[Originally Published Feb 10 2021]
It’s no secret that we can at times put enormous pressure on ourselves to succeed. We’re constantly inundated with the message that we need to hustle and achieve more, lest we fall behind. And for peoplepleasers and perfectionists, this pressure can be especially toxic. We often berate ourselves for not being “good enough,” engaging in a never-ending cycle of self-flagellation. But there is hope! In this post, I’m sharing five ways to unplug from toxic self-talk and reconnect with your authentic self.
Which voice is more dominant: inner-cheerleader or inner-critic? The biggest influence on you is you, so how are you treating yourself these days? Does your self-talk tend to be more noxious than nourishing? Imagine your self-talk were visible, like a ticker tape at the bottom of a screen, or if it were broadcast for others to hear, how would that feel? How’s the pit of your stomach right about now? Bloody uncomfortable is how I would feel and I’m a confidence coach FFS! Negative self-talk can be absolutely corrosive to our self-confidence and, at its most toxic, can leave us feeling depressed and worthless.
The most effective ways that I’ve discovered to deal with this debilitating habit of mind involve a two pronged approach, where I look to amplify the inner-cheerleader while also turning the volume down on the toxic self-talk of the inner-critic. If you feel like you have no inner-cheerleader at all, that’s okay too. Often our inner-cheerleader can be pretty shy or even in hibernation because they haven’t been called upon very often. But they are there and I’ll show you how to (re) activate yours.
What Is Toxic Self-Talk?
I guess if you’re reading this you already know what your particular flavor of toxic self-talk is and it does come in flavors, so let’s have a look at just a few.
Basement Flavor: This flavor sounds very much like the voice of the schoolyard bully. Name calling galore with a nice side of “vicious” for that extra kick! You suck! You’re a loser! Could you be more incompetent?! You’re so lazy/ugly/helpless/stupid blah, blah, random insult, blah!
Oracle Flavor: Here things get a little murkier because this flavor can be mistaken for the sage advice of an all-knowing “other”. Somewhat suspiciously however this sage advice is never optimistic or encouraging in nature but more focused on locking you into the smallest possible vision of yourself. Imagine the situation where you don’t make that sale you’d hoped for and then your self-talk sounds something like this; I was never going to get it. This is a sign really. If I were good enough I would have got the sale and I didn’t. I’m just not cut out for this I guess.
Motivator Flavor: I must say I have mistaken this flavor as necessary and incentivizing in the past and then wondered why I felt so awful about myself so much of the time. This voice masquerades as a true ally, there to make sure that you do the very best you can in whatever endeavor you take on. But it’s a total bait and switch game! You never can do enough and will always fall short. You decide you want to make a positive change in your life and say, improve your health.
Your motivator flavor of self-talk will jump in with all the rules you need to follow to get it “right” and tell you what you should do. That sounds helpful initially – almost like you’re just planning for success. But underneath is the “or else” threat. You’re all excited to jump in and get started, but with the first slip from the “should regime” your self-talk will be there to beat you up with the perfectionistic standards held high on a pedestal to emphasize how unworthy you clearly must be. This is not the carrot and stick approach – there is only a stick and it’s big!
Toxic self-talk is anything you say to yourself that undermines your sense of self and diminishes who you truly are and all that you are capable of achieving. In my book I talk about these “shitty little beliefs” we have about ourselves, that we store away in a dark place internally, but which unconsciously influence us. Toxic self-talk gives voice to these shitty little beliefs and that’s why it’s so corrosive. It’s not just noise. We actually believe it’s true.
The Price We Pay For Toxic Self-Talk
Ever just tossed in a project deciding it’s not possible for you? Ever tripped up on something in your personal or professional life and had your mind inflate it into something much larger, all encompassing even, and found yourself feeling hopeless, worthless or totally disengaged? Well, I have for sure. We pay a price when we let toxic self-talk get the spotlight of our attention and drive our behavior. It’s a cost internally on our emotional and mental well-being and externally in opportunities lost.
Author and businesswoman Arianna Huffington has referred to her self-talk as akin to an “obnoxious roommate” which might resonate with many of us. How likely are we to go for those big opportunities, ask for that raise, or apply for that promotion if we are tuned into “Radio Toxic Self-Talk”? Not bloody likely! Here are just two examples of the real cost of tuning into negativity and its corrosive effects on confidence.
Professor of Economics at Carnegie Mellon University, Linda Babcock in exploring the impact of lower confidence levels among American women, found that men initiate salary negotiations 4 times as often as women and when women do negotiate, they ask for 30% less than the men do. In the UK the Institute of Leadership and Management conducted a study in 2011 simply asking women in a series of questions how confident they felt in their professions. 50% of the women reported feelings of self-doubt about their performance and careers whereas less than a third of the male respondents reported self-doubt. Clearly toxic self-talk affects both women and men, but women appear to be more affected and with more costly consequences.
Left uninterrupted, this kind of negative self-talk could not just leave you feeling pretty crap about yourself, it can also have significant long term financial consequences. Hewlett Packard conducted a study at one point to figure out how to get more women into top management and their research revealed an alarming discrepancy between women and men in their approach to applying for promotions. In their study they found that a woman would only apply for a promotion when she believed that she met 100% of the qualifications necessary for the job. The men typically applied when they thought they could meet 60% of the stated job requirements.
Clearly learning how to disconnect from this negative self-talk is very worthwhile!
5 Powerful Ways To Disconnect From Toxic Self-Talk
Resuscitate Your Inner Cheerleader
They really are in there, I promise. They may be in hibernation but they are there. If all you hear is the negative story your mind, unsupervised, is presenting to you, then it’s natural that you could fall into believing that nonsense. The counter argument needs to get some airtime too! It’s just a little trickier to bring that stuff to mind though isn’t it?
Maybe you grew up in Europe like I did and all that positive stuff was viewed as unseemly bragging and unpalatable attention-seeking and just not done. Wherever you grew up, it’s possible that owning your own success, gifts, and positive traits was not always encouraged or reinforced, so it can feel a little strange or awkward to think about cheering yourself on in this way.
In my book The Little Book of Good Enough, I encourage readers to dedicate some time to resurrecting their memories of the positives – the compliments they’ve received, the successes they’ve enjoyed, all of it. I ask them to become their own cheerleaders and write out their Damn I’m Fabulous List – a “My Achievements List” just doesn’t quite have the same energy for me!
So take the time to sit down and not get up until you have a really long list of all the good stuff, even if some of it feels insignificant. Your mind might start trying to interrupt you with “Geez you’re so vain!” and other charming thoughts, but don’t let that derail you. If you get stuck, call a trusted friend and just ask them, “What do you think I’m good at or are some of my best traits?”. I know, vulnerable stuff – but worth it. Make the list and keep it updated. It’s private and just for you, so go for it!
Your mind likes to tell you what you can’t do and it can be easy to fall into the trap of believing it. Here’s a novel way to remind yourself that the mind is just a storyteller and that thoughts are not truth. Stand up and walk around your room. Bring to mind the thought, “I can’t raise my right hand in the air and walk”.
Now raise your right hand and continue walking around your room while thinking the thought, “I can’t raise my right hand and walk”. Feeling pretty silly? That thought “I can’t raise my right hand and walk” is a thought just like any thought, just like “I’m incompetent” or whatever. It is a mere mental product of the mind.
My mind used to be very good at telling me “You don’t have any stamina” and “You can’t run a marathon”. I used to believe that, especially in the first couple of miles into a run. I used to stop as I was tired and getting out of breath and then the thought “You see, you’re just not a runner” would come up. But then I just kept running, and running longer and longer distances, and I eventually ran a marathon.
That’s Opposite Action practiced with consistency. The thought was false unless I bought into it, which I did for many years until the day I decided to act in opposition to it.
Create A “Power Pod”
Instead of pretending to be okay and wrestling alone with the toxic self-talk, why not recruit some allies in the form of a “Power Pod”. Because this negative self-talk is so prevalent, you can bet that some of your favorite people are also going to be challenged by it. Having your Damn I’m Fabulous List is a great asset but sometimes you need to connect with another human to get energized and to help you hit that inner reset button to get you back on track.
I find all this vulnerability stuff pretty uncomfortable but it’s necessary and really helps you get unstuck and generally show up more authentically in every area of your life. Don’t take my word for it and watch Brene Brown’s famous TED Talk on the topic if you need a little push here. I rewatch this regularly and am an avid fan of her work in this area. Create your Power Pod of 2 to 4 close friends who you can call when you need that timely reminder that it’s totally normal to feel doubt, that you are in fact pretty damn awesome, and that they have your back.
Sticks And Stones Exercise
Words can have a lot of power. Certain words can take us right into a memory or evoke a strong emotional state. Take the word “failure” for example. It has the potential to have a huge impact on our behavior if we get hooked by it and our mind starts to trigger thoughts like “Failure is the worst thing that can happen” or “You’re a failure!”
You can end up stuck in your comfort zone never challenging yourself or discovering your full potential. What about the word “hiba” (pronounced hee-ba)? Any impact from this word? It actually means failure in Hungarian. The point is words are just collections of sounds and syllables.
To take the power out of some of the words that hook you, try the Sticks And Stones Exercise. Make a list of up to 5 words that feature prominently in your negative self-talk. These might include fraud, idiot, or loser. Spend a minute with each word, really connecting to it by repeating it in your mind. What emotions, sensations, thoughts and memories come up for you? Consider and note down how your behavior would be impacted if you stayed hooked in this energy.
Finally, repeat each word out loud non-stop for a minute (yeah, best to do this when you’re in a private space!) Notice how, after repeating the words out loud for that minute or more, they begin to lose their grip and they begin to sound like gibberish. This exercise is very potent to allow us to untangle the language from the associations and thereby free ourselves to respond more purposefully in the presence of negative self-talk.
Craft Your Toxic Self-Talk Character
I want you to tune in for a moment to your toxic self-talk and just focus on the key themes and messages that your mind sends you. Next get a sheet of paper and note down some of these key messages.
Now imagine a person who would speak like this to another person. What sort of character are they? Write down your description thinking about their personality. Are they loving and considerate? Is this someone you’d like to spend time with? Can you imagine being friends and having them over for dinner maybe?
Now think about whether you view them as male or female. What age is this person? What do they look like? How do they dress and where do they live? Do they have an accent? Are they loud or softly spoken? Write it all down in a paragraph or two.
Imagine that you are crafting a character for a play or movie so that you can really see this person and bring them to life off the page. Give them a name. Read what you’ve written and reflect. Now ask yourself how much time would you want to spend with this person. Ask yourself if this is someone you’d listen to or whose opinion you’d defer to. Hmm….
Thoughts are simply a combination of words and images that our minds produce over the course of a day, every day. Some thoughts are helpful, and others are very unhelpful. Negative self-talk falls squarely within the very unhelpful category.
Hopefully some of the strategies I’ve shared in this post will help you to disentangle from those thoughts so you can get out of your mind and powerfully and purposefully into your fabulous life.
If you’re interested in working with me to help you silence your inner critic and build your confidence, you can book a free 45 minute game plan call with me here.