“Silence isn’t empty, it’s full of answers.”
Have you ever found yourself facing a new challenge when suddenly, you think, “I can’t do this”, or “I’m going to fail”? It happens to us all sometimes, some of us more than others. These voices in our brain lead to chattering negative thoughts, which can be very powerful and overwhelming. They can prevent us from being able to start working on our goals, never mind finishing them (and we all know how important finishing is – I talk about that here.
These voices we hear aren’t anything out of the ordinary – we call this ‘self-talk’.
Our self-talk can be very much anti-self. It’s often a negative voice that can create misery and malfunction in our lives. For some of us (at least some of the time), our self-talk can be cheerful and supportive. If your inner voice is permanently cheerful – brilliant – you can skip right to the end! However, if your self-talk is sometimes negative and self-defeating, read on.
I’ve just finished my new book, Footprints, and in it I talk to, and about, these voices, both positive and negative. My aim was to try to expose the conversation that exists within each of us – the conversations between our real selves and the voice that speaks our negative self-talk. Our inner voice combines conscious and unconscious thoughts, beliefs and biases, which are often drawn from our experiences. Our self-talk can be useful when it is positive, talking down fears and bolstering our confidence. However, negative self-talk can be unhelpful, unrealistic and even harmful, paralysing us into inaction and self-absorption. There is good news though; our negative inner critic can and should be challenged. Becoming more aware of your self-talk is just a first step. That’s why to me, negative self-talk is the enemy within.
When I was young, I attended school as a country boy who felt less sophisticated and less urban than many of my contemporaries. I had a teacher who thought he was funny and liked to tease the country boys in the class. Many times his teasing left me feeling humiliated, and I’ve never forgotten it. We all probably have a similar story of someone in our lives mocking or finding fault with something about the way we look, talk or think – we can be very cruel to one another, often without realising it. Years later, you might find that the cruel voice and words still live with you as the negative self-talk that holds you back. This self-talking enemy can take many shapes, from the relatively minor – the little voice that says you don’t look good wearing that hat, to the major – the little voice that tells you you’ll fail the exam, flunk the interview and even if you don’t, you won’t be able to handle the job, so why try?
Whether it’s a minor or a major issue, this little voice stops us from being successful and achieving the goals we set ourselves.
Our enemy within, that critical self-talking voice, can ingrain a well-integrated pattern of destructive thoughts within us. This nagging, negative enemy is often the root of much of our self-destructive and maladaptive behaviour. Think about it – how often do you think negative thoughts about yourself? Do you criticise your body, your intelligence, your limitations, your personality or your knowledge? How many negative thoughts have you had this week? Today? In the last hour?
Our self-talking can lead to feelings of guilt and shame, causing self-doubt and undermining our self-confidence. In coaching, I constantly see the debilitating results when people have such a harsh inner critic. Using self-talk, people will tell themselves things they would never say to anyone else. I have had many conversations with people I coach about the voices they use to speak to themselves in their heads, they are always their own worst critics.
It’s been argued that humans have at least 50,000 thoughts every day, which works out to about one every 1.7 seconds. How many of those can you remember? What were you thinking about at 16:30 yesterday? Do you know? It’s midday as I’m writing this. By now, I should have had roughly 25,000 thoughts. Can I remember all of them? The short answer is no. When I do this exercise with people I coach, they can’t remember all their thoughts either, but what they do tend to remember are the negative bits – the uncertain thoughts, the nagging idea that they’re not good enough, their self-talk voice, telling them that they look daft in a hat, and that they shouldn’t speak up in a meeting because they don’t have anything valuable to say.
So, how do we defeat the enemy within? It’s not easy, but we can do it. The trick is to carefully cultivate your self-talking voice – after all, this voice is the narrator of the story we tell ourselves, the story of us. The story we tell ourselves becomes our reality, so we need to change our perspective, flip the script and change from a negative to a positive story. This is something I work on when coaching, where we spend a full 100 days working on changing the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
While I don’t have time to go into the whole programme here, there are a couple of simple tricks you can try today. Just remember that it’s your story – you can change it!
Use the volume button
If your inner critic is getting all the ‘air time’, make a conscious effort to speak to yourself compassionately. Check in with yourself a couple of times a day – recognise if you’re telling yourself a negative story and if so, change it. Try it several times a day for at least two weeks.
Recognise situations that trigger your negative thoughts
Pay attention to when you start to notice your negative self-talk. What’s going on? Who are you with? Are you tired? Hungry? Stressed? See if you can identify connections between thoughts and feelings. You might not be able to protect yourself from these triggers, but you if you know about them, you can prepare!
Ask positive questions to address the triggers
Flipping from negative to positive can be a big switch. Ease yourself in by replacing overly critical thoughts with more accurate statements. Convert an overly pessimistic thought to a more rational and realistic statement. When you find yourself thinking, “I never do anything right”, replace it with a balanced statement like, “Sometimes I do things really well and sometimes I don’t”. Each time you find yourself thinking an exaggeratedly negative thought, respond with the more accurate statement. You can work up to the really positive stuff in time.
Don’t forget that you’ve been listening to your inner critic for a long time, even years. It will take some time to adjust to this new way of talking to yourself. You need to make a conscious effort until it becomes effortless.
The Mindset of a Winner© is an intensive coaching programme brought to you by one of the world's leading names in performance, Dr Maurice Duffy. From elite football, cricket and rugby to global businesses and international politics, Maurice’s expertise is behind some of the world's most successful leaders and teams.