How to tame your inner voice and cultivate positive self-talk

Experts say it’s perfectly normal to hear a voice in your head as you go through your day. But how do you tame it? And what if you don’t have one?

Do you ever find yourself having a fictional conversation in your mind?

Maybe you talk to yourself silently in the mirror, or are narrating the words of this story in your head?

It’s entirely normal to have an inner voice. But experts say many questions still exist about why we chatter away to ourselves – and why some people don’t.

What is our inner voice?

Most of us have an inner voice – the internal dialogue or self-talk that occurs in your mind.

Psychology researcher Dr Bradley N. Jack says it’s linked to a wide range of psychological functions, including reading, writing, planning, memory, self-motivation and problem-solving.

But it’s not always our friend.

“Dysfunctions of inner speech are a key symptom of mental disorders,” Dr Jack, of Australian National University, says.

“For example, negative self-talk is associated with depression, anxiety and eating disorders, and auditory-verbal hallucinations (hearing voices) are associated with schizophrenia, dementia and post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Better understanding of the neural processes behind inner speech will hopefully shed more light on these disorders and spark more effective treatments.

What does not having an inner voice mean?

Dr Jack says about one per cent of people don’t have the ability to produce inner speech, a condition coined anauralia.

“It’s unclear why some people don’t have inner speech, but there are at least two theories,” he says.

The first is that some people can’t activate the networks of brain activity responsible for inner speech, without also speaking out loud.

“The second is poor introspection, which refers to a person’s ability to examine their own mental processes,” Dr Jack says.

“According to this theory, everyone has inner speech; it’s just that some people are unaware of it.”

Other people’s thoughts may manifest in images or signs.

But Dr Jack emphasises that not hearing an inner voice doesn’t hold people back from thriving in life.

How can our inner voice be useful?

Psychologist Dr Pene Schmidt says encouraging, positive self-talk can have a big impact on the way we feel and how we behave.

“It has the potential to build us up, and can be a great tool for self-reflection, decision-making and motivation,” Dr Schmidt says.

“Our inner voice helps us to process thoughts and analyse situations – to make sense of the world.”

She says this can enhance our overall wellbeing and confidence.

How might our inner voice be unhelpful?

Harbouring an overly critical or negative inner voice can lead to feelings of self-doubt and anxiety, Dr Schmidt says.

Or, if we get stuck in “thought loops” or ruminating about our past mistakes without constructive reflection, we might find that we experience feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, she explains.

“Additionally, if our inner dialogue is unrealistic or excessively negative, it can contribute to stress and a distorted perception of reality,” Dr Schmidt says.

How to make our inner voice work for us, not against us

It’s no easy feat, but we can cultivate a kind and supportive inner voice, Dr Schmidt says.

“This isn’t about discounting our experience, but being aware of how our thoughts impact how we feel,” she says.

Helpful tips to make your inner voice work for you

  • Balance self-talk with objectivity and self-compassion.
  • Recognise unhelpful thinking styles and understand where they come from (such as a judgmental parent).
  • Talk to yourself the way a friend would.

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Written by Elissa Doherty.