What Am I Saying to Myself?

December 8, 2023

Our minds are busy places (okay, busy is an understatement!). For those of us lacking Buddha-like mental discipline, it’s pretty much a ceaseless flow of words and images moving across our internal screen 24/7. Now some of this thinking falls into what you might call the neutral category–grocery lists, logistics, planning. It doesn't carry much weight or elicit any particular emotional response in us. But there's another brand of thought that does have emotional impact. It’s what I call self-messaging. Self-messages are those things we say to ourselves or picture that create or enhance either a positive or negative feeling (across a wide spectrum of course). 

Most of us are sending ourselves these verbal or visual notices all day, every day. And they tend to emerge around some pretty consistent themes–informed by any number of factors. We often hear this internal dialogue referred to as self-talk, and for the purposes of this post, I'll call our visual thinking, mental images.


Self-talk can come in the form of a phrase, a string of statements, a command or even a full-on conversation with ourselves, internally or aloud. Whatever the form, it is usually doing one of two things: helping or hurting us.

But how much time do we spend reflecting on what we say to ourselves? Usually, not much. Not nearly as much as we spend thinking about what we say to other people, and what they say to us (big one, this!). But outside of our biology, our self-talk is probably the greatest determining factor in our emotional state at any given time.

In 2005, the National Science Foundation published an article summarizing research on human thoughts per day. It was found that the average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day of which 80% were negative, and 95% were exactly the same thoughts as the day before. Now imagine if you were saying those 12-60 thousand negative thoughts aloud–how scary would that be??

Think about how many times you started to feel rotten and couldn’t figure out why. If you could trace your emotions back to their source, you’d likely find a negative self-message (or five!) in there somewhere. But with everything typically going on in our heads at any given time, destructive (or even just unhelpful) thoughts often fly under the radar of our conscious awareness. 

Mental Images—the other way we think

Mental images are essentially our thoughts in pictures, whether a static image or active scene. These “pictures” tend to be visual representations of our beliefs, desires, fears, experiences and goals. And they can be both conscious and unconscious. 

According to research using brain imagery, the neurons in our brains interpret our mental images as equivalent to real-life action. No joke. Our subconscious mind literally does not distinguish between images we conjure and images we actually see. In other words, the exact same stress response kicks in when there is real, present danger or if you’re imagining the danger—both flood our bodies with cortisol and adrenaline.


The power of imagery can either help or hurt us, depending on what we’re picturing and how often. When we’re replaying distressing scenes from the past for instance, or anticipating– (movie-style) unfortunate future events, we’re firing up the neural pathways that feed our negative psychological filters. And of course, making ourselves feel crappy in the process. However they emerge, the idea is to diminish or transform them.

With both self-messages and mental images, one thing that can help is taking a purposeful pause, quieting your mind as best you can and seeing if you can tune into that inner voice/picture. In this way you’re teaching yourself to listen, and these regular ‘check-in’s’ will train your mind over time, to notice negative self-messages and images more readily.  



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