Mark Twain observed, “Life does not consist mainly—or even largely—of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever blowing through one’s head.” Much of this storm of thoughts takes the form of self-talk, an inner voice that consists of statements, usually silent but sometimes said aloud, directed to and relating to the self.

Consider this example from a series of autobiographical novels by the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard. When faced with a negative event, he tends to hear in his head a statement like this: “Can’t you ever do anything right?” These words apparently echo his father’s attitude toward him as he was growing up, and they even sound in his head as his father sounded. As this example suggests, we learn how to talk to ourselves by internalizing the ways that important people have talked to us. This example also illustrates how self-talk can pack an emotional punch. Self-talk of this kind will make a person feel even worse when something not-so-good happens.

The “People” Inside Our Heads

The words, manner, and tone of self-talk are qualities that convey important stances toward the self. One way to think of these qualities is to consider self-talk as having a person-like presence. Rather than just words running through your head, it is as if someone with a particular kind of personality is talking to you.

How might we characterize the variety of qualities that self-talk may take on? Fortunately, psychologists have a comprehensive understanding of the different styles people can adopt in interacting with others. Our idea was that this understanding could be applied to help illuminate the different ways people talk to themselves.

The styles in which people talk to each other have two key aspects—affiliation and dominance. To illustrate, imagine that someone, such as a teacher, co-worker, or supervisor, needs to bring up some critical feedback with you—for example, because something is not going well or there are shortcomings in your work. There are important differences in how they could communicate the same basic information.

First, to what extent do they convey a sense of closeness and support, or, alternatively, of distance and hostility? This is the degree of what is called affiliation.

Second, to what extent do they convey a sense of direction and guidance, or, alternatively, of passivity and aimlessness? This is the degree of what is called dominance. These qualities could greatly affect how you would feel and whether you could make good use of the experience. For example, conveying support and direction (i.e., in a warm-dominant way) may help make the experience constructive, whereas the same information conveyed in a hostile and aimless manner (i.e., in a hostile-submissive way) could be emotionally devastating.

Of course, people also talk to themselves to reflect on their experiences. However, self-talk is the inner voice that no one else hears. Thus, to study it, we needed to ask people to write down examples of their self-talk, which they did each day for two weeks—in response to both negative and positive events. For each instance of self-talk, we also asked them to rate their subsequent emotional reaction. Our goal was to study how self-talk varies in its levels of affiliation and dominance and how these differences affect one’s emotions. 

Varieties Of Self-Talk And Why They Matter

What did we find out?

  • First, self-talk varies enormously in its levels of affiliation and dominance, from very warm to very hostile and from very directive to very passive. However, each individual tends to have a self-talk style that is typical for them, with a characteristic level of affiliation and of dominance, and these characteristic styles are very different across people. Thus, although you might tend to assume that other people’s self-talk is much the same as what your self-talk sounds like, this is untrue.
  • Second, we found that people’s style of self-talk has an important impact on their emotions. The earlier example—“Can’t you ever do anything right?”—is hostile-submissive, because it conveys distance and lack of support, and it conveys passivity and lack of a sense of direction and guidance. Our research shows that this kind of self-talk is associated with the worst emotional outcomes—high negative mood and low positive mood. In contrast, the style of self-talk associated with the best emotional outcomes is warm-dominant. In addition, the combination of affiliative and dominant is synergistic—each magnifies the positive effect of the other. Likewise, the combination of hostile and submissive is also synergistic, but for bad emotional outcomes—each magnifies the negative effect of the other.
  • Third, we found that the style in which people talk to themselves may be quite different from the style they adopt in interacting with others, especially in response to negative events. Thus, if you want to know about someone’s self-talk, you need to ask them; you cannot assume that their inner voice is like the way they interact with you.

As a final note, changing self-talk patterns can be challenging, because they seem so automatic or habitual.  But it is possible, and a good psychotherapist can be very helpful in this process.

For Further Reading

Lefebvre, J. P., Sadler, P., Hall, A., & Woody, E. (2022). The interpersonal nature of self-talk: Variations across individuals and occasions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

Greenberger, D., & Padesky, D. A. (2015). Mind over mood: Change how you feel by changing the way you think (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.

Jean Paul Lefebvre is PhD candidate at Wilfrid Laurier University and studies interpersonal processes, moral development and how people integrate moral characteristics into their sense of self.

Pamela Sadler is Professor of Psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, and one of her chief interests is individual differences in social interaction and their clinical implications.

Erik Woody is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, and one of his chief interests is clinical and other applications of theories of personality.