Like all first bosses, mine was terrifying. Laura barked orders in a clipped Boston Brahmin accent, ran five miles before work every morning, and had multiple first-person anecdotes co-starring Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
Among her many intimidating traits was a tendency to murmur to herself at any given moment. I’d hear Laura quietly reciting to-do lists while pouring herself bottomless mugs of black coffee in the kitchen or half-whispering intel in an elevator en route to a meeting.
Because I was 22, eager to please, and entirely lacking perspective, I tended to assume these mutterings had something to do with my shortcomings as her assistant. But in reality, my former boss’s propensity for self-talk may have actually been one of the keys to her remarkably successful career. Recent neuropsychological studies show that talking to yourself can help you target and achieve goals as well as identify and adapt emotions faster than if you’d stayed silent.
In other words: Instead of feeling embarrassed when you catch yourself wondering aloud where your supermarket stocks the paper goods, embrace your inner mutterer. Talking to yourself has some surprising benefits.
At the 2016 Summer Olympics, 16-year-old American gymnast Laurie Hernandez completed a balance beam routine that helped her squad garner a gold medal, catapulted her into countless tweets, memes, and, eventually, landed her a book deal. Framed in a tight closeup, Hernandez whispered, “I got this,” to herself before executing a near-flawless routine.
In addition to charming the gifs off of American viewers, Hernandez’s personal pep talk demonstrates the value of motivational self-talk — an incredibly useful tool given a bad rap by Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley SNL character and this episode of 30 Rock. In fact, a 2011 behavioral science study of 72 student basketball players showed that they passed the ball faster and more accurately when they talked themselves through the task.
Verbalizing a personal plan of action may seem awkward at first (“I am going to fit into this parking space!!”), but scientists find that audibly stating intentions helps you act more effectively and efficiently.
In a 2012 Bangor University study, neuropsychologists provided subjects a set of written instructions. Those who recited the instructions out loud performed better and demonstrated greater concentration than the subjects who read silently. Here’s how Gary Lupyan, a psychology professor at University of Wisconsin who studies how speech affects memory, explained the phenomenon:
“Saying a name out loud is a powerful retrieval cue. Think of it as a pointer to a chunk of information in your mind. Hearing the name exaggerates what might normally happen if you just bring something to mind. Language boosts that process.”
Its origins are recognizable in early childhood cognitive development. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget noted that toddlers start controlling their actions at the same time they begin to develop language. Imagine a child yelling “Hot, Hot!!” when he or she spots an oven or fireplace, and then promptly walking/crawling/stumbling in the other direction, and you’ve got the idea.
If your friends are anything like mine, they periodically call you in self-diagnosed crisis mode, desperate for a fresh pair of ears to hear their most recent drama. Often, the moment they speak their internal agony aloud (“My girlfriend’s cat hates me!”), they realize their problem is smaller or more solvable than they’d imagined.
Similarly, self-talk can help you gain perspective on your own thoughts and feelings. Whether you’re talking yourself through a series of tasks or gearing up to tackle a challenge, speaking out loud helps clarify and streamline emotional reactions.
“Language provides us with this tool to gain distance from our own experiences when we’re reflecting in our lives,” Ethan Kross, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, told The New York Times. “And that’s really why it’s useful.”
Kross took this one step further in a 2015 Harvard Business Review study. His research found that people who referred to themselves in the third person in self-talk were calmer and more confident than those who used first-person pronouns. Better still, they felt happier with their performance after completing the task.
To which I say: Janie, readers are going to love this article.