Episode 18

Welcome to No Word Is An Island Advanced English, The podcast for curious, thoughtful, creative and beautiful advanced English learners like you. Remember to make the most of this episode. Use the interactive transcript and Quizlet sets for self-study available at BetterLanguageLearning.com/podcast. 

Now in today’s episode I’m going to be talking about the concept of self-talk. That is, that inner voice that’s always with us even when we’re all alone – especially when we’re all alone. I’ll give you an example. At the end of a day of work, I head home. I’m on the subway and I start thinking about the class I’ve just taught. And here’s what I say to myself. “Wow, Sean, that class was sheer genius from beginning to end, everyone was engaged. Your explanations were thorough and original.” 

No, that is not my self-talk. And it’s not, probably, your self-talk either. Unless you’re Donald Trump. The fact is, most of us subject ourselves to pretty harsh criticism. We don’t tend to congratulate ourselves for the things we’ve done well. We tend to focus on the negative and there are probably good evolutionary reasons for doing so, but today I want to talk about ways of keeping this in check, that is keeping it under control. 

Are ANTS making you miserable? (No, not that kind!)

Someone who I look up to immensely is Doctor Daniel Amen. He’s a psychiatrist. He works with brain scans. He’s got a group of clinics in the US and he’s got a fantastic Instagram account where he shows different brains and the effects of different behaviours on brains. (@doc_amen) And the reason I recommend this account is it’s very vivid, it’s very visual and it illustrates the concept of neuroplasticity, which is basically a fancy word for saying that the brain physically adapts, it changes based on our behaviour, things that we do, especially repetitively, including things that we think repetitively and one concept that Doctor Daniel Amen talks a lot about are automatic negative thoughts. So it’s this kind of, when we criticise ourselves, but it’s not really careful, reasonable criticism. It’s just a reflex to criticise ourselves and they come out of nowhere and they’re not really… it’s not really clear where they come from. He calls these automatic negative thoughts ANTS for short.

And the idea is that we should be aware of them so that they don’t take over our thinking. 

So these concepts of ANTS [and] neuroplasticity, when I bring this up with my students who are, for the most part, university students in their 20s, they become a bit suspicious when people use these pseudo-psychological terms or what sounds to them like pseudo-psychological terms as they sound like psychobabble. Psychobabble is language that sounds scientific. It’s a kind of pseudo-scientific language that some people use to gain credibility. And it’s good, I think, that my students are not gullible. They won’t believe anything you tell them. They’re very sceptical, but I think you can be too wary too. We should be on our guard against oversimplifying complex ideas, and there’s a huge risk of that nowadays in social media, however, we also should be open to new ideas, so please hear me out today. Try out what I suggest, and then reach a conclusion.

 So automatic negative thoughts. This self-talk which tends to the negative. 

Why should we care? Some people would say it’s good to be critical. It allows us to improve. fair enough. However, often, if negative thoughts – that negative voice in your mind that we all have – if it spurs us on to act, if it prompts us to change our behaviour to do things differently in future, then indeed it is serving us well. When it becomes a problem is when we tend to ruminate.

Ruminate is a fascinating word. It comes from the Latin “ruminare”, to chew the cud and by analogy, turn over in the mind, from the word room “rumen” (throat). So a cow chews the cud, it’s when it’s chewing the grass that it feeds on and cows need to chew a lot because of their digestive system. Basically a lot of the digestion happens in their mouths, not in their stomachs, and so that’s why cows need to chew the cud and you see them over and over taking their sweet time chewing the grass that they’re eating. 

There’s this interesting metaphor, the idea of the way that cows eat their food and then, by extension we use this to talk about how we think. And it’s the idea of, the thought is like the card that the grass that is being chewed in our mind over and over. But, whereas rumination when it’s in a cow is something good, it allows it to feed itself, in humans the idea of rumination is to turn something negative over and over in our mind in an unhelpful way. In the sense that we get stuck in a loop. 

Rumination is a problem for a lot of people because it’s hard to get out of and this is why today’s podcast is so important, because when we allow these automatic negative thoughts to become a constant feature of our internal mental life, well, that undermines our confidence. It slowly erodes our confidence. We slowly lose our confidence. 

Leave the ruminating to cows.

I’m going to talk about a couple of techniques today to deal with this. Basically it’s not identifying with our thoughts, remembering that these thoughts that pop into our head, they’re not actually us, and we need to be better at questioning them and making light of them. If they’re very negative, keeping perspective, so I’m going to talk about three techniques to do so. 

First of all, it sounds silly, but it’s worth giving a try. Give that negative voice in your head a name. So think of it as a character in a movie. I mean, it would be a pretty awful character if we think about all the things that we tell ourselves, and I was thinking about a character from a well-known TV show like Sesame Street. Do you remember Oscar the Grouch, the green monster who lives in a garbage can and pops his head out just to be rude to everyone around? Think of your negative voice like Oscar the Grouch.  You don’t have to call him Oscar or her Oscar, but find a name. And when you catch yourself getting stuck in a loop of telling yourself you’re not enough, that you’re not good enough, etc. Respond to that as if it were a voice outside some jerk. Like think of a neighbour or someone. If someone mistreated you in the street, you would talk back to them. Talk back to that undermining voice in your head. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s worth giving it a try. So, also I think the name should be funny. So Oscar or I don’t know if it’s a woman, Gertrude, and if your name is Gertrude, my apologies. Don’t take offence, it’s just find a name that you find that is silly, funny. 

Another way of distancing ourselves from our thoughts is to talk to ourselves in a third person, and this is often not so much about necessarily dealing with negative thoughts. But if we want to kind of coach ourselves, talk to ourselves to encourage ourselves and be more positive in that inner dialogue or monologue. Talk to yourself in the third person. So in my case, the next time I’m going home after a class and I’m thinking about all the bad things that I did that day, or things that I did wrong, coaching myself and saying “Sean, No one is perfect. Why don’t you think about the things you can do better next time.” and so on. 

Talk to yourself in the third person. Give it a try. There is research into this. It’s the idea of distancing yourself from your thoughts. It’s almost like creating a dialogue within yourself when you don’t have someone nearby to help you vent and get over things. And the third point is something I learned about yesterday while listening to one of my favourite podcasts called Modern Wisdom. And the episode was How to Improve Your Inner Voice (episode 477). And this was an interview with a professor called Ethan Cross. He’s a professor at the University of Michigan Psychology Department, and he’s a director of the Emotion and Self Control Laboratory. Who knew there was such a thing? 

Yeah, so Professor Ethan Cross suggests, he mentioned that there’s research into people using a foreign language that they speak to change their self-talk. So apparently when we speak a foreign language… it’s less emotionally charged. And we often think of this as a negative thing, but we can actually make this an advantage if you’re talking to yourself and you’re getting worked up about something, try coaching yourself. 

Using English if English isn’t your mother tongue, try speaking to yourself in English and you can combine this with the second tip, which is speak to yourself in the third person so you can call yourself by your name as if you were another person and speak to yourself in English and try to coach yourself through the situation and talk to yourself as if you were a friend of yours. This is a well-known technique. Now, like I said before, I understand your scepticism. But try to keep an open mind. Try it out. 

I would love to hear from you and find out if you found any of this useful and if anything, just raising awareness about the dangers of rumination and automatic negative thoughts. Doctor Amen talks about killing your automatic negative thoughts. I think that’s going too far. I think in moderation our negative thoughts are essential for survival, and in fact in the modern wisdom episode, they talk about a woman who had crippling negative self-talk and she had a part of her brain disabled. I can’t remember if it was by accident or if it was because of an operation and it was very interesting. They talked about how initially she felt euphoric. She felt incredibly happy after this and it’s kind of like that expression in English that we have. Ignorance is bliss. So when you’re not aware of things you’re incredibly happy. So initially the fact that her negative self-talk went silent. It was a reprieve. It was a chance for her to have a breather and relax, but apparently, ultimately it made it difficult for her to operate in life and made all kinds of thinking that we need to survive impossible. So it was an interesting reminder that negativity isn’t a problem. It’s when it goes unchecked

Try out these techniques and listen to the Modern Wisdom episode. It’s worth listening to. And before we go, I’m going to go over today’s vocabulary, just a quick reminder that you’ll find this vocabulary in the form of Quizlet sets, that is electronic flashcards, at BetterLanguageLearning.com/podcast. So without further ado, here is today’s vocabulary.

Vocabulary Summary

subject someone to somethingforce someone or something to experience something very unpleasant, especially over a long time
harshsevere, cruel or unkind, (criticism, treatment, punishment)
psychobabbleinformal, language that sounds scientific but is not really, that some people use when talking about their emotional problems – used to show disapproval
spur you on make you try harder to do something
ruminatekeep thinking about something that worries or upsets you
underminegradually make someone or something less strong or effective
undermine your confidencegradually make you less confident
keep something in checkkeep something under control
make light of somethingjoke about something or treat it as not being very serious, especially when it is important
warysomeone who is wary is careful because they think something might be dangerous or harmful
gullibletoo ready to believe what other people tell you, so that you are easily tricked
hear someone out (often used in the imperative "Hear me out!"listen to all of what someone wants to tell you without interrupting them and take it into consideration
fair enoughused to say that you agree with someone’s suggestion or that something seems reasonable

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