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 shared my amazing insight with him and my colleagues.
I thought, “How can you all be such idiots that you can’t see what’s wrong with the agent’s analysis? Am I the only one who can see through the bullshit he’s throwing at us? How can I share my wisdom with the rest of them?”
Not that I expected a parting of the Red Sea when I made my comments, but I did think my brilliant thinking would resonate with the more informed minds in the room.
Oh. So. Wrong.
Unfortunately, I was the only one in the room who thought the agent was headed for trouble because everyone disagreed with me. Maybe I had misunderstood what he said, maybe I’d been checking email on my smartphone when he made his big point, maybe I’d had an aneurysm and was dead from the neck up. Bottom line—I didn’t like the agent’s idea while everyone else thought it was wonderful!
The negative self-talk chatter started to build. “You should have kept your mouth shut. That was stupid. You came across as argumentative.” Worse, as someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. My self-talk devolved into intense 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 if we’re really unlucky, through our nights as well. Self-talk can be mean; it loves to beat us up and leave nothing but a sorry-ass wimp in its place.
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 kicks you in the face and beats you up about a failure or a stupid response, your failing will be the one thing you focus on.
However, there are ways to leverage our self-talk so it can be the most powerful hack in the world:
1. Remember That Perception Is Not Always Reality
It should come as no surprise that humans are not very savvy when it comes to sussing out the truth. It gets even worse when you realize that intelligent people are full of doubts while the stupid ones are full of confidence.
As Albert Einstein said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
How To Make It Work For You:
- Be respectful of others’ perceptions (they may be right)
- Don’t hold your perceptions too tightly (they may be wrong)
- Challenge your perceptions (do they hold up under the microscope?)
- Seek out validation from experts and not friends (they’re likely to have the same perceptions as you)
- Be open to modifying your perceptions (narrow-mindedness is far worse than being wrong)
2. Nip It In The Bud
The key to overcoming your negative self-talk is to flush it down the toilet as soon as it raises its ugly head. The biggest challenge is to identify the inner critic and separate it from your logical brain that wants to bring something significant to your attention so it can be remedied. You are not perfect and your brain will let you know, either consciously or subconsciously, when you’ve blown it and need to have a long, hard think about your behavior.
A healthy psyche can take a good kick in the butt when it messes up. But there is a difference between the constant nag that criticizes everything you do and a healthy dialogue with yourself about how to produce better work or strive for trusting relationships.
How To Make It Work For You: Get in the habit of observing your self-talk, noting whether or not it’s constructive. Nip negative emotions and thoughts in the bud, when they first show up and are at their weakest. Ask these questions:
- What does your inner critic say?
- When does it say these things?
- Does it always criticize you? Or does it show up in specific situations?
- What are these situations?
- What are its fears?
- What is important to it?
3. Reverse The Negative Spiral
The more you second-guess yourself, the less free your mind will be to roam through creative solutions to the problems that you face. Negative self-talk will only further cause you to doubt yourself, leading to a negative, downward spiral. The more you listen to your own self-criticism, the more you retreat from the actual conversation going on around you.
Researchers decided to investigate the nature of self-talk among effective and ineffective leaders. They asked the participants to write letters to themselves about their plans and accomplishments.
Letters rated high in constructive self-talk were thoughtfully constructed, self-reflective, and motivational. They saw themselves as capable of achieving their desired goals.
Letters that used dysfunctional self-talk tended to shy away from challenges instead of facing them, focused on negative aspects of their challenging situations, and held a pessimistic attitude toward a change of any kind.
The more you talk yourself down, second-guess yourself, and see change as a threat, the less free your mind will be to roam through creative solutions to the problems you face.
How To Make It Work For You: Turn the situation around and counter your inner critic with positive and constructive self-talk. For example, in my situation above I could have said 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.”
4. Use Specific Language
Whenever you think about something, it is a form of self-talk so it’s important 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.
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You are not perfect so you will make mistakes and confront failures; instead of responding with negative self-talk, accept responsibility, and turn your attention toward learning from your mistakes and failures.
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.
How To Make It Work For You: If your self-talk is “I don’t want—,” 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—,“ you will be thinking about all the specific things you do want—which is probably what you’ll end up with!
5. Respect Yourself
Admit it, the things you hate the most about yourself are also the things you hide from the world. News flash—the same things you hate about yourself as the same things everyone hates about themselves.
You are not so special, after all.
For a culture as shallow as the United States, it’s hard to stand up and admit we’re not perfect—we’ve got to compete with everyone else on how to be cool; follow the crowd but God forbid you have an original thought; signal the right virtues because, in a culture that’s all about how we look to others, God forbid you flub it and get “canceled.”
We’ve devolved into a culture that would rather rewrite the history it doesn’t like than put in the work to understand how humanity has evolved over the centuries. We need to celebrate this progress because they give us reason to respect where we came from and where we’re headed.
In the end, if we follow the crowd, we become a poor imitation of someone else instead of the awesome and unique person we were created to be.
How To Make It Work For You: 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.
6. 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.
How To Make It Work For You: When you find yourself spiraling downward with a negative and pessimistic inner voice, stop what you’re doing and write down what you’re thinking. This will slow the negative momentum so you can replace your thoughts with more rational and positive ones.