Adding purpose to our internal dialogues

By Dr Tatiana Rowson

How our internal conversation drives our behaviour, especially during periods of transitions, has always fascinated me. Understanding this internal process was the main reason I went on to study psychology and trained as a psychotherapist. This is still a featured topic in my teaching and research today, from various perspectives such as psychology, sociology, western and eastern philosophy. This internal conversation process has been referred to as internal deliberations, internal dialogue, self-talk, etc and plays a significant role in the actions we take. Without any intention to cover this subject in detail, I will share some ideas that are worth thinking about, especially if feel you need to boost your agency.

Reality is relative

Our perception of reality is just part of the objective reality. Biologically, we are wired to select what we notice, and we tend to make decisions about what we see based on existing mental frameworks. This is not only quicker, but it is also much less demanding for our brain to cope. If we consider the volume of information we are regularly exposed to, it makes sense that we need these cognitive shortcuts to function properly and to respond to situations more readily. Our mental frameworks derive from our experiences as well as from our culture and upbringing, and experiences may lead us to develop new mental frameworks or edit existing ones. These mental frameworks inform our internal conversations, and at times, trap us in an illusion of reality or logic. This is particularly negative during stressful times when our emotions make breaking away from automatic thinking patterns hard. 

Chicken or egg?

What comes first in the pecking order, social context shapes human agency (and independency of thought) or agency that shapes our place in the world? 

These mental frameworks and therefore the internal conversations are intrinsically linked to our social context. Not only the context we were in when we first formed them, but where we find ourselves now. These narratives are also influenced by our relationship with significant others. How independent we are from our social context or system is a contentious debate. Some authors/disciplines firmly believe that the social system and context determines our thinking and actions, others suggest we can form our narratives independently from the social system (or against the conditioning of the context). The latter view implies that our internal conversations in its deliberations can independently trigger action to change the social context, so it ignites human agency beyond the constraints of the system. 

If you agree with the more deterministic view, the idea of human agency is not as transformative. However, the opposing view, that we can be agents of change, is more optimistic it does not imply that this is an easy task. True agency demands contextual awareness, awareness of our mental frameworks and, above all, the ability to challenge and question our perception of reality (including ourselves). 

Reflect, notice and reflect again

I have no intention to solve the agency vs context puzzle here, although I often talk about this when I am teaching as it is all clear in my head! But I believe that it is worth experimenting with it and try to increase our agency by improving the quality of our internal conversations and by challenging our mental frameworks. You may be expecting a cake recipe now, a top 3 tip or a 7 step model…  This is quite a personal journey, so the number of steps depends on various factors related to self and context. Getting to know yourself, your assumptions, your mental frameworks, and their origins is a good start. Reflection, open inquiry, benign curiosity without a set destination will allow you to learn more about your reality and the assumptions that inform your internal conversations. Journaling, coaching, therapy or even embarking on an MBA can help you to start noticing what is going on in your world. It helps you to gain awareness of yourself, your context, your actions and reactions. It can potentially help you to boost your agency and become more purposeful. There is no perfect time to start, so start now.

What do you notice? What is in your mind right now?

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