Talking to yourself can be therapeutic if you listen

September 10, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

Ithink I can I think I can I think I can," chants the Little Engine That Could. And it can.

"Someday, my prince will come," promises Cinderella. And he arrives.

"I'm going to lose this $!-&! game," swears the big-league pitcher. And he does.

That's the thing about talking to yourself. When it's positive, there's nothing better. But when it's negative, well, it might be better to hold your tongue.

Apart from the sort of monologues carried on by psychotics and John McEnroe on center court, talking to yourself is normal. According to some students of the mind, it's an important survival skill; others say it's self-hypnosis, a performance-enhancer.

Everyone does it. After all, there's so very much to say -- and not just to ourselves, but to our cats, our TVs, our cars.

Los Angeles psychologist David Bresler talks to himself about everything under the sun and urges others to do the same.

Let's say the doctor has misplaced his car keys. "I just stop for a moment," Mr. Bresler says, "and [ask] Charlie, 'Are you willing to tell me where you left them?'" Often, Charlie -- an imaginary white rat Bresler speaks with regularly -- answers.

"Charlie has access to the creative, intuitive part of my self," says Mr. Bresler, who believes sub-personalities like Charlie reside in everyone and compete for attention.

The trick, of course, is getting them to help you find the car keys.

Los Angeles businesswoman Kathy Hirsh talks to herself two to three times a week. She believes it puts her in touch with herself and, indirectly, with others.

"There I was walking to the post office the other day and just chatting along when I realized what I was doing . . . I was having a conversation with somebody I'd had a problem with. Of course, the person wasn't there, and it's probable I'll never have that conversation, but it seemed to resolve things somehow," Ms. Hirsh says.

In fact, psychotherapists say, certain kinds of self-talk can resolve all sorts of things. Children use talking to themselves to prepare for adulthood, to develop consciences and to learn to control their tempers and fears. Adults might do the same thing. Counting to 10 to control one's temper, for example, can be useful at any age.

Amy Beauregard, a mother of two, talks herself through emergencies. "When there is an earthquake, for example, I give myself specific instructions: Get the children. Find cover. Check for gas leaks . . . and so on. It keeps me calm and capable of doing what's necessary."

Paramedics do the same thing. When administering CPR, for example, it is routine to repeat aloud, "1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and-5-and-breathe." "Knit-one, purl- one," might be the non-emergency version of such self-direction.

And talking -- even screaming -- might seem like a great way to vent fury and frustration. But it's probably a temporary fix. Talking to oneself does far more good when it is compassionate and uplifting than when it is negative and abusive.

"People tend to say such negative things to themselves," psychologist Bresler says. "What they don't listen to is the part that is understanding and very caring."

Losers, say behavioral experts, often fall into a trap of saying, "I can't," "I'm no good," "I'll never win." And, of course, such expectations fulfill themselves. Winners speak more kindly to themselves and pay attention to what they say.

Before scolding herself for backsliding in her exercise program, Pasadena, Calif., dancer Kathy Henderson first forgives herself out loud. "It's OK," I say. "You'll do better next week." And she does.

Some weight-control programs encourage participants to repeat to themselves such messages as "I eat like a bird." Relaxation therapists tell their wound-up clients to breathe deeply and tell themselves, "I am relaxed. I am relaxed."

The mind-body connection is a strong one, and the extraordinary success of such self-help methods as biofeedback proves how strong. Meditation can slow the pulse, reduce body temperature and ease even the most intractable pain.

"Conversing" with pets has also been found to lower blood pressure. While people who talk to their dogs, cats, fish, horses and iguanas claim it's out of love for their pets, it may also represent how they feel about themselves and other people.

"We can talk ourselves into anger, despondency or elation by what we tell ourselves," according to Atlanta psychologist Rick Blue. Unfortunately, we tend to listen best to the worst of what we say to ourselves. When it comes to positive self-talk, Mr. Bresler says, "A lot of people talk, but not a lot of people listen."

Acknowledging that you talk to yourself might be an important first step in getting the most from your conversations.

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