Wait a minute! What kind of question is that??? Of course, I do. I may never fully trust anyone else, but I am sure of who I am, what I do, and what I want. It’s clear as summertime sunrise.
Or is it?
Aren’t we overestimate the level of trust that we apportion to our very selves? After all, many of us are trapped in recurrent inner dialogues. Those inner dialogues, a form of self-talk, are usually full of explicit verbal thoughts, but sometimes more subliminal and only half-conscious. And these thoughts do not surge in unison. Rather, they typically represent various points of view. It’s as if there were more than one “I” there.
You may hear the voice in your head: “If I do this, then something else will happen”. But then another voice surges with a “different opinion”. And it’s not only opinions. Self-talk can be correcting, reassuring, prospective, censuring, motivating, reflecting, and questioning.
Sometimes it just wouldn’t shut up, keeping us awake at night or distracting us from the task at hand. These inner voices could contend about projects, tasks, risks, pledges, and commitments.
The inner dialogue commonly involves the conative function of language, where one of the two “I-positions” is trying to persuade the other. One side of me makes promises, the other one will take care of excuses when the promises are broken. Alas, when the gap between these two sides grows, the question arises of whether I can really trust myself.
We are all aware of those inner battles, but until recently, science, including psychology, has devoted little to no time to this phenomenon. Developmental academics noted the similarity between speaking and thinking and it is possible that certain types of thoughts do not emerge until the early stages of first language acquisition. We also know that children who grow up without siblings tend to report more frequent self-talk as adults than those who were surrounded by age mates from early childhood.
As we grow up, we also develop another form of inner wordplay. We imagine scenes in which we are engaged in a verbal exchange with someone else and we rehearse the conversation, appearing omniscient of the lines uttered by the interlocutor. It’s as if we could act as a director, producer, the main part, and the supporting role in an act of our imagination.
But the intrapersonal communication in which both actors are different versions of “I” is more interesting here as it involves roles that cannot be confronted with any external test. There will never be a real-life dialogue between the two of you. The only outcome of that inner debate is a “win” by one side or the other, and the action that follows will generate some results, eventually providing us with precious feedback.
Successful learning is possible only if we act upon our environment. Ideally, the learning from our actions should reduce the distance between the opposing inner “I’s” of our mental theater. As their positions get closer, trust begins to emerge.
What kind of trust?
This Self-trust is gradually built from our recognition of who we are. As it grows, the distance between the distinct “I-positions” will begin to shrink. If these respective versions of “I” begin to agree on who we are, there is less reason to argue. This rising conviction of our own value leads to less time spent on rumination, hence less self-criticism.
We usually perceive the moments of the reduced intensity of self-talk as pleasant. This happens, for example, when we are in the flow, when we watch a movie, read a fascinating story, and our imagination is fully occupied by the narrative. Invariably, the heightened attention reduces the ruminative tendency. It appears that increased Self-trust has the same effect: focused calm.
Self-trust is commonly referred to as Self-esteem. High Self-esteem is a critical component of our well-being. How I speak to myself, how I manage this inner dialogue, and how I manage the gap between the various “I-positions” and the viewpoints they represent all affect the way I picture myself.
Many people want to feel more confident, feel good about who they are, trust themselves to make good decisions, be bold, and face new experiences in life. However, some admit being stopped in the tracks by “low Self-esteem”. This is a misunderstanding of what Self-esteem means.
Let’s talk about self-esteem…
Self-esteem is the intrinsic realization of one’s essential dignity. Healthy Self-esteem reflects the fulfillment of basic needs, including inter-personal attachment, autonomy, achievement, and control. Interestingly enough, pleasure-seeking – which is another basic need – is not a common source of Self-esteem. The reason is that instinct to seek pleasure stems from our primitive (limbic) brain, which privileges instantaneous gratification. And speedy satisfaction is not a lasting source of well-being any more than a sugar rush was for our ancestors so keen to identify sweet fruits hanging from the trees.
Strangely, our culture still promotes a sense of worth derived from external sources, those “sweet fruit”. We are led to believe that this level of satisfaction will be compounded by external judgment, by others who will recognize our success in fruit seeking. This focus on external sources of validation fosters “ego-centric” thinking, a common cognitive bias.
Let’s take an example. Ashley originates from a small town in the South. She moved to Atlanta where she joined an exclusive health club. She quickly noticed that most members were successful, rich, and white. She felt that her looks, and her self-perceived “mediocrity” stood out in this, allegedly rarefied environment. She constantly ran comparisons between her apparent lack of success or discipline and the achievements of other club members. She concluded that the social gap between her and “them” was too vast to ever find friends in this crowd. Seeing herself through the gaze of others, her inner dialogue wouldn’t stop beating her up for being “boring”, “disorganized” and “insignificant”.
When I am told that my “value” is derived from the observables – from what I can do, from what I can achieve, or from what I have, I end up evaluating myself through the gaze of others. I obsess about their opinions, or about what I choose to believe their opinions are. The cognitive distortion of Egocentrism becomes contaminated with affective material and, when we focus on other people’s approval, anxiety sets in. It is beyond our control what other people think about us. This loss of control diminishes our sense of self-worth.
The truth is that other peoples’ thoughts – even if we knew them – only reflect what those people’s experiences may be at a certain point in time. Meanwhile, the answer to the question “who I really am” does not fluctuate with the ups and downs of other people’s perceptions. Self-esteem cannot be added to, nor can it be subtracted from other people’s perceptions, thoughts, or opinions – even if I knew what they were.
So how can one grow their Self-esteem? It grows by fulfilling the basic needs of all the Aspects of Being: physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual.
At the physical level
Our Self-esteem grows if our behavior reflects self-care. We care about our body and we treat it with respect, as this unique gift we have. We nourish it, hydrate it, fill it with regenerating substances, move it regularly, strain it in a healthy way, let it rest, clean it and protect it from the elements. When we adhere to these simple rules, we fulfill our need for control and our Self-esteem reacts accordingly. When we don’t, the inner voices begin to fight (“I shouldn’t have eaten that cupcake”).
At the cognitive level
Our Self-esteem will grow if we devote some time to enriching our mental capacity, with new information, capacity, a combination of ideas, and production of value. Our brain has an extraordinary capacity for creativity and each small step provides a sense of achievement – a critical component of Self-esteem.
At the emotional level
we learn to celebrate small wins, congratulate ourselves for sustained efforts, accept others’ compliments and sometimes, when necessary, say “no” to others. This is how we cultivate other basic human needs – a sense of autonomy, attachment, and achievement.
At the spiritual level
We practice virtues that make this world a better place. We can express our gratitude, learn to forgive others, practice generosity, and act with humility and integrity. Integrity in particular, will reduce the gap between the inner voices to next to nothing. We loosen the multiple “I” viewpoints and we become one – vis-à-vis the world and vis-à-vis ourselves.
These new behaviors can be practiced, and you can also use Meditation or Visualization to help with the practice.
That’s what Ashley did when she contacted a life coach. Ashley decided to first focus on acknowledging her accomplishments. In fact, she had a good job and could support herself. She learned to accept compliments by first writing down small praises. She accepted that she may not be as “successful” as some of the high-flying influencers she met at the health club, but instead of obsessing about such comparisons, she decided to take control over her schedule, developing morning and evening routines.
The resulting regularity allowed her to advance on several fronts. There was less space for hesitation, dithering, procrastination, and those recurrent inner dialogues that peppered her mind previously. Her progress filled her with satisfaction and growing Self-esteem.
In Self-trust, we stop chasing to control other people’s thoughts or opinions about us. We gain self-approval because we no longer focus on lack. When we radiate control, autonomy, and achievement, we attract other people and their praise. This is no mystery. Aren’t we too attracted to optimistic, vigorous people and feel repelled by dispirited downers?
It doesn’t mean that the experience of self-talk will fully vanish from our life, at least until we are afflicted by some form of dementia that negatively affects our communicative, and verbal ability.
In fact, inner verbalizations enhance certain cognitive functions, such as memorization. This is helpful whenever the inner chatter is focused on its referential function. For example, if you have just learned the names of some plants and then you recognize one of them in the park, by giving it a name you will have embedded this knowledge, and your universe of recognizable objects expands.
Similarly, if you are learning a foreign language, it is helpful to run silent verbalizations and formulate your thoughts in this new lingo. But you will approach this monologue in a controlled manner, not as a victim of a battle between noisy voices in your head.
Keep this in mind.
When the reference of the inner dialogue is you, what you do or what you do not do, how you are perceived by others (or not), and what you are (allegedly) “worth” in a given context, then the less Self-talk there is, the better.
Your Self-esteem is to recognize your own value as a human being. You treat yourself with benevolence and, over time, the recurrent voices in your head will have little to disagree on.
If you need help to develop self-trust and quiet your inner chatter, consider hiring a life coach!