Have you ever had an internal dialogue playing on loop in your brain? Your mind seems to be always working even when things are quiet. We don’t only use this dialogue to solve problems, we also spend part of our time having an internal conversation with ourselves.
We have a world happening inside our heads replete with catch phrases and mantras. Most of us don’t even realize that we’re having this conversation. Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul, likens this mental chatter to our “inner roommate.”
Your inner roommate is the voice in the back of your head narrating your life for you. This voice might be offering you positive affirmations such as, “I am strong and capable,” or “I can handle change.” This voice could also have catch phrases like, “I’m not good enough,” or “I don’t belong,” or “I can’t.” We have these conversations with ourselves so often that we hardly realize they’re happening.
These thoughts have more power than we recognize. The words that we tell ourselves can manifest incredible possibilities, or they can fill us with negativity. As harmless as it can seem, what we tell ourselves can lead to self-actualization or self-sabotage.
These silent conversations can affect how your brain works
The silent conversations you’ve been having with yourself can have a profound impact on how you view the world. What we say to ourselves can temper our experience.
We process speech that we hear in the temporal and parietal lobes of the brain. The process is complex, but our brains not only determine what sounds are being made but also what those combinations of sounds mean together.1 When our inner voice starts talking to us, many of the same areas in the brain used for hearing speech are activated.2
Our words are more than just idle chatter. The power of ideas transmitted by language is further reinforced by physiological responses that we have to words, whether we speak them aloud or hear them from our inner roommate. Negative words increase cortisol, a stress hormone which can wreak havoc on your body and have an impact on how you handle tough situations.3
The more you hear something, the more you’ll believe it
Even though our inner voice is telling us things in our minds, our brain still treats inner speech just like words spoken aloud. Broca’s area, the region in the frontal lobe responsible for processing speech is active in both cases.4
Hearing yourself say something in your mind carries the same weight as hearing yourself say something aloud. The more you repeat it, that thought will carry more weight because you’ve accepted it as the truth.
This is why repeatedly telling yourself that you are fine can make you feel better when you are nervous. Your brain hears you saying it, and then you have a physiological and hormonal response to that mantra. Unfortunately, the things we tell ourselves can also elicit stress responses.
Are any of these internal catch phrases sabotaging you?
There are loads of great things that you might be telling yourself, but many of us also face negative internal dialogue loops. If you can catch them, then you can correct them.
It is fine to say “That’s okay.” when you truly agree with something. The problem is that we tell ourselves that things are okay even when they aren’t. Telling yourself that something is okay when it isn’t can perpetuate a state of discomfort.
When someone asks you what you think about something, how often have you said that it was okay just to appease the other person. You may not feel right about the situation, but you choose not to say anything.
Imagine that your coworker has just asked you to cover a shift for them this weekend on short notice because their friend is in town. Even though you already have tickets to see a show with your partner, you agree to do this because you don’t want to make waves at work.
When you tell yourself that this is okay in your mind, your brain stops looking for alternatives. Instead of asserting yourself, you commit to sacrificing a date with your partner. In your mind, you come up with many reasons why it is fine to take on this extra work instead of taking the time to communicate what you need.
Avoid simply agreeing to things if they don’t feel right to you. If you can interrupt the loop of, “That’s okay,” you might be able to come up with a better solution. At the very least you will make it possible to be honest with yourself.
2. It’s easy.
Viewing a task as extremely difficult can make it intimidating, but you can underestimate something by proclaiming that it’s easy. When you think that something is easy, you have the requisite skills and sufficient knowledge to tackle the problem. If you don’t possess those things, then labeling something as “easy” could cause you to take an over-simplified view of it.
When we think something is easy, we might stop looking for better solutions, and we may fail to notice small details that could determine success or failure. At the least, we make things more difficult for ourselves because we aren’t willing to look for other ways of tackling the problem.
Internalize that something is too easy make it tough for the people around us. If someone asks you for help, you could make them feel foolish by offering a response like, “That’s super easy.” Even if you think it’s simple, you may not be able to explain it in a way that makes it easy for others to grasp.
I took a yoga class in which the teacher cued us into complex posture. She not only made it look easy, but she also told us that the posture was simple to achieve. She had been practicing yoga for many years, and as a result, she had forgotten how hard she had to work to learn the posture. The catch phrase that she told herself had made its way into her class, and we all felt foolish when we couldn’t do what she asked right away.
3. It has always been like this.
Tradition is great, but inefficiency isn’t. When you rely on a historical precedent for your actions, you may be unable to look at issues from new perspectives. You will never progress or learn new things if you stay stuck in the past.
If people refused to try mobile phones because phones had always had cords and tied to a land line, we wouldn’t have smart phones today. We certainly couldn’t have imagined a phone that could serve as a camera and a mini-computer if someone hadn’t decided that we needed to try new things.
4. I don’t know.
This is probably the worst of the mental catch phrases. When we tell ourselves that we don’t know, we’ve tossed our hands up in defeat. We set ourselves up so that we can’t come up with a solution. This is the mental equivalent of being a person who complains all the time but never does anything about it.
Teachers have to battle the “I-don’t-know” monster in the classroom all the time. Kids who exclaim that they don’t know how to do something have given up on trying. Think of times when you have said to someone, “I don’t know.” Chances are, it froze all activity as you waited for someone to give you a hint or put you on course.
Knowing that you don’t know something can empower you to seek answers, but if your internal dialogue stays stuck on, “I don’t know,” you are going to spend more time seeking help from others instead of figuring things out for yourself. You can’t grow this way because you are always waiting for other people.
5. I just don’t feel right about it.
This catch phrase works similarly to saying, “It’s easy,” because it makes us stop looking for solutions. The main difference is that when you say this one, you feel miserable.
If something doesn’t feel okay to you, then there is probably a reason, but by saying. “It just doesn’t feel right,” you stop yourself from figuring out what you don’t like.
Imagine you’ve been in the middle of a grueling job search, and you just got an offer. You decline the offer because it “just doesn’t feel right.” In this situation, you need to figure out what was wrong. Did you simply dislike the company’s values? Did the interviewer make you uncomfortable? Was the salary offer too low? Knowing this can help you refine your search and save you the stress of doing more interviews for jobs that don’t meet your standards.
6. That’s impossible.
If you can imagine it, then it is possible. Regardless of whether you need luck or you have to put in lots of effort, the realm of possibility is vast. When you say that something is impossible, you allow that negative thought pattern to dominate your perspective.
Your brain, only looking to make things easier for you, hears, “That’s impossible,” and works to corroborate that statement. You have a confirmation bias, which causes you to find evidence to support what you already believe .
If you try to do something new and think that it’s impossible, then you’ll keep yourself from finding ways to make it possible. Instead of telling yourself that you are doing something impossible, try to set us a list of “maybes.” Identify challenges that could prevent you from reaching your goals. You can get around obstacles, but you’ll never get around a generalized belief of impossibility.
Perhaps your struggle seems too great to overcome. For example, many people struggle with student loan debt. If a person has done everything in their power to get out of debt, he or she might seek help from a financial counselor. Calling on outside help is a great idea in this case because it can be hard to think of things from an objective perspective when you already think the obstacle is insurmountable.
It’s time to pause change your internal dialogue
For many of us, our internal dialogue plays without us thinking. Our catch phrases are handy because they enable us to operate on autopilot. It is critical to disrupt these negative and self-defeating thought patterns.
Every time you catch yourself repeating a negative mantra, hit the internal pause button, and try to come up with a better solution. If you’re guilty of saying, “I don’t know,” then try saying something like, “I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” By flipping your negative statements into positive ones, you can allow your brain to live up to its full problem-solving potential.