Talking to Myself - Is That Normal?

Talking to yourself again?  Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen, assures you’re not going crazy. You’re simply thinking out loud, which is not only normal, but beneficial.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
January 23, 2014
Episode #003

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Talking to one’s self isn’t just for preschoolers and wild-eyed conspiracy theorists. 

Consider these scenarios: trying to remember what you needed at the store, working to stay calm when something makes you angry, rehearsing asking for a raise or a date, calculating a tip or other mental math, looking for your lost phone, peering into a jammed photocopier, or trying to psych yourself up for a race or game. 

These, to name a few, are the times we talk to an audience of none. 

Private Lives, Private Speech

Talking to one's self is universal. It’s so common that it has a name: private speech.  Some scientists devote their entire careers to the phenomenon.  Most research on private speech is done with kids aged 2-7, among whom private speech is a part of normal development.  At first, kids talk to themselves just to play with words and express emotion. 

But gradually self-talk becomes more directed.  Kids begin to narrate tough tasks like learning to tie their shoes: “Now, the rabbit goes into the hole,” or make comments to themselves, like “I did it!” or “This is hard.”  It is kids’ external version of thought—truly thinking out loud.  Next, as kids get older, they may mutter, whisper to themselves, or move their lips without sound.  Finally, with time, the speech goes silent and is internalized as thought.  But whether private speech is loud or mouthed, it helps kids guide their actions and solve problems, which in turn advances their development.

Now, just because you can tie your shoes without narration doesn’t mean you have to stop talking to yourself.  Indeed, the need to talk to ourselves sticks around for a lifetime.  It pops back up to the surface whenever we learn new things or find ourselves in a difficult situation. 

The little research on private speech in teens and adults bears this out.  First, private speech remains common beyond childhood.  In a study on private speech in adults, participants learned 6 different computer tasks of varying degrees of difficulty.  Every single one of the adults in the study talked to themselves at least once during the tasks and over 80% of them talked to themselves during all 6 tasks. 

Second, private speech remains helpful.  In another study, the private speech of adolescents was noted as they took an exam.  Private speech that included self-guidance or description went along with the highest test scores.  The take home lesson: when kids or adults talk to themselves through difficult tasks, performance improves.  There’s some controversy as to whether performance improves immediately or whether it takes a while for the self-coaching to add up, but either way, it has a positive influence.