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Over the years, several clients told me that they heard my voice in their head when facing challenging situations. They said that my voice was there to remind them of the things we spoke about during our coaching sessions. Some said they heard questions to help them reframe situations, to see things in a new light. Others said it was there to remind them of their goals, which sometimes tend to get lost in the hurly burly of life. It seems our coaching not only echoed in their minds, it had a voice of its own!

Interior monologues and dialogues

With the exception of masters of meditation and yoga, all of us are in constant conversation with ourselves. For much of the day, and especially when we are not fully absorbed in some activity, we are engaged in an internal monologue in which we plan, analyze, reminisce, worry, debate, mull, lecture, and generally go on about things important, irrelevant and  mundane. I find that as I’ve grown older, my interior monologue often escapes the confines of my head; like many people, I talk as I putter around alone in my house.

We become especially aware of our inner monologues when we engage in contemplative practices like mediation or yoga. When we practice mindfulness the goal is to stop, slow down, and pay close attention to some “object” of concentration, like the breath or the body and its sensations. In those moments, we become particularly aware of how much is going on in our minds and how difficult it is to stay focused. Jack Kornfield has likened the practice to training a puppy. You put the puppy down on a blanket and tell it to “stay.” The puppy sits for a moment and then wanders off. Often we are so absorbed in some inner monologue that we are unaware that the puppy has left the blanket. When we become mindful of the puppy’s wanderings, we bring it back, telling it to “stay!” And once again, the puppy, being a puppy, sees something interesting and off it goes. The process repeats itself over and over again.

When we sit with our puppy minds, we begin to see that our mind really has a mind of its own. And often, it’s not alone in there. For some people, self-talk is carried out in a single internal voice. But for others, their internal chatterer is often joined by distinct voices that add their commentary to the mix. These voices, unlike those heard by people suffering from rare forms of mental illness, are not uncommon, and we know that they are not “real.” They are part of the narrative of our selves.

Replacing nasty characters with empowering self-talk

For many Type-A high-achievers, the kind of people I commonly come to know as a career coach, The Critic seems to be prominent part of their inner dialogue. Although we tend to associate “critic” with something negative—disapproval or faultfinding—The Critic can be very helpful. The point of criticism, after all, is to evaluate the worth of something. In this, criticism can help us do better, to improve upon what we have done. But of course, The Critic can be highly destructive, seemingly finding fault with everything we do, inducing shame and low self-esteem. The Critic becomes especially nasty when it begins to evaluate the worth of yourself rather than gently and lovingly considering the quality of your efforts and their outcomes.

Other nasty and unwanted characters appear in our inner narrative. I’ve met more than a few people who have a Chicken Little upstairs, for whom the sky is always about to fall. For those people unlucky enough to have one, domineering parents often team up with The Critic to bring their unhelpful commentary to bear on the ups and downs of one’s life. I’m sure there are all kinds of idiosyncratic voices out there that are custom made to make individuals unhappy.

Dr. Jill Weber suggests that positive self-talk is very helpful when we are attempting to make changes in our lives.  She advocates that we “harness an internal complementer” and an “internal motivator” to boost self-esteem, self-confidence, and “take the sting out of the criticizer.” If it helps, you can consciously invite a beneficent person in your life to join your inner dialogue. You can conjure up their voice to deliver kind words to help you through stressful times or to drown out other unhelpful self-talk, in whichever guise it takes. You could imagine the voice of a parent or grandparent, a mentor or teacher, or even a career coach! It might be fun to imagine a kindly celebrity passing along helpful reminders of the goals we have set. And if you find Dr. Weber’s advice helpful, who wouldn’t want a compliment from Angela Bassett now and again!

Paying attention to and changing our self-talk can be very helpful steps you can take on your own get your life and career moving in the right direction. But if you find yourself really stuck, a career coach can help you to reframe situations and to look at things from a different perspective. Often you already have the answers within yourself, and often a coach can help you find it.

Have you had experiences with unhelpful self-talk, in your voice or someone else’s? If so, what has worked for you to move away from this habit? I would love to hear your stories!