Self-talk is an important skill that is commonly discussed as being determined by our psychology. The polyvagal informed understanding provides additional important insights.
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Self-talk is a commonly discussed and an important mind-based skill within the polyvagal informed toolbox. Much of the consideration related to self-talk, however, does not incorporate a polyvagal informed paradigm. Typically, this topic is addressed by performance psychologists and experts within similar domains. The frequent conceptualization is that of the narrative or content that exists within our minds and the resulting impact that the running commentary has on our mindset and, therefore, our ability to be at our best. Ideally, self-talk should include an optimistic narrative that promotes confidence and self-compassion and is aligned with our passion, philosophy, purpose, and goals. While self-talk in this regard can have a positive impact upon our mindset, it is also possible for the inner dialogue we have to have the opposite effect. If our self-talk becomes negative, judgmental, critical and discordant with our true passion, purpose, philosophy, and goals the resulting impact can be deleterious towards our health, wellbeing, and ability to be at our best.
Within the domain of performance psychology, and related disciplines, there are common recommendations to optimize self-talk in order to enhance the positive effects of the ongoing conversation we all have with ourselves. In addition, there is the discussion of the importance of altering or changing the content of our narrative when it becomes critical, negative, or counter-productive. While, in concept, this suggestion is reasonable, it is often the case that it is extremely difficult in practice. What is the reason for this and, perhaps more importantly, what can we do to adjust our self-talk when necessary?
The focus of this article will be on considering these two questions. Beyond what has already been discussed, the important strategy of optimizing the content of self-talk will not be addressed apart from attempting to ensure that our inner narrative is aligned with that which is of most importance to us and includes an optimistic, self-compassionate outlook. Rather, the focus of this article will be the application of a polyvagal informed perspective to understanding the determinants of the content of self-talk and strategies to improve the tone and nature of the narrative when necessary.
From the outset, it is important to consider the determinants of the specific thoughts which comprise our self-talk. Clearly there is an important contribution from our mind or psychology. However, at least from the polyvagal perspective, this is not the entire understanding. From this paradigm, there is also an important contribution from our body, specifically the physiological state in which we are at the time of the emergence of the content of our self-talk. Past articles have detailed the differences in psychology, thinking, decision making, and mindset associated with each of the three primary polyvagal informed physiological states. It is only reasonable to infer that these characteristics apply equally when we consider the nature of our self-talk. Without this important recognition of the importance of our physiological state in determining our self-talk, we are limited in our ability to alter the content of our narrative.
Most, if not all, of us have regularly experienced how our self-talk can change and vary greatly, even over short periods of time. The manner in which we talk with ourself, the outlook we have, the degree of compassion that exists can all seemingly vary in an instant. If our self-talk were only determined by our psychology, we would expect it to remain more constant. This indicates how we are limited in understanding this experience of variation in self-talk when only considered from a mind-based perspective. If our mind and psychology were the only determinant of our self-talk, then an explanation as to why it can change so drastically and instantaneously remains elusive. When one incorporates the polyvagal perspective and integrates the understanding of the ability of our physiological state to impact the nature of our self-talk, these shifts become more readily understandable and predictable.
In addition, it is important to consider how best to adjust our self-talk when it is not aligned with how we would like to be in a particular moment. The common recommendation from the domain of performance psychology either relates to changing our thoughts or not attaching strongly to negative self-talk. While these suggestions can theoretically be successful, it is often the case that these strategies are insufficient. This is particularly the case when we are more deeply stuck in sympathetic or dorsal vagal states. In such states, it is difficult, if not bordering on impossible, to sufficiently access cognitive skills and executive functioning in order to either change our thoughts or avoid attaching to them. Rather, the polyvagal informed perspective provides the strategy of first implementing skills and strategies to shift the biological state and increase ventral vagal stabilization and then incorporate cognitive skills. Such a strategy is more aligned with our biological processes and reality as it is considerate of the recognition that our physiology is an important contributor to our thoughts and cognitive capacities and that through increased ventral vagal activation, the psychological traits which naturally emerge are more conducive to the optimal self-talk characteristics described above.
The above discussion also informs the manner in which we can utilize self-talk to understand our current biological state. For the reasons already described, the content and tone of our self-talk is an indicator of our biological state. It is important to develop a recognition of the key indicators of each biological state as it manifests in our self-talk. This is similar in application to the manner in which we utilize, for instance, our breathing patterns, muscle tone, posture, and voice to identify our current state. With this information in hand, we are then able to make deliberate decisions to implement appropriate skills and strategies to shift our current state as needed. It is important to also note that our self-talk can also influence our biological state. Our thoughts are a significant determinant of our resulting physiology. For this reason, it is further necessary to be aware of our self-talk and develop the ability to optimize the content of our narrative so as to better influence our biological states.
The fundamental objective of the polyvagal informed Practices of the Healthcare Athlete is the promotion of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. The content and tone of our self-talk is an essential component within the skills and strategies that comprise the polyvagal informed toolbox. Self-talk is both an indicator of biological state as well as a determinant of biological state. While cognitive skills can be utilized to influence self-talk, it is essential to also integrate body-based strategies, particularly when in sympathetic and dorsal vagal states.
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