“…I used to think that the (Taliban) would come, and he would just kill me. But then I said, ‘If he comes, what would you do Malala?’“
– Malala Yousafzai –
Do you ever talk to yourself?
Most of you are probably shaking your head right now. Even those who do are hesitant to admit it, probably because each time you catch yourself doing it, you have a little moment where you wonder whether you’re starting to lose your mind.
Well stop worrying. You’re not going crazy. In fact, you’re tapping into what neurological research calls one of the most underutilised mental tools that we all have at our disposal. It shapes our clarity, confidence, ability to perform under pressure, and the insight needed to make informed decisions about some of the most challenging aspects of our identity.
The propensity for self-directed speech is born when we are, and guides the lives of young humans as they start to develop an understanding for the world. During play, toddlers face simple challenges, such as placing a certain shaped peg into a corresponding hole. Left to their own devices, parents (and researchers) will tell you the children start to talk to themselves through a process that Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky named ‘private speech’.
Private speech allows the child to dislocate themselves from the situation, as well as any feelings of confusion, fear, and anger that it may inspire, and take a more reflection approach to the problem at hand. Such ability is crucial when you’re a kid, laying the foundations for problem-solving skills set to define your future.
Sounds amazing, right? We’d all love the means, in stressful situations, to move away from our sense of self and the torrent of conflicting emotions that come with it, in order to gain control and perform as best we can.
The good news is that we can. Here’s how.
As we grow older, and the caretakers of our lives infuse us with the language that will carry us through the rest of our days, the words create synaptic bridges throughout the brain.
That’s useful when, for instance, we are at the supermarket and trying to recall our shopping list. Speak the word “bananas”, and a visual will appear in your mind to help you remember. It doesn’t matter how basic that image is: if it’s yellow, slightly curved, and peels apart, you’re not forgetting the bananas.
Why is that important? In his study entitled Neural Markers of Positive Reappraisal and Their Associations with Trait Reappraisal and Worry (paywall), Michigan State University’s Jason Moser showed an image of a masked man holding a knife to a woman’s throat to two groups of women. The first group was comprised of chronic worriers, while the second group was psychologically average.
Asked to hypothesise a positive outcome to the situation using private speech, many of the subjects instinctively resorted to personal pronouns. This made them more anxious – they projected themselves into the position of the woman – and the harder they worked to provide a solution, the more stressed they became. In the first group especially, even when a positive outcome was reached, the women found it immensely difficult to relax.
When asked to repeat the process referring to themselves by their first name instead of personal pronounces, Moser saw astounding results. Subjects’ brains used less energy, activity in the amygdala – the emotional hub of the mind – lowered by nearly 50%, and they reached solutions faster.
Traditional therapy methods attempt to break down anxiety by having patients confront their psychological issues directly, as occurred in the first part of the trial. It’s painful, it’s terrifying, but it eventually concludes positively…or so they say.
The second half of the trial suggests there’s a better way to go about it, and it’s something we at The 8 Percent have been saying for some time: push, don’t pull.
Push away from the problem, and create emotional distance by discarding your sense of self. Focus on the problem. Keep it in sight. And work away from it. Malala Yousafzai did this very same thing when she asked herself what she would do if confronted by the Taliban. Her answer was the foundation upon which she developed herself into one of the most passionate and powerful revolutionary icons of our time.
Turn your back to the problem and pull away in search of a solution, and you are nothing more than the hapless victim in a horror movie. Desperately scramble for sanctuary until the problem is no longer in sight, but don’t be fooled; if you’re not strategic about your escape, if you don’t keep your focus on what you’re moving away from, you will never truly be free of it.
Ego has a habit of playing a big part in entrepreneurship, and that’s both a blessing and a curse. If we can’t escape the I, the me, through private speech, we can never achieve excellence.
So make an effort to start talking to yourself about yourself. You’d be crazy not to.