian self-talk is to live in the freedom and light of God’s truth. The best training for this is to imitate grace-filled people who have personally spoken the truth to us in love.

The point of healthy Christian self-talk is to live in the freedom and light of God’s truth.

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