Doing some work getting going both mentorship structures and leadership courses in my work environment got me thinking about self-talk in a circuitous way. Self-talk is the dialogue between the voices which we hear ‘in’ our mind throughout most of our waking lives. It has also been described as private speech, inner dialogue, soliloquy, or sub-vocal speech, amongst other definitions. Different categories of self-talk have been described. Regressive self-talk occurs where there is the release of emotional energy, which is not directed at any specific target or person, as when one hurts oneself and curses to oneself because of the pain. Intrapersonal self-talk is related to structuring and sustaining cognitive capacity, such as repeating a telephone number or reminding oneself to remember someone’s name after meeting them. Interpersonal self-talk is self-talk which is directed towards communicating with others in the future, such as researching a speech for future delivery, or planning what one will say in a future meeting. While these categories provide structure in describing our self-talk, a lot of time our own self-talk seems to be idle chatter, which ‘bounces’ between topics, and crucially usually ‘sounds’ like a dialogue between two, or occasionally more voices when one is consciously focussing on / listening to the discussions in one’s own mind.
It has also been suggested that self-talk may be a crucial component of conscious perception of one’s environment and self-awareness, by alerting the ‘mind’ to changes in emotional and physical state, and creating an understanding of whether these changes and the cause of them are relevant or are of concern to the individual, by allowing the individual to take the ‘perspective of the other’ in their own mind. Associated with this concept, it has been pointed out that self-talk cannot occur as a single voice, and is by definition a soliloquy that occurs between at least two inner voices. There is an ‘I’ voice’, representing the voice urging one to act or describing a current activity, and a ‘Me’ voice which takes the perspective of the ‘other’ and with which the ‘I’ voice is assessed.
It has been suggested that previous social interactions with other individuals allows one to gain a viewpoint of oneself by becoming aware of that person’s perspectives of our actions or thoughts. Therefore, taking the perspective of the ‘other’ is the ability to understand that a person’s viewpoint may be different to one’s own, and potentially to use this information to change one’s behaviour or viewpoint. Self-talk allows, or is in itself, the end result of the internalization of this mechanism of taking another person’s perspective, as one can describe to ones ‘Me’ voice (a real or imagined person) in one’s own mind the reasons for behaving in a certain manner during a previous experience, or for planning behaviour in future similar based on how the ‘other’ would respond to it. When one engages in self-talk with the ‘Me’ voice therefore, which takes the perspective of the other, we can tell ourselves what others expect of us. This ‘Me’ voice can be the opinion of a single individual who has had a positive impression on us as a wise counsel in the past, or of a ‘generalized other’, which would be the perceived expectations of what the person believes their community would do in the situation being described by their ‘I’ voice. These different perspectives may have been learnt or adapted from previous social interactions with other individuals, groups of individuals, or from writings and media excerpts that describe community values or expectations that are internalized and become the content of the ‘Me’ voice. Therefore, we have a soliloquy going on in our minds the whole time, and this self-talk is a discussion between the desires of the individual during a particular experience, and the learned social expectations derived previously from external discussions or interactions with an individual, group or community.
So how does all this relate to mentorship and leadership as I described earlier was occurring in my own thoughts the last while (personal self-talk!). Well, clearly mentors are crucial for supplying the information that has the potential, if they are respected, to become the ‘Me’ voice in our minds. I have noticed from my own experiences and becoming aware of my own self-talk (and doing some research and reading on it) that my inner soliloquies often occur with mentors from the past that I have respected – for example my PhD supervisor, a wise family friend, a senior leader at the University I work at – and when I am confronted with a situation that angers or concerns me, I find myself in my mind ‘communicating’ with these respected folk from my past, and by doing so come to a way forward through the problem I am facing. As I grow older, more respected folk are added to my community of ‘others’, and situations seem to become easier to deal with as I age, as they generally do for most folk as they get older and who all are going through a similar process of incorporating mentors as “Me’ voices as is happening to me. So obviously, getting the right mentors, and right potential folk to supply the text for one’s ‘other’ perspective (the ‘Me’ voice in our head) is crucial, and perhaps our best chance, of moderating our own behaviour in a way that will make ourselves leaders and role models for those around us and for the next generation following us, who look to us to provide their own ‘perspective of the other’.
Of course a person can have a problem if their ‘Me’ voice is not wise but is rather self-damaging, or is generated from a negative role model which becomes unwittingly introduced into ones panel of ‘others’ which one uses as an action frame of reference. Whether these voices can be consciously altered over a short period of time is not clear either. Obviously with time given that ‘Me’ voices are added means that our self-talk protagonists can be altered, but in many ways self-talk and the outcome of the dialogue create our personality / view of life (however one wishes to define our core way of viewing and interacting with life), and to alter completely all the voices one has accumulated would create a completely different personality or way of thinking. Such major self-talk does not seem to occur unless there are catastrophic changes in one’s environment or personal life, such as divorce, death of a loved one, or natural disaster, which one’s ‘Me’ voices cannot provide a frame of reference or good advice for. When this occurs the inner ‘Me’ voices can become fragmented and in the end be replaced by other ‘Me’ voices which are able to make sense of the current crisis or trauma, and therefore would potentially create a very different personality as an outcome to the catastrophic trauma. But for most folk, as the old saying goes, the passing of time is the only healer and thing that will change a damaging ‘Me’ voice.
So we need to be aware that we have the potential as parents, mentors or leaders to end up as ‘voices’ in those we interact with and take an interest in what we say and do. To be successful we surely need to manage the ‘I’ voice – psychology folk would find resonance with these concepts described above with those of Freud’s ‘Id and Ego’ theory or Steve Peters’s classic description of our ‘Inner Chimp’ which the ‘Human’ in us needs to control to be successful – but also we need to get the right blend of ‘Me’ voices (the ‘others’) which are generated by mentors of our past, which will see us through all the complex situations we face in our daily life. Being aware of our own self-talk, and the make-up of it, is perhaps crucial for the success or failure we make of our lives, and of course, the mentors we choose and who become ingrained in minds as ‘Me’ voices surely make all the difference.