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THE HUMAN CONDITION : It's OK to Talk to Yourself--If You Have Something Nice to Say

March 13, 1995|REBECCA HOWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A man mumbles reminders to himself in the grocery store, while commenting on the price and quality of produce. A woman rants loudly about her boss in the solitude of an empty car on the commute home. A writer paces his office discussing--with himself--a plot for a project.

Lots of people talk to themselves, so why does it have such a nutty reputation?

"It's a myth of mental illness. There's this image of a person who is psychotic and schizophrenic out in public talking to himself," says Edward Charlesworth, a clinical psychologist and director of Willowbrook Psychological Associates in Houston.

"People become uncomfortable admitting to it or talking about it. It's like the myths of sexuality. People won't talk about masturbation; they say other people who are weird do it."

Charlesworth, who wrote about the benefits of self-talk in his book "Stress Management--A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness" (Ballantine, 1982), says everybody talks to themselves to some degree and the negative image should be dispelled.

Michael Jolkovski, a clinical psychologist in Falls Church, Va., agrees.

"Talking to yourself is thinking, only engaging muscles of your mouth. If talking to yourself makes thoughts more concrete, more real, then there is nothing the matter with it," Jolkovski says. "For some reason it has been related to the caricature of a crazy person. But if you know that you're talking to yourself, then it isn't a problem."

Self-talk is unhealthy only if it becomes a crutch, or helps you to avoid contact with others.

"Anything can become unhealthy if used to extreme, as a coping tool that gets out of balance," Charlesworth says.

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The tendency to talk to yourself has more to do with your learning abilities than anything else, such as needing to talk yourself through the learning process of driving a stick shift, he added.

"Whether you're saying it to yourself or thinking it to yourself, it's still the same basic process. A broad spectrum of people do it. It comes down to learning style, whether you are an auditory learner and need to hear something, or a visual learner and need to write it down.

"One label for self-talk is image rehearsal . We rehearse things. You use mnemonic channels to remember things," he says. "It may begin in childhood. I work with kids, and I will watch kids use puppets to act out personality characteristics of people in their lives. Some children do that more than others. In talking to yourself, the quality of person has to be fairly imaginative."

Charlesworth stresses that people should be less concerned with whether they are talking to themselves than with the quality of what they are saying.

"It's important to distinguish whether the self-talk is positive or negative," he says.

"A lot of us learn tremendous negative self-talk, where we say things like, 'Oh, I shouldn't have done that.' In my clinical practice, I see so many people who do failure rehearsal, saying how they've blown it. That perpetuates the anxiety or anger."

To redirect negative self-talk to positive takes practice--catching yourself in the act and rephrasing what's being said, he says. Beneficial self-talk should focus on solutions and goals.

"Self-talk is one of the very best tools to creating life changes--once you know effective self-talk."

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