How Your “Inner Voice” Shapes Your Ability To Be Resilient When You Feel Left Out Socially

Woman smelling flowers in an article on inner-voice and resilience.

The only thing harder than getting my family to church on Sunday morning is knowing what to do with myself when the service is over. As the congregation drifts into the social hall for coffee and donuts, my children go one way and my spouse goes another. I’m left alone, looking from group to group of chatting parishioners wondering if any of them would welcome me? Worrying what I would say if they do, and watching for signs of rejection.  

Many of us with ADHD have social struggles and know what it’s like to feel overlooked or sidelined in social situations. We often have a lifetime of negative experiences, where our efforts to connect with our peers resulted in being ignored, insulted, or abandoned. Even as adults, the pain of rejection (or perceived rejection) can be powerfully discouraging. 

In these social moments when we are feeling insecure, on-the-spot, and unworthy, our “inner critic” is often the loudest voice in our heads. However, with some effort, it is possible to retrain our inner voice so that it helps rather than harms us, encouraging resilience in the face of social slights. 

What is Self-Talk Exactly?

“Self-talk” is a term we use to describe the cognitive experience of communicating with oneself. It can also be referred to as “inner monologue/dialogue,” and neuroscientists tend to prefer the term endophasia. Self-talk can be performed consciously or subconsciously. Everyone experiences self-talk differently, and it can include images and feelings as well as words. 

Positive self-talk can include self-encouragement, motivating visualization, intentional gratitude, cognitive reframing, and affirming personal narrative. 

Negative self-talk can include self-criticism, catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking, personalization, “mind-reading,” and/or other discouraging personal narrative. 

The self-talk we engage in can consciously or unconsciously affect our self-image, as well as our perception of the world around us and how we fit into it (or don’t). 

When facing stressful social situations, particularly those we have had trouble navigating in the past, those of us with ADHD can find ourselves battling our own “inner critic” well before we engage another person. The way our inner voice responds to these challenges can affect how we handle them in the moment, how well we recover from stress or negative experiences, and our potential for growth over time. 

Self-Talk & Resilience

When we talk about resilience in the context of our inner experience, we are usually referring to our ability to adapt to, and recover from, stress, trauma, and other adversity, ultimately learning and growing from those experiences. 

When we are able to rejoin a party after an awkward encounter, rather than hiding in the bathroom for the rest of the evening, we have our resilience to thank. 

Most of the research on the relationship between positive self-talk and resilience is on athletes, but there is reason to believe that, at least for some people, positive self-talk can support the development of resilience in everyday circumstances. (The correlation between negative self-talk and poor resilience is well-established.)

Getting to Know Your Inner Voice

Because it often happens subconsciously, the first step to improving the quality of your  self-talk is learning to hear and identify your inner voice. 

Here are four strategies you can use to tune in to your inner voice:

#1 Practice mindfulness. Take a breath and check in with yourself. Notice the thoughts that may be hovering around your conscious mind. What are you saying to yourself? Remember, not all self-talk is in words! Try to notice any images, memories, or emotions that you may be holding on to.  

#2 Pay attention to the stories you tell about yourself. Sometimes, our self-talk can settle into a pattern of where we are telling a story of ourselves that is limiting or even untrue such as, “I am awkward at parties,” “I am too loud,” or “I am not an attractive person.” 

Challenge your self-talk by asking yourself:

  • What evidence do you have that this story is true? 
  • What facts are out there that support the story in your mind?
  • What else could it be?

#3 Take a step back to notice how you’re speaking to yourself. Try to notice the perspective from which you are speaking to yourself. Does your “inner critic” sound like a second voice in your head, saying things like, “You are terrible at small talk?” If that is the case, try rewording that thought to be a little more kind, such as “I feel self-conscious when I try to make small talk.” 

#4 Zoom out for greater perspective. Conversely, you might also try zooming out your perspective to that of a benevolent third-person narrator. That would sound something like this, “Caroline Maguire has a unique approach to party chitchat!”  Identifying and changing your inner perspective can change your emotional response to the words in your head, which in term can decrease stress and increase resilience.

How to Adjust Your Self-Talk For Greater Resilience

Once you are adept at hearing how you are talking to yourself, you can practice intentionally changing your self-talk to words and images that help, rather than harm.

  1. Truth first. Research has shown that having athletes intentionally repeat affirming statements only improves performance if the athletes actually believe what they are saying. In other words, you can tell yourself “I am a skilled tennis player” a million times, but if you know darn well you can’t return a ball to save your life, that kind of self-talk is not going to improve your doubles score. You make a lot more progress with self-talk you already believe, so in a challenging social situation, find the most generous truth. “I don’t know what to say to people at parties” might be true, but so is “I look fantastic tonight.”
  2. Keep an open mind. Many ADHD brains experience racing thoughts when under stress, and those thoughts are not always helpful. Particularly when a situation reminds us of past trauma, we may tend to engage in “fortune telling” otherwise known as negatively forecasting (“This dinner party is going to be a disaster”) or “mind reading” (“Those women are so well-dressed, they must be judging my outfit.”) Instead of locking into a negative—and entirely invented!—narrative, try keeping your mind open to all possibilities: “This dinner party will be what it’s going to be,” or “Those women are so well-dressed…I wonder where they like to shop?”
  3. Reframe with a growth mindset. By adding context and perspective to our self-talk, we can bring our focus back to our potential and progress. Instead of telling ourselves “You are such a lame wallflower,” we can say, “I used to stay home instead of going to parties. Showing up is progress, even if I do hug the wall most of the time. Maybe tonight I can challenge myself to introduce myself to at least one new person?” In this way, we remind ourselves that, even as adults, we are capable of learning and changing. 
  4. Put the spotlight on your strengths. Our minds tend to magnify what they pay attention to, so in your self-talk, make sure you are spotlighting the good stuff! Here’s a hint: Neurodivergent people tend to keep our greatest strengths right next to our perceived weaknesses, so it doesn’t take much of a shift to change your perspective entirely! Instead of telling yourself, “You talk too much,” shift the spotlight to “I am friendly and engaging!”

Like all personal growth, improving our self-talk and strengthening our resilience takes practice, time, and self-compassion. When we use these skills to bring ourselves out into the world socially, however, the rewards are kindness, connection, and belonging, exactly the motivation I need to take that awkward step to socialize with a stranger next Sunday at church!

If I can help you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

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