I spend a lot of time these days talking with clients about how to stop negative self talk.
We discuss what negative self talk is, why it happens, and how to overcome it by tapping into the power of its opposite: positive self talk.
And that’s exactly what I’m going to tackle here.
Because if my client sampling is any indication, negative self talk is a big issue for the majority of us. It’s costing us productivity, efficiency, and joy.
But before we go any further, let’s hit on 2 bits of really good news:
- Overcoming negative self talk can be a hugely powerful force in improving your success at work, in relationships, and in your daily life. It’s not fluffy, feel-good stuff. It’s realign-your-productivity-and-effectiveness stuff. Whether you already know it or not, stopping negative self talk is an attitude-changer, a capability-changer, a game-changer.
- It is not difficult to stop negative self talk! Truly. Sure, it won’t happen overnight. Yes, it does take work. But you’ll start seeing results very fast. And you can get started immediately, with just a few simple tools.
Your first steps in that journey begin here.
First, take a few minutes to read this blog post.
Then, grab the free download that describes 2 big, strong, and defeat-able enemies you’ll need to identify and squash immediately. You’ll find it near the end of this post.
If you’re into listening content, play the audio track at the bottom of this post as well. Listen as I dive into some details on self talk, your 2 enemies, and the gratitude-focused tool described below.
Finally, implement the tools discussed here, and start stopping!
What is self talk?
Self talk is my way of referring to the habitual ways we “talk to ourselves.” It’s that ongoing, internal dialog we have with ourselves all throughout the day, most every day.
Although self talk usually involves no voice at all, for many (if not most) people, it’s the most persistent and ever-present “voice” we hear.
Because of this, our self talk is a huge influence on our attitudes and behaviors.
Positive self talk can help us think positive, recognize possibility, believe in our own ability, and accomplish objectives more efficiently and effectively.
Negative self talk, on the other hand, does just the opposite. It drive us to
- Think negative thoughts
- Deny, downplay, and/or disapprove of our abilities and attributes
- Miss or mess up opportunities for accomplishment
A Self Talk Example
It’s pretty easy to understand the power of self talk when we use examples. So let’s imagine a scenario:
You have a busy week ahead, and you’ve planned your schedule accordingly. You walk into your office on Monday morning with a spring in your step, ready to hit the ground running. But the first thing you see is a stack of papers on your desk.
Shoot. You didn’t quite wrap up that project before the weekend, and now you’re confronted with both a messy desk and an extra hour of work that you hadn’t planned for.
As you’re letting out a sigh, your co-worker arrives with a printed spreadsheet in hand. He explains that you missed some items in a report you filed last week, and the team needs you to update the data and re-submit it by lunchtime in order to meet an important deadline.
When he leaves the room and you approach your desk, that internal monologue kicks in. Let’s imagine 2 different self talk responses.
Self Talk Response #1
“Aarrggghhhh. I am SO disorganized. I can’t believe I did this! I forgot about the loose ends on Friday’s project, and I totally messed up that report. I was probably moving too fast and being careless. Again. I’m terrible with detail. I don’t know why they would ever want to keep me in this job. I mess up all the time and just can’t get my act together. Now my day is ruined. My whole week is probably ruined!”
Be honest. Is this you?
Okay, maybe you’re not this bad. Or maybe you are.
Either way, are you pretty darn hard on yourself? Does a piece of you even believe that by being hard on yourself, you’re making yourself better?
Then I challenge you to move on to the next response and think about how this shift in attitude might lead to a shift in outcome.
Self Talk Response #2
“Okay. 1 mess and 1 mistake. I’ve seen worse Mondays than this! I’m going to pour a hot cup of coffee, shut my door, get focused, and dig in. I’m going to need to work hard and fast, but work carefully too. No problem; I’ve done that before and I’ll do it today. Sure, I didn’t expect to be starting my week this way, but that’s not the end of the world. I’ve got this.”
It’s pretty easy to recognize that the person in Response #2 has a much higher chance of success than the person in Response #1.
In Response #2, you’re already on your way to the coffee pot by the time your internal monologue has finished. Now, you’re formulating a plan. Thinking through that report.
You can almost hear your favorite get-pumped music starting up, can’t you?
In Resposne #1, however, the wallowing has only begun. Your brain is already so clouded with negative thinking that there’s no room to process next steps—let alone actually begin taking them with any effectiveness.
Moreover, you’re convincing yourself of all the reasons you won’t succeed instead of focusing yourself on how you will succeed. So you’re poisoning your chances of success.
Let’s hear a psychiatrist’s take on this phenomenon:
“Your personal perception of reality is determined by the beliefs you hold. This does not necessarily make them real, except for the fact that you believe they are. Your beliefs create and dictate what your attitudes are. Your attitudes create and dictate how you respond—in other words, they dictate your feelings. And your feelings largely determine how you behave.”
– Abigail Brenner, MD, Psychology Today
In many cases, your negative self talk becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: you convince yourself that you’re not good at X, that you can’t accomplish Y, that you’re going to do Z, and so you do (or don’t do) just that.
One final point here:
The person in Response #1 seems to be on track for a pretty awful day.
Despite the fact that our main focus here is on how to stop negative self talk in order to become more effective and productive, let’s point out that at the same time, we all want to lead a happy life.
And it’s pretty clear that negative self talk and happiness are, quite simply, at odds.
I, for one, would be hard pressed to have a great day with the dialog from Response #1 playing on repeat in my brain.
Now that we’ve clarified some of the many compelling reasons to stop negative self talk, you might be wondering why we aren’t all obsessed with kicking this terrible habit to the curb. The answer might lie in where it comes from in the first place.
Where Does Negative Self Talk Come From?
Before you start any negative self talk about your habit of negative self talk, know this: you are NOT alone.
As I said before, if we assume that my clients provide a fairly representative sample, then I’d assert that the majority of us fall into patterns of negative self talk on a regular basis.
And many people are much more extreme, essentially correcting themselves 100% of the time—and never encouraging themselves.
Amazingly, this is even true of people who are naturally wired to be very encouraging of others—those they manage, those in their family, etc. Yet while they’re busy building up everyone around them, they’re simultaneously tearing themselves down with negative self talk.
Why does this happen? There are likely many reasons, but let’s just quickly touch on 3 before we move on:
Attribute-Related Self Talk
Sometimes, negative self talk can be closely tied to our power-alley attributes.
Example: Perfectionists often fall victim to negative self talk because their perfectionism leads them to see anything they do imperfectly as more glaring than the (many) things they do well.
Another example: a high Responsible’s self talk could often be more appropriately dubbed self-blame. “I should have done this better.” “I should have thought of that.” “It was my fault that SoAndSo wasn’t prepared for the meeting.”
If you believe that your natural attributes are fueling your negative self talk, don’t get discouraged! You can easily become a positive self talker, no matter your attributes, because this is a skill, not a natural trait.
In fact, knowing and understanding your own high attributes is half the battle. So you’re already halfway there!
History + Habit
Perhaps in your childhood, people who loved you spent a lot of time correcting you. In doing so, these loved ones convinced you that you were bad at, say, public speaking (I hear this one all the time).
Maybe you had 1 poor performance at school that convinced them of this. (More likely, they themselves had a problem with public speaking, so they created a cloud of negativity around the subject that floated into your own psyche.)
Whatever the reason, you were taught to believe that you were a poor public speaker, even if your natural attribute profile said otherwise.
Then, you developed a habit of following that line of thinking.
Next question: How to break that habit? How to stop negative self talk?
How to Stop Negative Self Talk
Now that we know we want to stop negative self talk—and we understand that we have our work cut out for us—let’s get to the tools you’ll need to turn this boat around.
Tool #1: Recognize Negative Self Talk
In order to stop negative self talk, you first need to recognize when it’s happening.
If you’ve read this far, it’s clear that you’re getting in tune to your own negative self talk, so you’re now much more likely to recognize it when it starts happening. Great!
In addition, as you’re trying to improve, it’s worthwhile to “schedule” some little self-assessments.
Perhaps every evening, before you leave the office, you’ll want to stop for a moment and try to remember whether you went down any negative-self-talk rabbit holes that day.
If you did, simply acknowledge them (don’t scold yourself!). This acknowledgement will help you better recognize that self talk in-the-moment, the next time it rears its ugly head.
Tool #2: Prepare to Stop
Whenever you do recognize your negative self talk as it’s happening, you’ll of course want to stop.
To do so, it can be helpful to be prepared with “replacement thoughts.” Perhaps an affirmation, bible verse, or personal mantra. Whatever you choose, memorize it and get ready to set it on repeat when that negative self talk kicks in.
What you’re doing here is re-wiring your habitual thought process toward more positive (and productive) self talk.
As you get better and better at this, you’ll be able to evolve from your prepared “replacement thoughts” to positive self talk that’s specific to the moment and situation.
Tool #3: Get Grateful
Exercises in gratitude are closely related to exercises in positive self talk, because they help to re-orient us to a positive outlook. Furthermore, this tool will also help specifically direct you toward positive thoughts about yourself, further fueling positive self talk in the future.
It’s simple: keep a gratitude list.
Do not edit yourself one bit in creating this list. It might include everything from “my big promotion” to “butter on my toast.” It might include certain points 100 times over. That’s fine! You’re the only one who’s looking (and whenever you do look it over, it’s likely to bring a smile to your face).
Everyone does this differently.
- Keep a running list in your smartphone
- Set aside 5 minutes before bed every night to catalog the things you were grateful for that day
- Make an appointment with yourself every Saturday, to add to your list and review some of the old notes
All good methods.
Here’s our self-talk-specific requirement: As you create your own list(s), be sure to include some things about you. Abilities, accomplishments, or traits that you’re grateful for in yourself.
As you do this, you exercise those inner-monologue muscles to focus on positive thoughts—as well as on what you do have, rather than what you might lack.
Yes, you have weaknesses. But focusing on those is like running up an escalator that’s headed downstairs. Lots of work, very little progress.
By getting grateful for all the good in your life—and specifically for your own high attributes—you’ll be well on your way to more positive, productive, effective self talk.
Expert Tool + Download: 2 Enemies to Conquer
There’s another form of negative self talk that you might be ready to start thinking about now.
This is a bit less obvious than the first, “I’m bad at X” version of self talk we’ve been discussing here. But it’s just as important. Because it’s extremely detrimental to your personal and professional development, as well as to your ability to achieve any objective at all.
I personify this version of self talk as 2 enemies named As Soon As and If Only.
If you’ve already read my first book, Lead or Be Led: A Guide to Intentional Living, then you know about these enemies and can refer back to that chapter.
But for those who don’t already have the book on hand (or for whom the book’s not currently handy), I still want you to understand these enemies—and have implementation tools to fight them. So I’ve created a downloadable version of the chapter for you here:
Listen In: A Thanksgiving Message on Self Talk & Gratitude
Finally, if you enjoy listening to podcasts and the like, don’t miss this Thanksgiving Message, where I discuss many of the concepts and tools from this post, including the importance of gratitude:
In the days and weeks to come, I look forward to hearing about your own progress and ideas on how to stop negative self talk. Feel free to share in the comments below, or get in touch to schedule a one-on-one conversation.