Raise Your Game With Better Self-Talk

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 7: Creating Your Source Codesubscribe and buy here

When it comes to personal motivation, self-talk is a pretty big deal. If you haven’t heard of it before, you could be forgiven for thinking that self-talk is something to describe the strange guy muttering to himself on the last bus home…but don’t be fooled; it’s actually something we all do every day and it’s perfectly healthy.

Self-talk, also known as the internal monologue, describes the conversations that happen in your head. It’s an integral component of how we process information, thoughts, and feelings and also how we motivate ourselves.

First, Second and Third Person Self-Talk

Different people have different kinds of self-talk: some talk to themselves in the first person (I’m going to nail this presentation today!) whilst others use a second person form (You can do this!). It’s also possible for self-talk to take the third form (Darren’s got Sales Manager of the month in the bag!) but that’s perhaps a little less common.

There’s no “right” or “wrong” method of self-talk, in fact, many people use both. I find that my self-talk tends to be the first person when I’m in an evaluative mode – where I’m processing my thoughts or feelings on a subject – and second person when I’m in a judgmental mode, i.e. when I’m encouraging or admonishing myself.

Evaluative (first person): I’m feeling nervous about today’s presentation. I hope Ted shows up.
Judgmental (second person): Come on Darren, you need to do better than this.

Negative Self Talk

There’s an old saying: sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. But victims of bullying and other verbal abuse know that words can actually have a powerful effect on how you feel, both about yourself and about your external environment. Self-talk is no different; the voice in your head that tells you that you’re fat, useless or ugly has the exact same effect on you. The fact that the “bully” in this scenario is you, doesn’t reduce the potent toxicity of those words.

Why do we engage in negative self-talk? Sometimes it’s because we respond better to a virtual “kick up the backside” than to more motivational or encouraging language – something commonly referred to as having to choose the “carrot or the stick” as a motivational tool. In these cases what’s happening is effectively a simulation of a conversation you might have with a trusted advisor or mentor (think Yoda berating Luke Skywalker in the swamps of Dagobah). It’s human nature not to want to let people down; negative self-talk in this scenario triggers those feelings of remorse and hopefully invigorates a renewed determination to do better.

Negative self-talk becomes toxic when it spirals into a positive feedback loop of self-doubt and worry. A clear warning sign for this is when your self-talk language moves from judging your behaviors (that presentation didn’t go well; I stammered all the way through) and focuses instead on your identity or values (I’m useless at presentations).

Negative self talk becomes toxic when it spirals into a positive feedback loop of self-doubt and worry.

Constructive critical self-talk has exactly the same criteria as giving feedback to others: you should be focusing on the behaviors and actions that lead to the unsatisfactory outcome, not the individual’s personality. It’s much easier to address feedback that You make your points very aggressively in meetings than You’re very aggressive. People feel intuitively empowered to make changes to what they do but can find changing who they are daunting and difficult.

Positive Self Talk

We all need a little pep talk every now and then. For some, the you can do it! factor is stronger than others; confidence comes naturally and the self-talk is regularly more positive. Why is this important? There’s evidence to suggest that there really is something to the old “power of positive thinking” mantra beyond Tony Robbins’ story about the 4-minute mile, which has been comprehensively debunked since.

Richard Wiseman conducted a series of studies designed to look at why certain people are “lucky.” His findings indicate that “Luck” in these cases was a perceived effect as a result of certain attitudes and behaviors these individuals exhibited. I’ll go one step further and suggest the “openness” and “positivity” of these individuals as referred to in Richard’s paper is actually a characteristic of the positive self-talk they used.

>>unlucky people are generally much tenser and anxious than lucky people and research has shown that anxiety disrupts people’s ability to notice the unexpected.
<p class=”citation”>–Richard Wiseman, The Luck Factor</p>

This is a great example of people literally making their own luck! Of course, “luck” in this instance is simply a high concentration of positive experiences, rather than the chance occurrences – like winning the lottery – over which we have virtually zero control. But once you start to see the correlation between a positive attitude and positive outcomes, it’s not hard to see what Tony Robbins was trying to get at (it’s just a shame he didn’t bother to check his facts).

In 2004 I attended a two-day workshop on “self-awareness” and although much of the detail is now foggy to me, I still remember vividly one part where the instructor showed us an image of the side of an airplane wing. He explained that the definition of attitude in engineering terms is simply the direction in which something is leaning. The point, therefore, is that attitude is a choice: you can choose to lean towards something (say, an outcome or an idea) or you can choose to lean away from it. When an airplane wing achieves a conducive attitude, the result is astounding: flight.

attitude is a choice: you can choose to lean towards something or you can choose to lean away from it.

Ever since I came across that airplane-wing analogy I’ve believed that attitude is crucial in all endeavors. I also believe that for the most part this simply requires choosing whether to lean towards (embrace) an idea or to lean away from (resist) it.

Those “lucky” or “successful” individuals aren’t necessarily leaning towards everything they come across; that would make them susceptible to over enthusiasm and consequently failure. What they have is an ability to stay positive; to open themselves up to new possibilities and to stay alert for those opportunities. They achieve this with an above average quality of self-talk.

Improving Your Self Talk

It may seem counterintuitive, but self-talk is a skill like any other and there are ways that you can make these internal monologues more effective. There are three basic approaches:

Raise Awareness

For many, self-talk is a subconscious activity that barely registers with the conscious mind. Do you move your lips as you type? Do you tick things off a mental checklist when you’re shopping at the supermarket? If you’re doing these things then you’re engaging in self-talk, even if it’s not a conscious activity.

Being more alert to the occasions when you’re engaging in self-talk and the form that it takes is the basic foundation of understanding how it can be improved. If you find it difficult to pin down your self-talk then you may find meditation is a useful technique, as people often find that subconscious thought bubbles to the surface when meditating.

Learn Positive Language Patterns

There’s a school of thought that is often maligned (in some cases justifiably so) that is referred to as Neural Linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP is most commonly associated with using specific language patterns to influence other people (often thought of as a “mind trick”), but its basis lies in the mindful selection of specific phrases and language structures and in understanding how your choices can influence the response. In Issue 2 we talked about how whether you entreat or instruct someone may change the way in which they respond to you; self-talk is no different.

Learning the key trigger phrases that have a positive, stimulating effect on you can be a very effective way of improving your self-talk.

Externalize Your Self Talk

In order to fully understand what your own self-talk looks like and how effective it is, it can be helpful to write it down. This may sound silly, but Journaling is a form of self-talk. The language you use when writing a journal tends to follow the same patterns of language that you use in your own internal monologues. Journaling can be an effective way of recording your own self-talk and then assessing it critically. Do you use a lot of negative self-talk in your journal? Are you chastising yourself for what you do or for who you are?

In addition to recording your current self-talk, writing things down can also be useful when trying to set out specific personal motivations or resolutions. Writing Quit Smoking! on a sticky note on your fridge is actually a method of self-talk. Creating a Source Code is no more than an advanced form of written self-talk. For many years now I have carried a set of personal “affirmations”. These are 3″ x 5″ index cards that contain four or five personal motivations that drive me towards my goals and remind me of my values.

My affirmations:

Are outcome-based: They describe the positive effects of my behaviors
Describe a behavior: They describe the desired set of behaviors that I want to embed
Remind me of my values: They are anchored in a value set to give them increased efficacy

For example, one of my affirmations is:

Because I make sensible diet choices and exercise regularly, I feel great when I look in the mirror and know that I’m fit and healthy.

Notice how the affirmation combines behaviors, outcomes, and values in a single sentence. Affirmations can be difficult to construct and will almost certainly iterate over time. Since I started to build my Source Code with Bojan’s help I have found that some of my affirmations have now made their way into that.

Raise Your Game

Self-talk is a critical component of the way we motivate and stretch ourselves. When you understand the different ways in which you can think about things, and the way that translates into the self-talk, it’s possible to shape these internal conversations into tools to be used for your personal benefit.

To be an exceptional “self-talker” you must be prepared to give yourself a kick when you’re down, but know how to be self-critical without undue negativity. You must focus on actions and behaviors, operating both as your own biggest critic and greatest fan with equal vigor. Your positive self-talk and attitude will enable you to embrace the opportunity and “make your own luck”, whilst your high awareness and constant self-improvement will keep you in a positive improvement cycle.

You are more than capable of achieving all this and more. You know this, so why not tell yourself that?