We all have an inner dialogue, and if it’s a positive one it can guide us and motivate us. But where does it come from, and what if it’s not positive or useful?
Lev Vygotsky was a Russian educational psychologist who developed an influential, if still controversial, view of the relationship between speech, language, and thought in the development of young children. He had two major beliefs about our inner dialogue. The first was that “private speech”, the conversation that we have with ourselves, acts as self-guidance, and as way for the child to develop their “theory of mind” about others and their social skills.
Vygotsky also believed that our inner dialogue was internalised private speech. For Vygotsky children can only think out loud because they haven’t yet developed the skill of internalising their private speech. Studies have shown that children raised in more stimulating environments both start using private speech and internalising it sooner than children from less stimulating environments. Due to the close correlation between socio economic status and the level of stimulation there is also a close relationship between social background and the development of inner dialogue.
He also believed that our internal dialogue moved away in form from our spoken language, becoming more compressed, and unintelligible to others. This has some resonance with the idea of Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs) and how we can assess situations and their outcomes without being consciously aware of it.
So, contrary to what some people who come to see me fear, inner dialogue isn’t the same as hearing voices or a sign of mental illness. In fact it’s vital to us developing as social animals and learning to marshal our thoughts and plan our actions. This doesn’t mean that our internal dialogue is always useful or helpful.
After the figure of a Soviet psychologist in between-the-wars Russia our other theorist couldn’t be much more of a contrast – Timothy Gallwey, the ex-captain of Harvard University Tennis Team.
It was whilst playing in tennis tournaments that Gallwey became aware of how his inner dialogue wasn’t actually helping him. What he did was to look at conversation and ask himself “In the statement “You know that you can do this” which part of me is talking, and which part is being talked to?”
Answering this question led Gallwey to develop the idea of Self 1 and Self 2. Specifically in the case of tennis Self 1 is the conscious self that has all of the technical knowledge, and is constantly shouting advice and criticism. Self 2 on the other hand is the unconscious and the subconscious; it’s your proprioception and your muscle memory. In the example Self 2 has all of the abilities to play tennis well, but the constant interference by the conscious self prevents it from reaching its potential.
Gallwey actually stated this in the formula Performance = potential – interference. In this way improving performance requires either increasing the potential (through training Self 2) or reducing interference (reducing the unwanted input from Self 1).
In this version of inner dialogue Self 1 and Self 2 rarely if ever agree. What Gallwey worked on were techniques, at first with tennis, then sport, and then business performance, that allowed Self 1 to quieten down and Self 2 to demonstrate its full potential. In this model errors and mistakes are generated in by Self 1 before Self 2 can execute them. The aim then is to free the mind, especially from anxiety, self-doubt, over-thinking, trying too hard, etc.
Those who have passed their driving test will recognise perhaps their Self 1 and Self 2 from when they were learning to drive. Told at the time they started that driving would become a largely non-conscious act might have been greeted with derision – but look now at the ability to drive and to let Self 2 perform that activity safely.
It’s trusting Self 2, no matter what the context, that makes all the difference about inner dialogue. Instead of being a catalogue of criticisms and suggestions it turns into a quietly positive and supportive presence.
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