Have you ever wondered what a transcript of your inner thoughts would look like? I often wonder what this kind of self-talk or mental persona sounds like. Is she (I am assuming I have a she, my mental voice sounds feminine) pessimistic? Optimistic? We also tell ourselves a story or narrative about what kind of person we think we are or who we might become. They can all be a little different. Here are some kinds of story I think I have told myself in the past:
What kind of student I am: I am a hard-working student. I am not a perfect student though. Unfortunately, I need to work for my grades. I wish I was one of those people who could do all of my homework in an hour or not study for tests and get straight A’s. Not me. I think I am an annoying student. Teachers must hate how I ALWAYS go in for office hours.
What kind of mom I will be: I hope I will be an involved mom. I think my issue will be having to step back from my kids. I hope I never yell. If I do I will try to make it up by cooking their favorite dinner like my mom. I will be a fun mom. I will probably be an overbearing mom and feel guilty about it.
What kind of athlete I am: I am not an athlete. Definitely not an athlete. I think I am going to watch my friends play beach volleyball. I am better at getting the snacks anyways.
Self-narratives. These are the kinds of stories I think I weave together about myself. Whether they are true or not, I believe them and then act them out (for better or worse in some cases). I also believe that relationships have their own personas or narratives. This would be something like this:
My narrative with my Grandma Dee: My Grandma Dee makes me laugh. She also makes me feel sad that I am alone. I think she looks forward to my calls and I like calling her, but it is never enough. We have an easy relationship compared to other family members. We laugh about similar things. I think she is crazy and so does she. We both agree on this.
Self-narratives and the way we talk to ourselves are very hard to change. But sometimes, changing what we tell ourselves isn’t what’s important, it’s just noticing what we are saying. Not hearing our self-talk is how we continually stay in bad habits. When we do not recognize a bad relationship narrative we often don’t see how toxic it can be—and we continue to go back to bad friends. We have multiple personas so we can segment different areas of our lives. The self-talk in each of these areas sounds different, articulating what we are dreaming, thinking and feeling.
Researcher Senay, thought that this self-talk would be an interesting angle to study. He wanted to see if the sentence structure, or the types of words our mind uses to talk to ourselves changes our plans and actions. He decided to test this by having participants in his experiment work on a set of anagrams where they had to chance the words like kale to lake. Before participants did this, Senay asked one group to simply think about whether they would work on anagrams and he asked the other groups to think about the fact that they would be doing anagrams soon. The first group went into wondering mode, “Will I?” and the second group was gearing up their will to do something, “I will.”
Which group do you think did better? The group with the wondering minds did many more anagrams than the willful group! Participants who made their minds open were more successful than those who were trying to will themselves. This seems illogical. Our will should make us more successful not less—right? Not always. Freedom of choice was given to the wanderers and this might be an intrinsic motivation to do better.
Senay tried this again by having two groups of participants write out the statements: “Will I?” and “I will.” They then had to work on anagrams. Again, the “Will I?” group performed better. Senay also wanted to try a real life experiment. To do this he had participants think about “Will I?” or “I will” before exercising. “Will I?” again produced a better commitment from volunteers to exercise. When they were asked about their new goals, those who had been primed in wandering mode stated positive motivations for exercise like wanting to feel healthy and having a good lifestyle. While those who were trying to assert their will stated reasons like guilt and shame for not working out!
I believe this study is essential when we are trying to complete our goals. Instead of trying to force or willpower to do something, we should appeal to what makes us better, open ourselves up to choice and remind ourselves that we have that freedom and we are more likely to succeed.
Senay I, Albarracín D, Noguchi K. Psychol Sci. 2010 Apr 1;21(4):499-504. Epub 2010 Mar 9. Motivating goal-directed behavior through introspective self-talk: the role of the interrogative form of simple future tense. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.