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WSJ: Do you talk to yourself? It can help you focus and stay positive.

Motivational self-talk includes what we say to psych ourselves up: “Come on!” “Let’s go!” “You can do this!” Instructional self-talk walks us through a specific task. If you are driving, you might tell yourself to turn right at the next light, and then you do it. “It sounds simple, but you get the correct reaction,” says Dr. Hatzigeorgiadis.

Instructional self-talk is helpful when learning or practicing a new sport or task, he says. For example, a swimmer can remind himself to keep his elbow high during freestyle. Before giving a speech, someone might tell herself, “Speak slower” and “Make eye contact.”

It is important to be short, precise—and consistent. “You have to sustain it,” Dr. Hatzigeorgiadis says. “You instruct yourself until it becomes automatic.”

The way you address yourself matters, too. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in February found people who spoke to themselves as another person would—using their own name or the pronoun “you”—performed better under stress than people who used the word “I.”

In one study, University of Michigan researchers induced stress in participants by telling them they had to prepare a speech to give to a panel of judges about their qualifications for a dream job. They were given five minutes to prepare and told they couldn’t use notes.

Half the participants were instructed to work through their anxiety using the first-person pronoun (“Why am I nervous?”). The other half were told to address themselves by name or the pronoun “you” (“Why are you nervous?”). Afterward, each participant was asked to estimate how much shame he or she experienced right after the speech, and how much subsequent ruminating they did.

The results were consistent: People whose self-talk used their names or “you” reported less shame and ruminated less than the ones who used “I.” The judges found the performances of those using “you” to be more confident, less nervous and more persuasive.

 

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