Talking to yourself is an art. I don’t mean the “oh, Jesus Christ!” you exclaim aloud as you stumble out of bed forty minutes after your alarm went off, or the “I am a terrible person who deserves nothing but misery” following the consumption of an entire Terry’s Chocolate orange (what is it about those things? They must put crack in them or something). I mean the more constant, background voice you use on yourself.
The voice you consult when you’re not sure if you can or should do something. What you say to yourself as you walk away from a difficult situation. The way you check in with yourself on Monday morning when your to-do list is the length of Finnegans Wake. The tone with which you narrate your own life, basically (more David Attenborough, less Brian Blessed would be my advice).
Until you’re about 12 or 13, that voice comes from your parents, or whoever you live with. Your sense of right and wrong, what you should and shouldn’t do, what you’re good and bad at – generally it comes from your family. But then you get whipped up into the maelstrom of the teenage years, hormones rewiring your brain and body like a team of electricians gone rogue. Your friends’ voices get a fraction louder, your teachers have a stronger influence than they used to, and chances are, there’ll be a first boyfriend or girlfriend offering up another perspective on who you might be.
And you absorb everything you’re told about yourself, because that’s what growing up is for: finding out who you are on your own terms. If you’re not sure who and what you want to be – because who is at 14, 17, 20, 28? – the quickest way to start exploring that is to establish what others see when they look at you.
But other people can be careless. The friend who says, “you fancy him? Mate, I think you’re a bit too… niche for his tastes” (actually happened – no, really, I’m over it, and it has in no way affected how I feel when I fancy someone. I’m fine). The teacher who tells you you’ll never achieve the thing you want most in the world. The crush who rejects you not kindly, but clumsily or worse, cruelly. The teenage years are such a wild, uncertain time largely because you’re trying to figure out what your voice might sound like amidst this absolute fucking cacophony.
Throughout your twenties, it’s lovers, colleagues and bosses whose words form a large part of your inner lexicon. You might start to define yourself as a supportive girlfriend, the office cynic, or the team’s shoulder to cry on. Or maybe someone unkind calls you a crap shag, or too fiery, or not driven enough. It all hits home, and some of it will work its way into the grammar of your internal language. Sometimes, you get thrown an absolute jewel – the manager who told me, when I was floundering in a fairly new role, that she saw me “as a bit of an original” and that I was free to crack on and do things my way. What a gift that was; what an incredible vote of confidence. It was like being granted permission to just be.
Sooner or later, though, you realise that it’s what you have to say to yourself that matters most. Because you need to be on your own side. When I started running a few years ago*, I realised very quickly that berating myself for not being good enough straight away wasn’t going to help me get better. I had to be my own cheerleader, my own best friend – if only when slogging round the pavements of Horsham. But once you can be friends with yourself in one situation, you start to wonder if you can do it elsewhere in life.
*I don’t actually run at all at the moment, except after Noodle when he steals another dog’s ball.
So when it feels like all you hold dear is about to fall into a sinkhole, you need to start your day by saying gently, “are we OK, kid?” and not, “God, what the fuck I am even doing?” When you’re getting stuck into something challenging, you need to be able to say, “I’ve got this”. When you have a heart-breaking decision to make, you need more than anything a voice reminding you that you will get through it. And the closest and most dependable voice is your own. You can’t escape your own head; you might as well try and make it as forgiving a place it can possibly be.
It takes years of real, hard, consistent practice to learn this. To talk to yourself in a way that encourages and soothes as necessary, rather than scratches and picks and chips away at whatever sense of self is there. It’s a lesson in content curation, more than anything: of all the voices you’ve heard, of all the people who’ve told you who you might be, who do you listen to? And how do you work their words in with your own?
Your family, loved ones and friends can only give you so much – the longest conversation you’re ever going to have is the one you have with yourself. Make it a kind one; it’s the least you deserve.