5 min read

Self-Talk and Self-Concept by C. James Jensen

 There may be nothing more powerful that affects our behavior and effectiveness than the beliefs and thoughts we create in our minds. The power of the law of belief largely determines the results of our endeavors, positively or negatively.

 As small children we simply speak our thoughts out loud. I remember coming home from work one night and going up to my youngest son to see him before he went to bed. As I approached the door to his room I heard a bunch of chatter and commotion. I assumed he had friends or siblings in his room with him. But when I got to the doorway all I saw was BJ sitting on the floor with his back to me playing with several of his stuffed animals. He was having a grand time, engaged in an enthusiastic and animated conversation. But the voice of each animal was that of my son. He was enjoying a real (to him) life experience with his animal friends.

 As adults we often learn to keep these dialogues internal, though from time to time we may surprise ourselves by blurting thoughts out loud, even when we’re alone. And we have all observed people (especially before cell phones), alone in their cars but apparently involved in expressive conversations with themselves.

 When we talk with others we concurrently experience a streaming internal dialogue interpreting what the other person is saying and prepare our response while still “listening” to the person doing the talking. The most powerful dialogues, however, are those we have with ourselves when we are alone. This is the dialogue, or self-talk, of judgments and assessments, where we praise ourselves for something we did well or beat ourselves up for something we did poorly.

 Remember, our conscious mind does all this self-talk, and it is important to become aware that it’s also providing instructions to the subconscious, which in turn affects our actions, decisions, and beliefs—ultimately, our self-concept. As we become more knowing, more consciously aware that our present thoughts and self-talk determine our future, we can choose to more carefully monitor our minds to help us eliminate or change those thoughts that no longer serve us well.

 We did not enter the world with a self-concept, nor did we have opinions or attitudes about anything. We may have inherited certain physical features, natural athleticism, a level of intelligence, but we did not inherit thoughts, opinions, or attitudes about anything, at least genetically.

 As small children we are given an incredible amount of data by well-intending parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and so on, about everything. “You are bad if you do this; you are good if you do that; this is right, this is wrong; these people are good, those people are bad; and be careful of those people, they don’t share our religious/ political/national beliefs.”

 By the time we are six years old we have a pretty good opinion of how the world (our world) looks. We have opinions and attitudes about a lot of things, and we have an early-developed self-concept. And although they were not in our genes at birth, we typically “inherit” the views of our parents by simply living in their environment.

 Let’s say Logan does poorly on a math test. Maybe Logan was up late the night before watching television, didn’t remember he had a math test the next day, didn’t do his homework and, therefore, did poorly. The well-intending teacher mentions to Logan’s mother that he is struggling in math (though not that Logan was poor at math). His mother tells Dad that Logan flunked the test. Dad gets mad and in frustration asks Logan why he is so lousy in math. Logan thinks of all the reasons why he must be lousy in math because Dad says he is.

 From this point forward, when asked by his friends or siblings, Logan says, “I’m lousy at math.” As he repeats this to himself with his own self-talk, he begins to form his self-concept: how he views himself relative to math. His self-talk forms his self-concept. His self-concept determines his effectiveness level or performance. As he performs consistent with his self-concept, his self-talk repeats the performance (“Gosh, I got another bad grade on my math test. I sure am terrible at math”) further solidifying Logan’s self-concept that he is “poor at math.”

 The truth is that Logan has all the capacity and natural intelligence in the world to do well in math. He may need some extra tutoring and encouragement, but once Logan begins to develop a negative opinion or attitude about his math skills, he will creatively sabotage any opportunities to get better. His newly formed attitude will cause him to say, “Why should I do my math homework? I’m awful at it anyway.”

 As small children we are very impressionable. We tend to accept at face value the strong opinions given to us by our authority figures. After all, we live in a land of giants. And when Mom, Dad, Ms. or Mr. Math Teacher, English Teacher, or Coach tell us firmly how we are good or bad at something, it strongly impacts our forming self-concepts. In some cases, one of these influencers even piles on with a comment like, “You know Logan, you’re just like your brother. He was lousy at math also!” exacerbating both Logan’s negative self-concept and their own frustration. Pretty soon Logan is laying awake at night saying to himself, “I wish I wasn’t so lousy at math, but I guess that’s just the way I am.”

 By the time we reach adulthood we have pretty firm opinions about what we do well, and do badly, what we like and don’t like, what kinds of people we like to be around and what kinds we try to avoid, and so on. We believe this is simply the way we are and are always going to be. In essence, we become prisoners of our own data, because we erroneously accept it as fact. Since most of us have never been taught how to make constructive changes in our behavior, we proceed with life as if on autopilot.

 In my own life, understanding how self-concept develops has made my wife and I better parents. We learned to catch our children doing things well, reinforcing behavior we were happy to see, rather than catching them doing things wrong. Scolding was no longer an option, but genuine praise was welcomed and appreciated. As Dr. Phil says, “It takes a thousand “Atta-boys!” to erase one “You’re an idiot.’”

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