We converse with ourselves all the time. This self-talk enables us to make sense of our experiences, activate our responses to them and run different simulations on options for the future. This silent internal monologue has a powerful impact on who we believe we are and on how we choose to live our lives. Allowing our emotions to run amok can persuade us to pursue a path not in our best interests or convince us to back away from otherwise boundless opportunities.
Our memories and imaginations fuel this inner voice. It can be either a liability or an asset, depending on whether we control it or allow it to control us. It’s a survival mechanism vital to our identity. Without this capability, many of the thoughts that enter our brains subsequently influence our behaviour negatively. What follows, for illustration only, are some of those nonconstructive ruminations (yours may be may be different). I offer these below with some alter thoughts that, if given reflection, may serve as antidotes to negative thinking.
1. We overanalyze what others say we should do. While they may wish us to be like them, we are not. Nor are we here to live their lives. When we internalize their judgements and criticisms, we see ourselves as deficient. We fail to accept who we are. Our choices, not theirs, make us who we are. Enliven the positive voice within and listen to it more than the voices outside. We are, and will always be, accountable only to our own souls.
2. We think we need to impress others. We could spend the rest of our lives trying to do just that. But, in the end, it gets us nowhere. And it would be enormously frustrating, if not impossible. The only person you ever need to impress is you. This happens when you’re making meaningful progress on what matters to you. We don’t have to dazzle others; we only need to connect with them and inspire their trust. It’s amazing what we’re capable of accomplishing when we aren’t worried about what others think of us.
3. We think about the things we hope won’t happen to us. Franklin Roosevelt once said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Fear paralyses action. The more breathing space we give our phobias, the greater is their power over us. Fear diminishes and defeats us before we’re able to apply ourselves. When this angst enters the mind, we need to halt the trepidation, reverse our thinking and say “I can do this.” Tenacity – the fortitude to persevere – trumps talent every day. This I know to be true.
4. We think too often about what we don’t have. Life’s not fair, we’re not perfect and the meek will not inherit the earth. So, we can’t possibly possess all we may want. What counts is what we do with what we have in the time remaining. Be thankful for what you do have and stop complaining about what you don’t. You’re just squandering an irreplaceable resource. My Mother once told me a story of a man who complained of having no shoes until one day he saw another with no feet. Life is perspective.
5. We think about what went wrong. Successful people have few regrets. They call their failures learning. Thomas Edison refuted the notion he had erred 9,000 times. Rather, he said, “I’ve found 9,000 ways not to do things.” Failure is an event, not a person. When things go wrong, as they inevitably do, recalibrate and move on. A lot of things can’t be controlled; spend your thoughts on controlling what you can. Stop lamenting the previous chapter of your life and start writing the one you’re living.
When I deal with this topic in a few of my online courses, I ask this question: Is your self-talk uplifting and motivating or belittling and filled with doubts? Fewer than 40% say it’s uplifting. While not scientific, these polls are anonymous, therefore credible – people tend to say what’s on their minds when they know it won’t come back to haunt or embarrass them. I conduct these webinar surveys all the time, largely for the purpose of compiling pertinent longitudinal data that underscores the points of my teaching.
A negative inner voice hogs and interferes with our neuronal capabilities and our neurotic thought processes. Like a computer running too many programs at once, our reasoning capacity, located in the executive command center of the brain, performs poorly when demand exceeds supply. (I addressed this topic in “How to improve memory.”) To illustrate: try concentrating after you’ve had a negative emotional encounter with a loved one. The feeling of contrition or remorse triggers an incessant and aggravating internal chatter.
We can use our thoughts to change our thoughts. In simple terms, we can subdue our inner voice by changing the conversation channel. Instead of “I don’t have what it takes,” say “I can figure this one out for myself.” Instead of “I’m not ready,” tell yourself “Bring it on … I’m fully capable and willing to do this.” Replace self-doubt with supportive internal dialogue. Release the voice that speaks boldly of your unlimited potential. It’s there. Just give it a chance to be heard.
We can learn to distance ourselves from destructive ruminations by zooming out and purposefully adopting a different point of view. This stepping back gives our thoughtscape a broader perspective. It’s called seeing the bigger picture. It’s understanding that everything changes with time, for both better or worse. It’s discovering how to talk to our brain so it will listen, how to enable it to think the way we want it to. Just as a computer has a language, your brain does also.
When we understand how to control disparaging self-talk, we can help others do so as well. We might provide them with distancing counsel by using such unassailable remarks as “it will get better” (because it will) or “it could always be worse” (because it can). We can advise them to imagine what their preferred role models or heroes – whomever they might be – would likely say or do under the same circumstances. Our unconscious mind supports the effectiveness of this reality replacement technique, provided the right person is giving the advice needed in the right way.
We might tell them to write out their feelings about troubling self-talk in a journal. Barack Obama said “Writing has been an important exercise in my life to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are.” Every evening after returning from work, he would sit down to self-reflect by penning the events of his presidency as well as his feelings about them. His writing was lucid. His self-reflections helped him arrive at fresh solutions and find positivity amidst all the turmoil he presided over.
We might suggest they go for a walk in quiet, natural green spaces – trees help us reduce stress by releasing phytoncides. When we breathe them in, they reduce blood pressure, lower anxiety levels and increase our pain threshold. Even a walk down a tree-lined street is beneficial to our mental wellbeing and helps us feel kinder toward others. To become happier, imagine (or pretend) being happy – think about what makes you laugh out loud or about the things for which you are grateful. Almost half of your happiness comes from who you are and not from the events in your life. These brain hacks are far better and less addictive than anti-depressants.
It’s not what we say to others that determines our trajectory in life; it’s what we say to ourselves. Thinking in a certain way activates the brain’s automatic (or hard-wired), reflexive reactions. These subconscious drivers of behaviour spawn brain chatter that either propels us forward or hinders our progress. If self-talk is a problem for you, give them a try.