In the 2 ½ minute video clip* below, you can view an example of a very elegant and rapid method** for transforming a troublesome response to an inner voice, developed by Mel Davis in the UK. The woman in this video had intense anxiety in a variety of situations in which she said to herself internally, “I can’t do it.” I think you’ll find this rapid change method unique.

Notice that although she is very aware of her feeling shifts, she has no conscious perception or understanding of how they were elicited.

Since most problems are caused by unconscious processing, effective change work must involve changes in the unconscious aspects of our experiencing. Despite this, a great deal of “talk therapy” is directed at developing “insight” or other conscious understandings.

In the video clip I first set the frame that all parts or aspects of ourselves have a positive intent, and then offer her a series of instructions—some verbal, and some nonverbal—directed at changing nonverbal aspects of her experience of the sentence.

Writing what she says to herself on the flip chart transfers the auditory dialogue into a visual experience of the words, which tends to remove the nonverbal tonality.

Changing “can’t” into “can not” changes a constricting modal operator of impossibility into one of possibility and choice—she can always choose to not do it.

I also write her sentence in a way that punctuates it differently, separating it into three pieces: “I can,” “not,” and “do it.”

Finally, I change the tonality of the first piece into a confident statement, the second piece into a rhetorical question, and the third into a command.

All these interventions change nonverbal aspects of her sentence in order to elicit changes in her feeling response to it.


In contrast, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is widely considered the treatment of choice when working with internal dialogue—especially with anxiety or depression—is entirely directed toward the words of an internal voice. CBT identifies and verbally challenges cognitive distortions, such as overgeneralization (“always,” “never”), “shoulds” (modal operators of necessity), either/or polarized thinking, jumping to conclusions, etc. (here’s a more complete list).

CBT has the most research supporting its effectiveness—though that is in the context of multiple sessions, usually ten or more. Some of its most well-known proponents are Aaron Beck, his daughter Judith Beck, and David Burns.

However, the words that someone says to themselves are usually much less emotionally troublesome than the nonverbal elements of how the words are spoken—the tempo, pitch, intonation, accent, pauses, etc. that occur with the spoken word.

A familiar example is that in English a question is indicated by a rising tonality at the end of the sentence, a command has a sinking tonality at the end, and a statement does not shift at the end. If you ask a question with a sinking pitch at the end, it will be responded to as a command. If you make a statement with a rising pitch at the end it will be responded to as a question.

Notice how you feel in response to hearing a hard, screeching, high-pitched voice saying the words, “I love you.” Or try hearing a soft, deep, slow, “smiling” voice saying, “You son of a bitch.” Most people will respond much more strongly to the nonverbal qualities than to the words.

Another example of the importance of the nonverbal is that a fast tempo indicates urgency, while a slow tempo indicates the opposite. This is the basis for Nick Kemp’s method for changing the anxiety created by an internal voice with a fast tempo.***

These nonverbal components often indicate the relationship between the speaker and listener. If an ordinary sentence like, “Please pass the salt” is said in a superior or scornful tone of voice, that tonal quality is what elicits the troublesome emotional response. Most people are usually much less consciously aware of these nonverbal elements, which are largely processed and responded to unconsciously.

Although I have read fairly widely in CBT, and have watched client sessions and videotaped talks by major proponents, I have yet to find any CBT methods that are directed toward eliciting changes in the nonverbal aspects of a troublesome internal voice. If you know of any such CBT interventions, please email me with specific examples or links to examples: andreas [at]


*This video clip is excerpted from an online video training in methods for resolving complex PTSD entitled The PTSD Training.

**There are many more examples of Mel Davis’ method, in chapter 11 of my book Transforming Negative Self-Talk. (Click on the “Look inside the book” feature and sample parts of the book free.)

Norton has recently published a sequel, MORE Transforming Negative Self-Talk. (Again you can click on the “Look inside the book” feature and sample parts of the book free.)

Both books have many additional ways to change nonverbal aspects of an internal self-talk to elicit changes in emotional response very rapidly.

***I had previously used Nick Kemp’s method with the woman in the video clip. Follow-up during the workshop and also some months later verified that she no longer had anxiety in any of the contexts in which she had previously experienced it.

via Steve Andreas’ NLP Blog

Changing Troublesome Self-Talk
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