Taming Our Inner Dialogue

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Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the self-destructive thoughts we sometimes have that take a toll on our self-worth. Essentially, if we think we’re a good person and have a right to exist, we’ll feel a sense of self-worth. Unfortunately, not everyone has the thoughts necessary to feel that they are worthwhile human beings.

Now, there’s research to show that the thoughts we have about ourselves are indeed important, and that they often take the form of “self-talk,” or inner speech. The study also found that those with more active inner speech processes tend to have more intrusive thoughts.


What are intrusive thoughts? Have you ever found yourself in a “rut” of thinking? You may be working on an important project for work but feel certain that you will fail. While you’re not trying to think bad thoughts, you can’t help it. You find that thoughts such as “You’re not good enough,” “You don’t have what it takes to succeed,” or “You’re going to mess up” intrude on your psyche so that failing the project is all you can think about. It’s not fun to have intrusive thoughts, and they can be pretty pesky.

The study, which was led by researchers in Belgium, Germany, and Sweden, explored which parts of the brain were activated when intrusive thoughts occurred. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers studied the brains of people who habitually experienced intrusive thoughts. They found that participants used the language regions of their brain while intrusive thoughts occurred, suggesting that negative self-talk is just that – a language-based format. Furthermore, the subjects experienced more intrusive thoughts (both through self-report and fMRI imaging) when idle compared to when they were engaged in tasks.

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The results provide compelling evidence that what we tell ourselves deeply affects how we think. It follows that what we tell ourselves affects our view of our own self-worth. Intrusive thoughts can sometimes feel as if they’ve taken on a life of their own, so it’s important to address them as soon as possible.

There are a couple of take-aways from this study. One is that avoiding unstructured time can help keep intrusive thoughts at bay. When we’re happily engaged in a task, we’re less likely to have those icky thoughts creep in. Also, if intrusive thoughts are essentially negative inner speech, then maybe the way to get a handle on them is through consciously positive inner speech. In other words, we can counteract negative self-talk with positive statements. To learn how to do that, read my article on the countering technique.


Kuhn, S., Schmiedek, F., Brose, A., Schott, B. H., Lindenberger, U., & Lovden, M. (2013). The neural representation of intrusive thoughts. Social, Cognitive, & Affective Neuroscience, 8(6), 688-693.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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