Watch Your Self-Talk


Have you ever caught yourself talking to yourself? We all do it, of course. At times you will mutter something to yourself aloud. If someone hears you, you may sheepishly explain, “Oh, I was just thinking out loud.” But most of the time, self-talk is internal. It is the conscious thought process continually going on inside our heads.

Those who study language tell us that most people speak at the rate of 150 to 200 words per minute. In contrast, research indicates that self-talk can run at the rate of about 1,300 words per minute. On the basis of sheer volume alone, your self-talk has a powerful impact on your emotional and behavioral responses. So when it comes to marital conflict, hurt, and anger, you need to make sure your self-talk is positive and factual.

Any episode of self-talk begins with what we call a triggering event. It may be something a person says, an object we see, a scene we witness, a fragrance, a sound or any number of other stimuli. When the trigger occurs, our minds start racing at 1,300 words per minute trying to interpret what we have received. In other words, we begin a high-speed, internal monologue trying to make sense of the triggering event.

For example, LuAnn’s husband, Joel, walks into the house after work. Seeing the kids’ toys scattered throughout the house and lunch dishes still piled in the kitchen sink, Joel just shakes his head and mutters to his wife, “Well, you’ve had a productive day.” Then he leaves LuAnn standing in the kitchen as he goes to change out of his work clothes.

Immediately LuAnn self-talks her way through the episode: Joel doesn’t value all that I do for him and the kids. He has no idea how hard I work all day long. He thinks I should have been more productive today. He sees only what didn’t get done; he doesn’t notice what I have done. He thinks I should be able to keep the house spotless even though I’m outnumbered three to one by kids who work hard to mess it up.

This automatic thought process trips an emotional response based on how we interpret the event. It’s chain reaction, and it can all happen in a handful of heartbeats. LuAnn’s self-talk has left her angry with Joel for his insensitivity to her daily talks and his lack of appreciation for how hard she tries.         

However, an emotional response, such as anger, isn’t the end of the chain reaction. Your emotions will always give rise to some kind of behavioral response. You may cry, laugh, fight back, kick the dog, withdraw, overeat, drink too much, or whatever. Some people pull the covers over their heads and sleep for hours on end. Others fidget, pace, or drum their fingers.

LuAnn’s behavioral response is to “go on strike” for a few minutes. Instead of scurrying around picking up toys or starting to prepare dinner to please Joel, she goes into the family room and sits down with the kids, who are watching a video.

Our behavior results from an emotional response based on self-talk triggered by a specific event—or combination of events. Here’s what the chain reaction looks like:

But here’s the problem. Some of our emotional and behavioral responses are irrational because sometimes our self-talk—our perception of the triggering event—is inaccurate. For example, LuAnn misinterpreted Joel’s actions and comment about the house when he walked in. He wasn’t criticizing her; he was trying to acknowledge from the mess that his wife had had a hard day. But for LuAnn, something important got lost in the self-talk. Bottom line: At times your angry feelings and behavior may be a legitimate response to an event, but at other times they may be the inappropriate result of faulty self-talk.

One of the major ways to diffuse anger in your conflicts, therefore, is to control your self-talk. Here are four helpful steps to help you do that.

1. Acknowledge that self-talk happens in you. Everybody uses self-talk. You may not be aware that you are doing it, but you are.

2. Recognize when self-talk is happening. Look at the diagram again—the self-talk happens between the event and your response to it.

3. Challenge your self-talk to see if it is rational (supported by evidence) or irrational (not supported by evidence). Here are some questions to ask yourself.

o   What evidence exists to support my anger in this situation?

o   What past events might be contributing to how I’m feeling?

o   What might be my spouse’s viewpoint on this issue?

o   Do my spouse’s past actions match how I interpreted his or recent behavior, or do they suggest something different?

o   What are some alternative interpretations to this situation?

o   Have I unfairly judged my spouse by assuming I know what he or she is thinking?

After careful evaluation, you may realize that your interpretation of the situation really is the correct one and your feelings of anger are justified. But sometimes you will discover that your anger is irrational because you have been operating from false assumptions about the triggering event. As LuAnn thought about Joel’s comment, she wondered if she had misread his response. He had never criticized her before when the house was in disarray. Joel confirmed her evaluation when he walked into the family room after changing clothes and said, “Looks like everybody had a hard day today, including me. So I’m treating everyone to pizza. Who’s ready to go?”

4. Replace inaccurate self-talk with accurate self-talk. Whenever you discover that your anger is the result of a misperception of the triggering event, backtrack and talk yourself through the correct view of what happened. You’ll be surprised at how your anger evaporates. Even before LuAnn and Joel left for the restaurant, she had adjusted her self-talk: Joel was sounding a little down when he got home because he had a rough day at work. He wasn’t displeased with me; he was empathizing with me over my hard day. LuAnn, Joel, and the kids had a great evening together.

I love what the apostle Paul says in Romans 12:2, “ Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” Don’t give in to the automatic self-talk that races through your head. Challenge your thoughts. Take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ (see 2 Corinthians 10:5).

Our self-talk is part of who we are. We need to understand those messages and challenge them so we control our anger instead of being controlled by it.