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Blog // Thoughts
September 4, 2016

This Week I Quit Talking To Myself (Kind Of)

This week I quit talking to myself. Well, not entirely. I quit having a particular kind of conversation. I know that sounds crazy. But is it? I grew up believing that “talking to yourself is the first sign of madness,” which of course, is pure silliness. We talk to ourselves all the time. Whether it’s […]

This week I quit talking to myself. Well, not entirely. I quit having a particular kind of conversation. I know that sounds crazy. But is it? I grew up believing that “talking to yourself is the first sign of madness,” which of course, is pure silliness. We talk to ourselves all the time. Whether it’s words of self-encouragement while trying to do an extra repetition at the gym, or rushing to tidy up the house before a loved one comes home, or those cries of lament we let out when something goes wrong, like hitting our thumb while hammering a nail.

Self-talk is a habit or pattern we fall into, sometimes intentionally, often not so much. When I used to play golf, I developed a plan for the things I would say to myself, between arriving at the ball and deciding what club to use, that helped snap me into a positive frame of mind. Today I have a version of that when I pick up a camera, or a guitar, or sit down to write.

But, often the patterns are just things we’ve got used to doing, conversations we have with ourselves without really knowing why. What I quit doing this week was a specific form of this kind of self-talk. But, before I get to that, I need to describe what happened in my kitchen on Tuesday.

Typhoon No Show

It’s typhoon season in Tokyo. The eleventh of the season, inspirationally named LionRock, was forecast to hit Tokyo in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Trying to be conscientious, I cancelled my plans for the day, assuming my daughter’s school would be closed, as it had been the week before for another typhoon.

But, on Tuesday morning I awoke surprised to hear the rain hitting my windows with a faint, light touch, more like a normal late summer rain shower and nothing like the torrential deluge we were anticipating. I checked my iPhone and there was no closure notice from the school. It was going to be a normal day. The typhoon had changed direction overnight and was going to miss Tokyo completely, eventually making landfall a long way to the north of us.

Suddenly I found myself starting the day in a “what should I do” mindset. Normally I like to have at least a few goals, or key actions planned before I start the day. Not surprisingly I struggled to get motivated. My mind was dancing between various tasks I could be doing, without a clear focus, or sense of priorities to help me decide which one I should do.

Pretty soon I was getting hungry and decided to make some lunch. I was craving something simple so I settled on a crispy chicken salad. I got to marinating the chicken, cutting up some vegetables and greens, making a dressing, and assembling an inviting bowl of goodness.

But, a part of my distracted mind was elsewhere. I had a few emails I needed to write. One was to a person I’ve had a difficult relationship with over the years, someone who makes me feel like I’m always only seconds away from mortally offending them. As I cooked, I was muttering out loud, trying to figure out how I would word my email, much the way one might rehearse for a speech or presentation.

Then it happened.

I don’t know why, but I had left a bottle of vegetable oil precariously close to the edge of the kitchen countertop. I dropped the chicken pieces into the smoking hot frying pan, then as I turned to put the marinating bowl into the sink, I tipped the bottle of cooking oil onto the wooden floor of the kitchen.

There was oil everywhere! It’s not something I like to admit, but I’m pretty obsessive about keeping house and home clean. Living in Japan, that’s serious business, we don’t just take our shoes off when we come inside, we make sure there isn’t a crumb or spot left after meals. As I watched the bottle tumble from the counter to the floor, spraying oil on various surfaces before it tipped out violently as the bottle hit the floor, I wanted to howl in pain. In a fraction of a second I was on the floor, throwing any dry kitchen towel and paper wipe I could find onto the mess.

This isn’t the first cooking disaster where my mind was off elsewhere, lost in some imaginary conversation. A couple of years back I was replaying a difficult conversation in my head. One of those ones where only later do we realise what we should have said, how we could have handled the situation better if only we’d had the right witty riposte at the right moment.

Lost in my imaginary wit, I reached into the oven without any gloves or heat protection and pulled out a searing hot tray of roast meat. The pain was instant, mind numbing, it made the whole room spin. I couldn’t type, play guitar or pick up a camera for two weeks after that.

Not All Self-Talk Is The Same

As I’ve already hinted at, self-talk plays a big role in the things I do well, especially in my creative work. All my positive habits have some practice of self-talk attached to them. Call it mindfulness, mastery or positive thinking, I believe self-talk has a big role to play in our performance.

I’ve also in the past few years, started to see clearly some of my deep-seated habits of negative self-talk. Those times when I try to talk myself out of doing something because I’m too old, too slow or too ugly, or maybe because I lack the experience, training or skill. The best way to overcome that negative self-talk is to replace it with something positive and constructive.

But, this habit of obsessing over imaginary conversations comes from somewhere else and isn’t entirely positive or negative. It’s different, a misplaced kind of energy. Instead of rehearsing emails and conversations I should just write them or have them. Instead of going over past conversations, I should go into a process of reviewing them, learning from them and letting them go.

What I had to stop doing, was burning my hands, potentially ruining my floors and generally opening myself up to all sorts of injuries and misadventures!

Breaking The Pattern

Since this kind of self-talk felt like torture I wondered if using a safe word might be a way to break the pattern. So, I decided to try “pineapple,” since it’s such an odd and amusing word. Just try it yourself. Say “pineapple” and see if you don’t smile, at least a little, as the word tumbles out of your mouth.

I have to admit it was surprising how effective this was. I’m not sure I believed it would work. But after 2-3 “pineapples” I was hooked.

How did it feel? Liberating. Like that feeling when you’ve been suffering with a cold and you suddenly find yourself taking a deep breath, thinking “whoa, this is what breathing with both nostrils feels like.” Stopping the self talk by saying “pineapple” was like walking from a busy street into a quiet library. My mind suddenly felt vast, free, available.

I suspect it will be more than just the poor kitchen that thanks me for doing this.

This Week I Quit is a (mostly) weekly series where I try, in a personal way, to address the habit of overcommitment. Each week I quit something, it could be an app, a habit, a possession, a word, anything that had a hold on my attention. I explain why I made the choice to quit and what it was like. Last time I Quit Checking Email Every Week and you can read all the posts in this series here.

Responses
Charles Kress 3 years ago

This self talking thing can be very distracting from staying in the moment. Over the last few years or more I have taken to the simple expedient of counting backwards from 6 in groups of 3. 6,5,4 – 3,2,1 and repeat. This keeps my thinking mind occupied and lets my conscious mind stay in the present. This is especially helpful when I want to concentrate fully on something I’m doing. It’s kind of like a mantra, but using words that are fairly neutral in meaning.

So best of luck with stopping thinking out loud about things not having to do with what you are doing in the present.

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