Managing Your Internal Dialogue (Self-Dialogue)

See also: Positive Thinking

Your ‘internal dialogue’ is quite simply your thoughts. It is the little voice in your head that comments on your life, whether that is what is going on around you, or what you are thinking consciously or sub-consciously.

All of us have an internal dialogue, and it runs all the time. Some of us, however, may pay more attention to it than others, and be more skilled at manipulating it. It is the way in which you apply logic to what is happening, although the logic may sometimes be skewed or driven by your emotions or experiences.

The Importance of Internal Dialogue

Internal dialogue is part of what makes us human, and particularly gives us the ability to reason and think about situations.

I think, therefore I am

Rene Descartes

But what you think, and the language you use, can affect your mood, self-confidence and self-esteem. This is the basis of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

Your internal dialogue can therefore be both helpful and unhelpful. For example:

  • If you are inclined to be anxious, your internal dialogue can reinforce this. Some commentators suggest that anxiety can also upset your internal dialogue, creating a vicious cycle;

  • Just as smiling makes you feel happy, being exposed to negative language and unhappy thoughts can have an effect on your mood. This includes in your internal dialogue, if it tends towards ‘beating yourself up’;

  • Being able to have a positive internal dialogue, and ‘look on the bright side’, can help you feel more positive and improve your mood.

All this combines to suggest that learning to manage your internal dialogue is likely to be important for both mental well-being, and potentially, success in life.

Managing Your Internal Dialogue

1. Becoming Aware of Your Internal Dialogue

Before you can manage your internal dialogue, you first need to become more aware of it.

Some of us are very aware of our internal dialogue, as a constant presence in the brain, or even an ongoing conversation. Others are much less so, and may find it harder to tune in. One way to become aware of it is to try doing some meditation, because this helps you to concentrate on your thoughts.

Another technique recommended by some people is to consciously think ‘I wonder what my next thought will be’. Whether this disrupts your internal dialogue, or just distracts your brain, it seems to give some space for the brain to become aware of what it happening.

What you are chiefly trying to become aware of is the types of thoughts you tend towards, including:

  • Where your internal dialogue goes if you let it wander. This can give you a good idea of what is bothering you at any given time;

  • Whether you tend to think positively or negatively;

  • Your dominant time orientation (past, present, or future); and

  • Your motivation (whether you tend to think about wanting more good things, or fewer bad ones, or whether you spend time trying to understand how things relate to each other).

2. Changing Your Internal Dialogue

Once you have become more aware of what you are thinking, and the kinds of patterns that your thoughts tend to make, you can then do something about changing them, if necessary.

There are several important ways in which you can help yourself.

  • Think Positively, not Negatively

    It is easy to fall into the trap of ‘beating yourself up’ internally, and criticising yourself all the time. Looking for ways to improve is good, but blaming yourself because you have failed to achieve is not. It is important to try to avoid negative thinking in your internal dialogue.

    One way to do this is to consciously change what you are thinking. If you ‘hear’ yourself thinking something negative, focus on something positive instead. For example, instead of thinking about what you did wrong, think about what you will do differently next time, or what you have learnt, or even what you did well.

    An Exercise in Reverse Thinking

    If you struggle to avoid negative thinking, try this exercise:

    Next time you find yourself thinking something negative, consciously think about the opposite, but much more so (say, double, or even more). Think about it in plenty of detail: how it would look and feel, how it would make you behave and so on.

    Notice how this makes you feel.

    There is more about these ideas on our page: Positive Thinking.
  • Try to Live in the Present

    Your internal dialogue often tends to focus on the past (‘What might have been’) and the future ('What might be’). Focusing on the present therefore both quietens your internal dialogue a little, and also helps you to concentrate on, and appreciate, what is happening now.

    This is the basis of mindfulness, and there is more about this on our page on Mindfulness.
  • Be Grateful for What You Have

    One way to change the direction of your thoughts, and particularly to prevent yourself from wanting more or less is to think about what you have to be grateful for. This helps you to be more positive, because you are looking for the good in your life.

    There is more about this in our page on Being Grateful.

Stopping Unhelpful Internal Dialogue

We all have moments where our internal dialogue seems to go off by itself, and can spiral into a negative tirade. When you feel this happening to you, it can be helpful to actually tell yourself to stop, as this pulls you up short, and reminds you that this is unhelpful.

Some people find that a firm but gentle mental tone, and assertive ‘Stop that!’ works best, and others feel the need to speak out loud to get the full effect.

You may need to experiment to find the formula that works best for you.

Controlling Your Internal Dialogue Takes Time and Practice

Like any other mental exercise or practice, it takes time to learn how to listen to, and then control, your internal dialogue. At first, you will probably find it difficult. The more you practise, however, the easier it will get, although you will still have times where you struggle. This is completely normal.

It is, however, important not to make it worse by beating yourself up because you have failed to manage your thoughts!

Instead, just chalk it up to experience, and move on. Next time it will be easier.