[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, July 2013]

I’m one of those people who often talks aloud to himself.

This is not abnormal or even a particularly rare behavior.  Psychologists and sociologists alike have long-recognized our inescapably social nature.  So it amazes me how many people are uncomfortable with self dialogue, even if they express it in a lighthearted manner.  We’ve all heard that one joke, which states, “It’s not bad if you talk to yourself, unless you answer yourself.”  And while this is mostly just good-natured ribbing, I’ve found that even the ribbers will often admit they do the same thing.  They’re just a bit better about not getting caught at it.

Interestingly, though, just because you don’t speak aloud doesn’t mean you aren’t still talking to yourself.

The fact is that just as a society is composed of many individuals, so too are individuals carrying a “society within,” an internalization of the social process.  Our thinking is basically an internal dialogue, in which we are both the speaker and the listener.   Sociologist George Herbert Mead observed in the early 20th century that human beings may start out as an individual “I,” but in the act of growing up, we then take on a “Me.” Mead defined the Me as the part we use to look at ourselves through the point of view of our parents and friends.  As we finally achieve adulthood, we develop our “Generalized Other,” that “what would people think” perspective we all keep inside us to guide how we behave.  Once we have other people internalized, we never escape them.  Even when we’re alone.  Have you noticed that when you trip over your own big feet, or you spill something, you get embarrassed about it, even when no one sees you?  That’s because you’re looking at yourself as both the stumbler and the observer.  You’ll even catch this inner-society at work in our language.  When thinking aloud, we’ll say, “So where are WE” on this chore, or “What are we going to do next?”  It captures how we’re carrying around more in our head than just one individual’s opinions.

The experience of the inner dialogue can be both positive and negative.  A psychologist  named Csikszentmihalyi (yes, that’s his real name) published some research in the late 1970s  showing how when we’re alone with our thoughts, we tend toward blueness, to self-doubt.  He described self-reflection as an “aversive” experience.  Perhaps that’s because we tend to use our position relative to others to measure how successfully we’re handling life’s vicissitudes.  When you combine that tendency with the fact that we also carry those others around in our head, looking at ourselves from their perspective…well, it’s only natural for us to become our own worst critics.

On the other hand, it is also our ability to carry a society within that lets cognitive behavioral counseling strategies work.  Particularly “self talk,” in which a person struggling with anxiety or depression is taught to identify which of those clamoring social judgements in the skull are helpful, and which should be ignored.  The goal of self-talk is to get people to use their own internal dialogue to tell themselves the better way to believe about their world.  For example, after a bad day, instead of listening to the judgement, “I’m a failure,” the better thought would be, “I didn’t do that task well today.  But I did other things right.”

The Generalized Other, as powerful and necessary as it is to our humanity, still abides by a principle identified by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius:  “Never forget, that all that is said and written is merely opinion. Just get out of it what you feel to be true.”  That applies just as well, even when the opinions are our own.