I listened as one of my fellow FBI agents gave a briefing on the next steps he planned to take in his investigation. I thought he was headed in the wrong direction, and when he asked for our opinions, I told him what I thought.
Unfortunately, I was the only one in the room who thought he was headed for trouble because everyone disagreed with me. I felt I had made a huge faux pas — I didn’t like the agent’s idea while everyone else thought it was brilliant!
The negative self-talk chatter started to build. “You should have kept your mouth shut. That was stupid. You came across as argumentative, etc.” My self-talk was nothing more than self-criticism. I couldn’t wait to get out of that room.
The internal conversations we have with ourselves, called self-talk, can go on for days, and sometimes through our nights as well. My self-talk was negative and destructive because it made me question myself, and soon I was second-guessing myself.
Many of us know how vicious that inner critic can be. Often, we are harder on ourselves than we are on others. It’s not because we want to be, it’s because we don’t know how to manage our negative self-talk.
Energy follows attention—wherever your attention is focused, your energy will follow. If your inner critic is beating you up about a failure, your failing will be the one thing you focus on.
However, there are ways you can harness the power of self-talk so it can help you. Here are 8 ways you can make self-talk the most powerful hack in the world:
1. Nip it In the bud
Notice when you begin negative self-talk: who are the people that trigger it? and the situations or circumstances?
Do a post-mortem on when you’ve unleashed the inner critic and then ask yourself some basic questions:
- Are my thoughts factual, or are they just my interpretations?
- Am I jumping to negative conclusions?
- What is the evidence for and against my thinking?
- How can I find out if my thoughts are actually true?
Once you get in the habit of observing your self-talk, noting whether or not it’s constructive, you’ll find it that much easier to nip the negative thoughts in the bud.
2. Reverse the negative spiral
In a study, researchers discovered that the more you use negative self-talk and second-guess yourself, the less free your mind will be to roam through creative solutions of the problems that you face. These outcomes will only further cause you to doubt yourself, leading to a negative, downward spiral.
Turn the situation around and counter your inner critic with positive and constructive self-talk. For example, in my situation I could say to myself, “I don’t always agree with my colleagues. I’m glad I stuck to my guns and pointed out where the investigation could trip over itself. At least the agent understands that there are potential problems if he continues in that direction, etc.”
3. Be specific
When I say, “Don’t look at the pink elephant,” a pink elephant immediately comes to mind. In the same way, when you criticize yourself, you see a stupid person who constantly makes mistakes.
If your self-talk is “I don’t want X,” all you will be thinking about are the things you don’t want, which will probably be what you end up with because that is where your energy will be focused.
However, if your self talk is “I want X,“ you will be thinking about all the specific things you do want, which is probably what you’ll end up with!
4. Change self-limiting beliefs
Many times it is our self-limiting beliefs that create the negative self-talk. As long as you are talking to yourself anyway, ask “Why do I have this self-limiting belief?”
Most self-limiting beliefs start in childhood and can be pointed to a parent or teacher telling us we couldn’t do something.
Those memories stick with us, even when circumstances change.
5. Respect yourself
One litmus test to stop destructive or negative self-talk dead in its track is to ask yourself this simple question: Would I talk to a child like this?
If the answer is no, you can be certain you are wasting precious energy on denigrating yourself in a destructive way. Often, we treat ourselves much worse than we would treat strangers; in fact, we would have no friends if we talked to them like we talked to ourselves!
6. Watch your language
Scientists estimate that we have between 50,000 to 70,000 thoughts every day. Whenever you think about something, it is a form of self-talk so you can see how important it is to control your thoughts.
Resilient people do not whine, complain, or blame others; instead, they have the mental toughness to take responsibility for their actions. Since you are not perfect, there will be mistakes and failures; instead of responding with negative self-talk, accept responsibility and turn your attention, and energy, toward learning from your mistakes and failures.
7. Embrace your imperfections
Many CEOs, entrepreneurs, and business owners are both overachievers and perfectionists. It’s a double whammy of a curse because they often end up holding themselves to an impossible standard of performance.
But no one will tell you they are a success because they’re a perfectionist or an overachiever. Instead, they will tell you they are a success because they are willing to mess up, learn, and move on. They don’t give up on themselves.
8. Give your inner critic a name
Researcher David Rock believes that labeling our negative emotions is an effective way of short circuiting their hold over us. So give your inner critic a name or call it out for what it really is — jealousy, insecurity, fear, etc.
You can keep the name in your head, but Rock believes that when you speak it, it activates a more robust short circuit to help break the emotional hold.
If you think you can, or can’t, do something, you’re right—Henry Ford
How do you control your self-talk?
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the U.S. government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. LaRae is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.
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