It’s the last stretch of a marathon. You’ve run a Herculean distance and even though you’ve trained for this moment, the wall has you unprepared. If you take another step you’re reasonably certain you’re going to have a heart attack. You know you look a mess, face flushed and sweat sticking to you; every muscle of your body feels like an unearthly combination of jelly and lead. About to collapse, you start thinking: “c’mon – you can do it, just one foot in front of the other, not much farther to go, you’ve got this!”
This is just a moment. It might be the last stretch of a marathon, a first date, or the moment before you take the stage: the experience of extreme adrenaline or duress. For many of us, these moments are when the internal monologue kicks into full gear. More formally, this is known as self-talk. In the article “If People with Down Syndrome Ruled the World” (found on the NADS site),
It is a wonderful means to ponder ideas and to think out loud. It allows people to review events that occurred in the course of their day. It allows people to solve problems by talking themselves through tasks. It allows them to plan for future situations. It is also helpful in allowing people to express feelings and frustrations, particularly if they have difficulty expressing their feelings to others.
When you look up self talk on the Psychology Today website, most articles remind readers to keep track of their negative self talk and curb it as much as possible, while maintaining a steady stream of positive self assurances. This is especially important for people who don’t voice their opinions or feelings. This voice, the one giving me instructions and constructive criticism and encouragement, really only gets heard during times like this, when no one else is around to provide the positive conviction that I can get through whatever hurdle I’m facing.
For my sister Sam, who has Down Syndrome, almost every moment presents some kind of challenge. There aren’t any singular instances of her self-talk that stand out to me, because Sam runs a mental marathon every time the world demands her to be spontaneous. I witness how hard she is on herself when I hear snippets of her running commentary, which usually consist of phrases like “only take one” or “okay, just take it slow.”
Not that she wants me to hear her self-talk: on her part, it’s either involuntary or in the supposed privacy of the car or hallway. But it’s difficult not to hear her; while my monologue is internal, Sam needs to talk it out in a very literal sense.
I hear Sam self-talk herself through acts as simple as ladling soup into a bowl—things she’s afraid of messing up because she just saw ten people before her do it without a problem. She also stages elaborate complicated soap opera plots on our staircase, acting every part. I wouldn’t consider it talking to imaginary friends so much as writing out loud. If I leave my door open, I’m treated to snippets of surprise pregnancies, kidnappings, magic battles a la the TV show Charmed (one of her obsessions), and of course fighting over boys. Her imagination is as vibrant as it ever was, a trait not many of us can say we’ve honed with age. As I drove her home after seeing the new Star Trek film, Sam commented that she liked the movie because there was so much conflict: “man versus man, like with Jim and the pointy-eared alien guy” and man versus nature “when Jim was running from that monster. That thing was gross.” I nearly drove off the road in shock—but then, I should be used to her insight. I get to hear it every day.
In spite of her silliness, Sam is easily the most sincere person I know. There isn’t a situation she doesn’t take seriously; this might be partly because she wants to be normal, but I contribute it more to her earnestness. Sam both has no choice but to be vulnerable and recognizes the hurt that comes from such openness. She can never keep a lie for very long, even if it gets her in trouble. Maybe it’s because she works through her insecurities so verbally, but it’s hard not to be proud of her struggle. When I’m faced with my next marathon, hopefully my self-talk will sound a little less like me and a little more like my sister.