The Antidote for Negative Self-Talk
Scott D. Clary | Mental Models, Performance, Business & Entrepreneurship
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The Antidotes for Negative Self-Talk
Negative self-talk is poison. Like cyanide, it wreaks havoc on our system, killing our motivation, happiness, and peace of mind. Left unchecked, it leads to doubt – and from doubt to fear, insecurity, and inaction.
I have no doubt that these feelings are hitting a nerve with at least a few of you. It's so incredibly easy to slip into a negative inner monologue; you don't even realize it's happening until you're in the thick of it, and once you are, it's very hard to break free.
In preparing for today's newsletter, I did a little research into the science behind negative self-talk and why it's such a thorn in our side. Did you know that imagining something over and overuses the same mechanisms as physically doing it? In the same way, studies have concluded that telling yourself something repetitively will eventually have an effect on your beliefs and behavior.
For the layman, I suppose it's like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The thing is, you don't have to believe everything that goes through your head; in fact, it's better not to. And that's what I want to talk about today.
Learning About Self-Talk with Deborah Driggs
If you've been listening to my Success Story podcasts since March, you might have tuned in to a conversation I had with ex-Playboy model Deborah Driggs. She's a multi-talented woman – an esteemed life insurance agent, motivational speaker, and author – and she's been through a few rough patches in her life.
I found it fascinating to hear Deborah talk about the many twists and turns in both her career and her personal life. She has this unfailing determination; it's as though her subconscious always knew that something better was coming if she only held on and kept her head up.
Not only that, but Deborah managed to completely reinvent herself in her forties to become one of the most recognized life insurance agents in the country.
"I got married, I had three kids, and in 2004 I got divorced. And I found myself at 40 years old – broke, divorced, three young children – and having to say, now what is life going to look like? What am I going to do?"
After dabbling briefly in real estate, Deborah realized her talent: people skills.
"I had found out from real estate that I was really good at taking care of people, and customers, and clients, and all of that in sales. So I made the decision to take a job in New York. And I reconnected with the company that did my life insurance."
She'd never worked in the space before, and negative self-talk was certainly present in the beginning – but now she's wildly successful. It's a great reminder that your career right out of college doesn't have to be your end game.
Self-Talk: Breaking It Down
If you're interested in hearing more from Deborah, I can't recommend our conversation enough. You can find it here. In the meantime, stick around for more on self-talk – we'll be hearing Deborah's strategies for how to combat your negative inner monologue later on.
So, what is negative self-talk, exactly?
You can probably fill in the blanks with your own experiences because the sad reality is that around eighty percent of our daily thoughts are negative. And while a certain degree of negative self-talk is normal and even healthy – it's what spurs us to take action and improve things in our lives – too much negativity can be paralyzing and destructive.
In the content creation business, I know from first-hand experience that negative self-talk waits around every corner. Why didn't you get as many likes on that video? No one commented on your blog – I guess people don't like you. Your content just can't compete with the others out there.
Before too long, you begin to treat yourself as your own worst enemy, and it becomes harder and harder to take any kind of action – especially the kind that might result in failure.
Why Does It Happen?
As I mentioned earlier, self-talk is truly a science. But it's also linked in with our ancestral history.
In prehistoric times, we literally had to rely on our anxiety and worst-case thinking in order to survive. If we didn't, we might not make it through the night when out on a hunt – and our genes would die with us.
Fast forward to now, and that same worst-case thinking is still hardwired into our brains. It's what makes us give up trying for fear of getting something wrong, and it keeps us up at night worrying about things we can't control.
The problem is that we aren't in such a high-stakes environment anymore. We don't need to hunt for our meals or avoid being hunted by predators. So why does our brain still insist on treating us like it's the end of the world every time something goes wrong?
The answer is that, for the most part, our brains haven't caught up with modern life yet. And as a result, we often find ourselves stuck in negative thought loops.
Yikes. What can we do about it?
The Many Faces of Negative Self-Talk
First of all – before getting to the antidote – let's clarify what it means in psychological terms to experience self-directed negativity. There are actually a few different variants of negative self-talk that can plague people, and each has its own unique flavor (great). They're called cognitive distortions. Let's take a look.
Have you ever been congratulated for a job well done, but all you can see are the mistakes and imperfections? This is a hallmark of filtering, or only paying attention to the negative aspects of any given situation. It's a toxic habit that can lead you down the rabbit hole of pessimism and self-doubt.
This is similar to the previous section about our prehistoric ancestors. Hunter-gatherers needed to catastrophize; if they prepared for the worst-case scenario (aka, starving or being attacked) they were more likely to survive. But in our modern world, this cognitive distortion is less than helpful – it only causes unnecessary stress and doubt.
Now, for a real doozy. To personalize means to take responsibility for everything bad that happens, even if you've not got anything to do with the situation. Your boss acted hostilely towards you? It's because they hate you. Your partner forgot your anniversary? It's because they don't love you. You get the idea. This cognitive distortion is a major source of guilt and self-blame.
Too many of us live in a state of polarity, or black and white thinking. There's no room for nuance or ambiguity; everything is reduced to extremes. It's right or it isn't. You're smart or you're stupid. They love you or they wish you dead. This cognitive distortion can lead to a lot of rigidity in our thinking and an inability to see other perspectives.
I know there are plenty more cognitive distortions, but these pertain most to negative self-talk. But that’s enough dwelling on the negative – are you ready to hear some strategies? Let’s do it.
Combatting Your Inner Negativity
In the final parts of our interview conversation, Deborah and I talked about this concept of negative self-talk and how she combats it. It was one of those 'Ah-hah!' moments that really made me sit back and think; her strategies are absolutely golden.
Let's dig into the highlights.
Strategy 1: Name it (and don't shame it)
When you wake up on a dreary morning, alarm blaring and bed hair in full swing, you might be prone to some pessimism. Deborah had some excellent advice for dealing with those dull days.
"Name it. Name that person in your head. Then you can tell it, 'Thanks for that thought today. But now you can go away. I'm in charge.' When you give it a name, you make it yours. You own it."
Come to think of it, this is a strategy that some psychologists use to deal with intrusive thoughts. Recognize them for what they are – just thoughts, and not a reflection of reality – and then dismiss them.
I don't mean you should try to banish them from existence. Anywhere you create conflict with your mind and body is going to cause problems. But by naming the thoughts, you can exist alongside them without altering your beliefs.
Strategy 2: Turn your monologue into a dialogue
I had to smile at this strategy because it does sound a little strange at first. But I have no doubt that it works.
"We're all going to have negative talk – there's just no getting around it. There are going to be days when we don't want to get out of bed; we just want to pull the covers over. And that's the voice that I talk to – 'Oh, really? Okay, let's talk. Why do you think that?'"
Building on the first strategy, I guess this helps to remove yourself from the thoughts even further. It gives them a separate identity, and in a way, that makes it easier to silence your monologue.
It also helps to foster a sense of friendliness towards yourself. After all, these thoughts are just trying to keep you safe, right? So you might as well have a civil conversation with them!
"People might say 'She's talking to herself, she's absolutely lost it!' But I think that when you call something out, it makes it less of a negative thing."
Strategy 3: The yellow notepad
I like this next strategy, because, to me, it's like journaling on the go. You'll love this if you're someone who struggles to journal routinely; it's an as-needed kind of thing.
"Anytime that I've gotten into a deep funk, I take out a yellow pad. And I know it's so old school. But if something's going on, I literally write down all my thoughts about it, and why I'm upset about it. And all of a sudden, it doesn't bother me anymore."
Now, this next part is the strategy that really impressed me. I've actually never heard anyone talk about using this technique – but you can bet that I'll be trying it out.
"Write a letter to God, or to the universe, or to angels, whatever you believe in. You could write it to Mother Earth. I don't care. You could write it to the plant on your desk. Write whatever it is that's really upsetting you. 'Dear pot plant, why am I so upset about this?' Then you write the second letter to yourself as if you're the plant. 'Here's why you feel that way.' And you write it as if you have all the answers."
I know – that feels like a cheat code you shouldn't have access to, and I was definitely skeptical at first. But Deborah explained how it works in such a simple, yet beautiful way.
"Here's what I believe: the answers are inside of us. We know. And when you really take the time to do that two-part letter, it's so tremendously insightful. Because if you do it from your heart, it's just looking at your part in the situation of why something's happening."
Did you get that? It's stepping back from a situation, taking the perspective of an external party, and explaining things from that angle. It's a way of exploring your thoughts and feelings in a more objective way which, let's face it, we all need from time to time.
If you've ever looked back on old journal entries, you might know how this feels. "Why didn't I realize how stupid I was being? The answers were all there on the page!" "How could I have taken that job in sales when I was writing so passionately about being a photographer?"
It's in those moments of clarity that make us realize: we had the answers within us the whole time. It only takes a perspective shift – a brief departure from your own point of view – to access that knowledge.
I hope you'll give these strategies a try the next time you find yourself in the grip of negative self-talk. I can't promise you that they will work for everyone, or that they will work all the time. But I'll sure as hell be giving them a go the next time I need some help. Thanks, Deborah!
Wrap-Up: The True Antidote
From everything we've talked about here, I suppose combatting your negative self-talk comes down to one major thing: your ability to shift perspectives and to hold every thought captive until it earns a rightful spot in your mind. There's no room for perfectionism, or for any other form of black-and-white thinking in this process – both will only serve to amplify your negative self-talk.
Instead, you'll need to be patient and compassionate with yourself, as you work to unravel the thoughts and beliefs that have been fueling your negative self-talk for years. This is a challenging journey, but it's also an immensely rewarding one. And I have no doubt that strategies like Deborah's – journaling, inner dialogue, and naming each thought – will help you get there.
Remember to check out my full conversation with Deborah Driggs on the Success Story Podcast. We unraveled a lot of these topics in more depth, and plenty of others as well.
In the meantime, I encourage you to take a step back and reflect on your own negative self-talk. What are some of the thoughts that contribute to it? And more importantly, what can you do to start countering them?
Until next time!
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