15 steps to better self talk

Make your internal chatter work for (not against) you

Words & images © Paul Ransom

NOTE: Much of the following originally appeared (in a slightly different form & context) in The Pointless Revolution, published by Everytime Press in 2019.

What are these voices in my head? Are they me? Is this the multi-channel streaming service of self? Who is their audience?

Firstly, let us acknowledge that the idea of the unitary mind is a myth. Everyone I have spoken with about this admits to a head full of voices. These channels sometimes work in sync, sometimes at odds. Some are kinder, others rip us to shreds. Many repeat the mantras of our parents and the judgements of others. There are whip crackers who are never satisfied and always mark us down and more compassionate, encouraging voices. In addition, there are truth tellers, as well as those who peddle the plausible denials that allow our self-seeking bias and personal mythologies to flourish, even to our detriment. Point being, our brains concoct a cacophony of ‘voiced’ thought, as befitting a complex, densely networked, coherence seeking machine.    

Yet, amidst the racket, there is a quieter, steadier channel. This is ‘the you that is always you’ – the sense you have that behind the spectacle of ego and the numerous dramas of emotion, ambition and conflict there is a continuous, bedrock I or me. It is the watcher self. The point that views. The paradoxical core of our being: the maker and the made. (Insert further pretty phrasing to suit.)1

Some will call this the higher self, others the voice of the heart or instinct, and still others the spirit, soul or God voice. Ultimately the label doesn’t matter. Whatever the language, this is the voice* (the ‘you’) I am referring to.

* I use the term ‘voice’ figuratively here, if only because the watcher self is more often a listener than a talker. However, this ‘deep self’ also seems to be a ‘true self’, an authentic source, as opposed to an internalised megaphone of received values.    

Having identified that such a channel exists, the trick is to tune in. To have it available at will to cut through the thickets of noise. To translate its vague, almost mystical whisperings into practical clarity that can be carried through into the more mundane, everyday realm. To bring it down from the mountaintop retreat to the supermarket checkout queue. After all, what use is a higher consciousness if for the most part you continue to live a daily life ruled by slavethink, poison world paranoia and an incessant need to achieve, achieve, achieve?

In other words, how can we actually do authentic?

It is worth noting here that I am not about to prescribe a marathon of virtuous enlightenment ordeals. This is much less about vibrating ourselves to heavenly superbness and far more about being happier and freer now. On Earth. In the chatterbox of our heads. By all means, do the deep reflecting stuff but do not forget to readjust the work/life balance and ditch the dickhead boyfriend while you are at it.

Learning to adjust our self-talk is one of the most effective and practical ways of changing the way we go about things. It offers us the chance to have a much better relationship with ourselves and helps to create a greater sense of agency.

But identifying the true voice (self, spirit, etc) takes practise – like twiddling the dial on your granny’s analogue radio. Thus, for what it is worth, here are fifteen techniques – intellectual, attitudinal, psycho-emotional, practical – that I regularly employ to help keep me in direct, powerful and liberating contact with my innermost voice. I realise this represents the narrow sliver of my experience and that I am not a therapist, life coach or guru. Indeed, this could easily be dismissed as random stuff I made up. All I can say is that it worked. Works.  

1: The Q&A method – a therapist in your head – interview yourself

Set up a formal dialogue, either in your head or out loud, in which one voice asks the questions and the other answers. Find a Q&A format that is familiar and makes sense for you. For me, this typically takes the form of an imaginary therapy session or press interview – like a cross between HardTalk and In Treatment.

The trick is to keep asking why, how, etcetera, and to answer with fearless honesty. Indeed, anything less than complete frankness is, in my view, a waste of time.

In addition, I have found it useful to be quite structured, and to focus on particular behaviours or emotional responses. Without being too rigid, it has also proved beneficial for me to have an objective; usually to drill down into and gain a clearer understanding of any dysfunctional/habitual behaviours and emotional dramas and, thereafter, to create an awareness that makes change more doable.

Ultimately, the core objective is increased and honest self-awareness, and the linking of that heightened awareness to both external (behavioural) and internal (voice in head) change.   

Useful questions include: What is the pattern here? What is the underlying objective of this behaviour? Why did you react like that? Where did you learn that narrative? What is your rationale for behaving like that? What is the feeling state you think this behaviour will engender? Is this behaviour really working for you?

2: Be absolutely honest – no sacred cows – no denial

Underpinning the Q&A process is a ruthless commitment to honesty. This is the self laid bare – but remember, no one else need ever know. So, if you feel yourself blocking, being evasive or making excuses, double down. Why are you trying to avoid this?

However, if it really is too much, tag it for further examination and come back when you feel safer or more able to deal with the fallout. (This is not a sprint.)

In addition, your honesty radar should also be on the lookout for unnecessary drama and paralysis by analysis. Both are forms of evasion.

What I am hinting at here is that honesty itself can be learned. Honed. Refined. It has many impersonators but the steady process of identifying and neutralising these imposters is what ultimately reveals the true voice.       

3: Learn to recognise patterns and addictions – observe yourself without fear or favour

With an honesty process in motion, it is time to pay particular attention to pattern recognition. Fortunately, the human brain is a genius at patterns. After all, it is how we render the world navigable and form consistent notions of self and character. Once we better understand our own patterned responses we create a valve of choice – repeat/alter – and in doing so we remind ourselves that patterns can change and addictions can be overcome. 

4: Develop a method for catching yourself in the loop and bringing decision making into the light

Having started to notice our patterns the next trick is to create a formal mechanism for hitting the pause button and asking ourselves whether we want to continue down well worn paths or try out different approaches. What this does is to formalise and make directly conscious the act of choice. The moment of decision then becomes less opaque, something we can take direct and undeniable responsibility for and, as a result, we become much less of a ‘mystery’ to ourselves.

Personally, I have found the following questions useful: Now that we are here again, which way do we want to go? Do we really believe that the same old/same old will deliver a better result? Or indeed, does this pattern actually serve us well?

Whichever way I respond and choose to move forward, I am left in no doubt that I am 100% responsible and, furthermore, that I made my choice freely. (Read: I am not a victim of unknown or overwhelming forces.)

5: Avoid self-punishment – catch those judgemental urges early

Punishment and pejorative, getting down on yourself, generally do not inspire sustainable change or underwrite lasting happiness. Relentlessly chiding and whipping yourself will simply serve to build up a store of resentment and resistance and create a pattern of continued failure and disappointment.

Remember, all those ‘good person, good life’ objectives are arbitrary. We invented them. Codified them. Shoved them down your throat.   

We all have behaviours (‘flaws’) that we are not proud of or wish we could alter but imposing socially approved punishment narratives on ourselves will only exacerbate the naughty child dynamic and/or fuel self-destructive psycho-drama.

Challenge those judgemental voices. Nip their controlling mantras in the bud.   

6: Remind yourself often that none of this makes you a better person – be humble

Just as punishment is a bad strategy, so too is delusional self-aggrandisement. Increasing your happiness potential and identifying your authentic inner voice is not about being ‘better’. Forget hell, forget heaven, pay no heed to the cuddly/vengeful god fantasy. The objective here is not external (or eternal) approval, but rather, increasing the odds of living the life you want.

Remember humility. Be alert to the traps and conceits of righteousness.   

7: Ultimately, none of this matters in the end – you will be just as dead

Sooner or later everything you did and said and all your glittering monuments to yourself will be as nothing. Good, bad, happy, sad; whatever you are or try to be, you and everyone you know will be equally dead. This realisation, honestly accepted, can be enough to dissolve all the nagging tensions around right/wrong, pass/fail, etcetera. All striving is therefore revealed as ultimately meaningless and all our control mechanisms fundamentally futile. Let that shit go. Surrender.2

Counter-intuitive though it may seem, you can actually practise letting go, just as you can alter other patterns of behaviour. Utilise the mechanisms outlined above (in point 4) to bring the choice making moment into the light. ‘Holding on’ and control dramas are habits – desires and behaviours we have learned – not immutable laws. Indeed, your psycho-emotional routines are as impermanent and inessential as everything else and, in the light of universally meaningless flux, they may as well work for you as against you.   

8: Catch yourself in approval seeking behaviour and prompt yourself to desist

In front of the mirror one morning I caught myself in compulsive preening behaviours. Why are you doing this, Paul? I wondered. The honest answer was for the approval of the gorgeous young women who staffed my favourite local café. Then it occurred to me just how much time and effort I had invested into the seeking of female approval (and all for a fairly abysmal return, it must be said). From there it was easy to see how I was mired in mostly unconscious approval seeking behaviour – not only with the ladies but in work situations, with my buddies and…well, just about everywhere. I wanted everyone to think I was soooo impressive; cool, smart, funny, you name it. (Insert epic fail.)

Since that pivotal morning in the bathroom I have set up a flagging habit – if this is about the approbation of others, stop. Now! Right now!

I am here to tell you it works. The time I plough into external approval has reduced in the order of 95%. (Seriously.) Not only have I spared myself enormous effort but I have effectively neutralised a whole raft of potentially esteem-crushing disappointments. True, I still get caught out, and on occasion I still try (somewhat lamely) to play the ‘all round fabulous guy’, but the emancipating effect has been pronounced. If you do only one thing on this list, do this. Walk away from the mirror.

It does take practise but if someone as deeply vain as me can manage it, I am fairly sure you can.

9: Drill down into desire – what is it you truly want?

Getting clear about our desires is a massively liberating form of awareness. In saying this I am not suggesting you rush out and sign up to one of the numerous puritanical programmes aimed at delegitimising, controlling and/or denying desire, but rather that you try to understand it. More accurately, identify it.

What actually is it you desire?

To frame it another way: when you say that you want a fancy, expensive new car is it really the object or the feeling you believe the getting of the object will deliver? Why indeed do we want success or wealth – is it the cash or the feeling its accumulation engenders?

With the exception of practical, survival based wishes – like the desire for predictable access to food and shelter, or handy tools that save labour and increase efficiency – most of our deeper, longer term desires revolve around the triggering of pleasing feeling states. Or, if you prefer it more neuro-scientific, the activation of reward centres in the brain. It is the ‘feeling good’ that we are chasing, not the circle of shiny tin hanging on the end of a colourful ribbon.

In effect, once we begin to untangle the nexus between the place-holding objects of our desire (Oscars, firmer thighs, more likes, etc) and the psycho-emotional rewards attached to them, we can gain a bigger picture perspective on ourselves and our wants and ambitions. This, in turn, creates a moment of pause and reflection. Is the pursuit of this goal really worth it? Can I get the same feeling from something else? In fact, why do I want this feeling? Or even, do I really want this feeling, or…?

At a bare minimum this kind of questioning gives us room to stop, take a deep breath and re-evaluate; and this goes a long way to identifying and disempowering external narratives and unconscious internal habits. Then, if you get good at it, you can defuse all manner of wish-fulfilment fantasy and striving mantras and bring more of your attention and energy back from an imagined future – when desire will supposedly be sated – and into a more grateful present where those pleasing feeling states are happening right now.

Because it may well be that, if you switch your focus, you will discover that you already have what you want.              

10: Examine your fears – are they reasonable?

Some fears are well-grounded. Furthermore, fear is a brilliantly effective evolutionary adaptation. Do not let the spiritually correct and other ideologues fool you into pathologising all your fears.

The challenge is to work out which of your fears represent prudent caution and which are indicative of a debilitating paranoia or a symptom of unnecessary drama. Upon examination, most will likely reveal themselves to be either unfounded or, as in the case of aging and death, futile. Indeed, even a quarter-reasonable risk analysis will reveal that the odds of being killed by terrorists, eaten by a shark or dying with COVID are pretty slim. The media may well be a gaudy spectacle of death and dread but you do not need a Mensa membership to know that the nightly news, the internet and the cynical posturing of politicians are not reliable guides to the true measure of real danger in the world.  

On a personal scale, common fears around loneliness, unpopularity and abandonment are also worth unpacking. Do they contribute to my overall well-being? How do they manifest in my relationships with others and myself? Do they impel me towards ultimately poor decision making? In fact, are my fears simply habits of thinking? Did I just copy them from my parents? Whose fear is this?      

Fear, like desire, when looked at calmly, often dissolves. And even if it does not, teasing it apart will help to keep it in perspective and allow you the space to consider alternative strategies and behaviours.

11: Observe and coolly assess your progress – give rewards and outline further questions and challenges

Like any long term project, trying to distinguish your truest inner voice and authentic self from the morass of noise in your head will involve a trial and error journey. In this instance, the process may never end, and the definitions of end point and success are vague. That said, the results will begin to flow well before any nominated finish line and – in all but the most bizarre and unforeseeable circumstances – prior to conclusive events like death, coma or dementia.   

In order to properly monitor outcomes and maintain motivation, it pays to pay attention. Indeed, this entire project is really one of awareness and attention. This is just another opportunity for you to practise the skills and discipline required.

However, it is vital not only to recognise and penalise failure but to acknowledge and honour success. Allow yourself little rewards for the positives and use the setbacks as a cue to hone your Q&A dialogue and set fresh challenges.

This is about working towards a sustainable balance between compassionate encouragement and fearless honesty. It takes practise, but as with the list items above, the act of practising is part of the process.

Reflecting on my own experience, as time went by this became easier, less deliberate and more intuitive. In essence what was happening was that I was tuning in more frequently and with increasing clarity to the core truths of my life and identity. In other words, I was distilling my authentic self from the slurry and finding it ever easier to think, feel and act in accordance with my own, genuinely self-authored beliefs and objectives.     

12: Practise enjoying the little things

I know, heard it a million times. The ‘gratitude thing’ gets a mention in almost every self-help, pop-shrinkery tract and life coaching manual out there. However, do not let the Oprahfication of gratitude put you off, because training yourself to take pleasure and be thankful for the little things is as near to profound and life altering as it gets for most of us. In a culture addicted to the grand, the mighty and the perfectly sexy, the joy to be had in the aroma of good coffee or the feel of freshly laundered sheets is too often overlooked.

Okay, so we know this but…

As with much of the above, the trick is to practise the focus required to transport gratitude from Facebook meme to daily reality. So, those little rewards I mentioned in point 11 – how about starting with them?

Viewed through a risk/reward prism, thankfulness is a stunningly good investment. The dividends are frequent and manifold. I will not bore you by listing them but I will say that gratitude, like so much in our lives, is a habit. Indeed, it is a gateway drug to liberation and happiness (and I am happily hooked).

13: Practise letting the small shit go – identify what you can and cannot control – pick your battles

Like gratitude, this is widely touted. Don’t sweat the small shit. Aside from any putatively spiritual benefits it is very practical. Given that you only have a certain amount of energy and attention, why tie so much of it up stressing about what bitchface thinks? After all, time is ticking.

The key change agents here are our old friends awareness and practise – interrupting old habits and laying down new ones. If you find yourself stuck in a cycle of angst over something, find a moment to ask yourself how important this will seem in five years. Often, zooming out from a storm of stress, anger or disappointment reveals all too clearly its relative insignificance. Indeed, most of the things we get het up about are tiny dramas. Not much more than hissy-fits.

In addition, at some point most of us get massively confused about what we can and cannot control. Reminding ourselves that our domain is actually quite limited (although far from insignificant) is pivotal to the practise of letting shit go. Despite all those slave narratives out there, our kingdom is ourselves – our responses, our behaviours, where we put our focus, what we spend our time on, etcetera. Consciously identifying the scope of our control and remembering this in moments of tension creates an extremely useful valve of stress relief and sets up the conditions for divorcing the drama; quite apart from allowing you to cross a whole bunch of crap off the ‘must do’ list.

So just start. Pick something small and relatively easy to begin with. Something you normally find yourself getting tight over but which, intellectually, you know is pretty trivial. (Some little OCD thing you do.) After a while, as you begin to establish and expand this new strategy of letting go, you may well, as I did, begin to reap the surprising and beautiful reward of lightness. Letting stuff drop is a form of psycho-emotional weight loss you can sense mentally and physically. Even though you might not be able to measure it on the scales you will almost certainly feel lighter. Having less to worry about is a blessed relief and, in turn, leaves you with more energy for the stuff that really matters.

14: Experiment with external change – try stuff, see how it goes – be playful with it

The trouble with most self-improvement ideologies and enlightenment projects is that they are no fun. Indeed, most are framed in censorious and punishing terms and, although they won’t admit it, they usually want you to deny yourself, (especially sensual pleasure). Moreover, because they mandate end points they are frequently narrow and reductionist, quashing improvisation and experiment.

However, since our intention here is simply to identify and be in contact with a truer inner voice – without the hectoring control mantras of better, wiser, purer – we can tinker, have fun, try stuff out.

Therefore, when you feel you are receiving clearer signals from the channel of the real you, start acting on them. Initially, this may involve an amount of ‘not doing that shit anymore’ but as you begin to enjoy the rewards of quitting you will find new behaviours, new routines, to replace those dreary old obedience rituals. Sure, some will be dead ends – but so what, try something else next time. Remember: it does not matter in the end!    

Likewise, there is no legislated amount of change required. You do not have to be drastic – although you certainly can be. If you do not wish to ditch your job in town and move to a co-operatively managed eco-village, or indeed become celibate, polyamorous, teetotal or 5000% organic, do not force yourself to. Happiness is not a virtue signal.

15: Frame choice and change in risk/reward terms – dilute unrealistic, utopian expectations – disempower dystopian fear narratives

Finally, practise viewing the entire process and the attendant results through a cost/benefit prism. Accept and understand that with reward comes cost. With gains, losses. All choice involves risk. The world contains uncertainties and unknowables. Utopias and dystopias are immature linear control fantasies. Simplistic, unrealistic and ultimately self-defeating recipes for disappointment, punishment and continued slavery. Fuck that shit.

In contrast, the existential/economic3 mindset I am referring to here encourages risk and innovation by factoring in the likelihood of so called failure and by stripping out both punitive judgement and hubristic excess. It demythologises both process and outcome. Removes all must imperatives.

Without the weight of Essentialist meaning tropes and the right/wrong dichotomies they impose, you are free to invest in a diversified portfolio of belief, behaviour, lifestyle and relationships, and to shift the weighting of your investment in accordance with both current and predicted market conditions.

Go with flow, tweak, re-position, re-calibrate, fuck up totally and bounce right back. Play the free market of life and identity. Choose the voice you speak with – to others and, more importantly, to yourself.

In my experience, having tried all the above (and more), I have found that the voice of the ‘authentic me’ is like a guide. A kindly professor or therapist. It has yet to be badly wrong and is never nailed into ideology or assertive certainty. It never pulls rank and does not insist that I just take its word for it. It is not a boss or final authority, neither is it a flatterer or excuse maker. Indeed, it never gives orders, it simply suggests. It offers me a choice and leaves me to take what course I may.   

Ultimately, what jumps out is that we can – with effort, focus and discipline – change the way we speak to ourselves and, in the process, tag and filter out noise we have simply internalised. Just as we need not be the slaves of external signals, so too we are not bound to be the victims of our own internal haranguing. Our fears, our persecution complexes, the reflexive hankering for herd approval – all of these can be challenged and their power to drive habitual behaviour revoked.     

It may well be that you already have your own methods, or will evolve entirely different strategies, but I feel confident that if you can clearly identify your own true beliefs and objectives and distinguish them from the welter of received tropes, imperatives and value judgements, you will significantly increase the likelihood of sustainable happiness. Which is I why I posted this piece and, I am guessing, why you chose to read it.

Good luck.    

1: Clearly there is much we could say about the self. It remains a mysterious phenomenon. Whether one takes an entirely materialist or idealist view, it is evident that this thing we call I (self, ego, identity, etc) is both fluid and often paradoxical. For the purposes of a short piece like this I have consciously avoided the many rabbit holes and focused instead on the way that we experience ourselves in the form of verbalised thought – voices in the head.

2: With respect to the countless spiritual/religious traditions and other metaphysical schools of thought, I choose to disavow Essentialist beliefs. For me, there is no mandated meaning or divine higher purpose. I am not here for a reason. I do not believe in destiny. Nor do I regard this life as a test or school. Indeed, I have come to regard these mantras as mechanisms of judgement and control and, furthermore, as modes of anthropomorphisation and narrative reduction. Rather, I choose to respond to my ultimate insignificance and the futility of striving with a sense of liberated agency. Without the cosmic KPIs and the pass/fail binaries of our all-too-human gods, I am free to create. Through this prism, uncertainty is an invitation, emptiness a canvas, and futility the rocket fuel of self-authored meaning.     

3: Existential Economics is the term I employed in The Pointless Revolution to encapsulate an approach that blends Existentialism and economics. In short, it is the approach I now take when confronting futility, uncertainty, mortality and how to spend what I call my ‘reserve currency’ or ‘temporal capital’ – namely, time.

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