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How to Redirect Your Negative Self-Talk

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Can you imagine your life without the weight of your inner critic? What would your days feel like without all the negative self-talk? What possibilities would emerge in its absence?

The effects of a crappy inner dialogue might feel all too familiar, but rarely do we stop to consider its true cost. Without an honest exploration of the war we wage with ourselves, we fall prey to things like imposter syndrome, the comparison trap, and self-doubt. Not only do these make us feel bad, but they also keep us from putting ourselves out there, trying new things, stretching into new skills, and claiming a well-lived life. 

I’m sure you didn’t sign up for cheating yourself out of your best life. And I’m certain that you wouldn’t choose self-doubt given the option. So, what’s going on here? Why does this happen? 

Negative self-talk and all its effects arise from a strained relationship with ourselves. That strained self-relationship is what I call inner opposition. It’s the resistance we have with ourselves — resistance to our worth, our competency, our “enough-ness.” The result is self-doubt and an ensuing belief that we’re lacking in some way (neither of which feel great). 

And here’s what’s wonky: we choose our beliefs.  

So then, if a belief feels so bad, why do we buy into it? And if its weight holds us back and keeps us from thriving, why do we keep choosing it?  

“Evidence is conclusive that your self-talk has a direct bearing on your performance.” – Zig Ziglar

As humans, we’re hardwired for connection and belonging. Our brain’s job is to keep us safe, and it treats social threats the same as environmental threats. So, for example, if the boss throws us under the bus in a meeting, it triggers us in the same way as a tiger lunging at us from a bush. Rejection literally hurts the brain. Any experience of isolation, exclusion, disapproval, humiliation, or perceived negative judgment registers as physical pain in the brain.  

If rejection is painful and social threats are on par with environmental threats, then that means we’re doing everything we can to stay in good graces or in favorable standing with others. The need for acceptance and approval drives much of what we think, say, do, and feel.  

For example, think back to the last high-stakes presentation you gave and any accompanying anxiety you may have experienced. Now, consider the contents of your inner dialogue, which may have sounded like this: “What if I fail? What if I sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about?” 

This kind of pervasive anxiety is so common that we rarely get to the root of the fear. We say it’s fear of failure, or fear of doing a bad job, but I encourage you to inquire further. What’s really underneath this fear? It’s a fear of negative judgment, which maps to rejection, which maps to pain our brain tries to avoid at all costs.  

We generally don’t like pain and most of us steer clear from social and environment threats. The need to stay safe is so primal that our brain’s search for safety influences our perception to navigate in a way that favors our safety. What we see, what we interpret, and what we believe is largely influenced by this need to stay safe.

Negative self-talk

So back to negative self-talk. Where does it come from? Frankly, at some point in your past you took on a negative self-image to protect yourself from rejection. That negative self-belief, such as “I’m not good enough” is like a lens you look through. Through that lens you’re more easily able to identify the situations where you may be “found out.” As a result, you’re more apt to look for situations where it’s easy for your worth to shine. This kind of conditional living leads you to play it safe and keeps you from putting yourself out there.  

Keeping the lens focused on safe alternatives is exactly what keeps us from thriving. More importantly, it’s the filter through which all negative self-talk emerges — the running commentary that’s guiding you toward safety.  

Breaking out from the victimization of negative belief that guards you from rejection requires getting to the source of your negative self-talk. Give yourself the opportunity to no longer “choose” it. Use these tips to free yourself from the weight of your inner critic: 

  1. Answer the question: “What are you afraid people would think, decide, or find out about you?” Whatever you answer is what you believe about yourself. It’s the root of your negative self-talk. 
  2. Acknowledge that you took on this belief to make sense of perceived rejection. This belief originally was a defensive filter, but has become a completely unhelpful and inaccurate way to protect yourself from the primal fear of rejection. Recognizing that you unknowingly chose it to stay safe helps loosen the grip of inner opposition. 
  3. Ask: Does it serve me and the world to hold onto this belief? Meeting this choice with logic often is enough to see the futility in it. It makes it much harder to actively choose a negative self-belief when you see that no one benefits. 
  4. Choose otherwise. No one is perfect and mistakes are inevitable. In fact, according to recent research, we want to fail 15 percent of the time for optimal learning and growth. Find solace in our humanity and claim the truth that you’re inherently enough and on your own unique path. Everyone is. Decide to know you’re whole and complete, and that mistakes don’t diminish your worth. 

The moment you make peace with the truth of your enough-ness is the moment you stop negative self-talk at its root.  

Amy Eliza Wong is a certified executive coach who has devoted more than 20 years to the study and practice of helping others live and lead on purpose. She works with some of the biggest names in tech and teaches transformational leadership and communication strategies to executives and teams around the world. Her new book is Living on Purpose: Five Deliberate Choices to Realize Fulfillment and Joy (BrainTrust Ink, May 24, 2022). Learn more at alwaysonpurpose.com.

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