“We should probably go out now,” I say to Danny as I vegetate in front of the TV. “Yeah, we should, but I can’t be arsed,” Danny replies, sitting in an identical pose. “C’mon, we need the exercise; can’t sit here all day,” I insist. “Well, we can ’cause that’s what we did yesterday and the day before,” he answers. “Exactly! That’s why we have to go. C’mon!” I yell. “God! Fine, then!” he shouts back.
So we get up from our pit and head into the crisp morning air for a much needed dose of fresh air and exercise. Only there is no we. There’s only me. I’ve had a shouting match with myself pretty much every day since Covid came along and changed everything.
At the start of 2020, I embarked on a month-long quest to find meaningful conversations with strangers. Crippling social anxiety, introversion and sloth had kept me in a depressing bubble of loneliness and self-imposed exclusion; I wondered whether random chats with people might burst that bubble and open up a new world of social discovery. It did. After overcoming my initial shyness, I opened my gob and started chatting. By the end of the month, I was on first-name terms with the local shopkeeper I had avoided even eye contact with for more than a year; the barber’s was no longer a place I went to have silent staring matches with my reflection; and I even learned some of the names of my flatmates.
Then I got evicted from my flat in east London. My landlord, who had packed 13 tenants into a family home, lost his Houses in Multiple Occupation licence and we all had to find new digs. I moved to another part of London, with new people, and had to start the process of resocialisation all over again.
Then the pandemic hit. I was isolated and lonely, with only myself for company. I have always talked to myself, usually only a few words of encouragement as I rise in the morning, or when I’m trying to navigate through a dense brain fog, but in lockdown the only person I was guaranteed to speak to every day was me. The problem with this is I know everything about me; me got boring fast, so I began to argue with me. And I always lost.
Do I need help? Not particularly, says Paloma Mari-Beffa, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Bangor. She says that most of us talk to ourselves, silently, all the time – “and by ‘all the time’ I mean even when you sleep”, she says. Come to think of it, when I have paid attention to my resting thoughts I realise that I can’t claim authorship over any of them. Words, sounds and images just appear from nowhere, then dissolve into nothingness like a shooting star; there and then gone.
“The brain is always active,” says Mari-Beffa. “It is always generating images or words.” If we are always in conversation with ourselves, why don’t we all talk out loud? The answer, says Mari-Beffa, is down to the two sides of the brain: one that is chaotic and random and one that is orderly and in control. “When you talk out loud, it’s not random – you organise it, you control it, you give it shape. When people are under extreme stress, or suffering with mental illness, both networks can be active at the same time.” This phenomenon could explain conditions such as Tourette syndrome and schizophrenia, where the subconscious chaotic mind is encroaching on the more ordered conscious mind.
Controlled self-talk, however, can have enormous benefits. In 2012, Mari-Beffa conducted an experiment that asked 28 participants to read a series of instructions either silently or out loud. The group that read out loud showed higher levels of concentration and performance on the tasks they were given. Another study, from the University of Michigan, found that self-talk can increase self-esteem, improve confidence and help us overcome difficult challenges. The paper, published in 2014, said that those who referred to themselves with second- and third-person pronouns managed their thoughts better than those who spoke in the first person.
I feel slightly better about myself, but the kind of self-talk these studies point to – helping people keep on track with assignments, for example – sound like the innocuous words of encouragement I used to say to myself before the pandemic, not the kinds of internal rows I have with myself now.
Chris Gilham (not his real name), a 23-year-old IT student from Washington DC, started talking to himself out loud when the pandemic hit. Before lockdown, he used to socialise in coffee shops with his friends from college; now he spends most of his time alone. He says face masks have helped: on the rare occasions he visits his local grocery store, he can talk to himself under his breath and nobody can see his lips moving. Gilham suffers with anxiety and says the self-talk helps him slow down his “constant train of thought … It helps with processing something,” he says. “If I’m reading a textbook, rephrasing it out loud really helps.” Still, Gilham isn’t having full-blown shouting matches with himself in front of a mirror like I am.
“Do you have a partner who can be on the opposite side of you when you’re having an argument?” asks the clinical psychologist Dr Carla Manly over the phone from her office in California.
“No, I live on my own,” I say.
“There’s why,” she says. “Because we all want to have – inherently, if we’re wise – someone to have a discussion with.” I’ve spent most of lockdown writing a book, I tell her, and she says I’m probably talking to myself because I’m missing an alternative point of view, someone to contradict the ideas I have, especially when writing.
We watch kids at home “talking to the Tonka truck or at the Barbie doll and we call it child’s play,” she says. “But somehow we are supposed to lose that as adults. I don’t believe that we need to.” She explains that self-talk can become a problem if you do it so much that it disturbs someone you’re living with, but otherwise it really depends on what you’re saying to yourself. “It’s really about: is it appropriate for the situation? Is it disrupting any relationships, be it at home, work or otherwise? Is it within your control? Does what you’re saying make sense?”
Manly exchanges only a few words with herself now and again, but she does chat with her dog. “Someone from the outside might say: ‘Does she really think the dog is understanding her? She’s insane.’ I’m not, because I know that I’m doing it.”
So, I’m saner than I thought I was – I just need a friend to argue with. Maybe Monty Python were on to something when they created the argument clinic, for users to pay and have a row with someone. “No they weren’t,” Danny says. “Yes, they were,” I say. “Nonsense,” Danny says. I think I just like the sound of my own voice. “Now, that’s something we can agree on,” says Danny.