The Most Powerful Voice Is Your Own: 3 Pitfalls of Negative Self-Talk

Don’t underestimate the power of self-talk. Think about it, nobody talks to you more than you do. What you say to yourself has a direct impact on how you feel, what you believe, and how you behave. 

In the past I have shared my fear and negative internal story centered around stuttering. I had ups and downs with my fluency for many years. Most of my worry was linked to public speaking, but a huge impediment I struggled with was answering and introducing myself on the phone. Over a decade ago working at the WSU Athletic Foundation, there was a month when I avoided answering the phone because I convinced myself I couldn’t say, “Hello, Athletic Foundation, this is Collin.” I literally couldn’t spit those words out. Due to anxiety, my vocal chords would just seize up. My voice literally felt locked or trapped somewhere inside my body. There was even a time in my past where I had a problem even saying my name. 

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Sounds pretty crazy right, but it is true.

I messed up a few times one day on the phone at work and this generated negative self-talk and fear that sabotaged my psychology which oozed into my physiology. Just the thought of answering or introducing myself on the phone would create an elevated heart rate, tightness in my neck and shoulders, and I’d borderline breakout into a sweat. I would envision some important donor on the other end thinking, “Who the hell is this guy and how did he get a job here?”

My only saving grace was when I could read the caller ID and recognize the person on the other end. “I’d give a quick “Yo,” or a “Hey.” However, if the number wasn’t one I knew, a lump in my throat would form and I would freeze up and I wouldn’t pick up.  

The turning point of this internal jail was when I had a conversation with myself. I was sitting at my desk and had just ignored two calls in a row. I was flat out fed up. The switch came when I allowed myself to be imperfect. Part of my problem was I gave myself zero grace. I magnified a little mistake that most likely no one thought twice about (does that sound familiar?). I remember the inner dialogue I had with myself in that moment. I said something like this, No one is perfect. I stumble or stutter sometimes, but so what. I’m still able to say what I need to say. Just be yourself and embrace how God made you.”

I would recite similar statements like this over and over again, which finally got me out of my funk. Though my fluency was not 100% perfect, I improved each time. By giving myself grace and not majoring in minor things, I regained my confidence, and answering the phone ceased to be an anxiety trigger for me.

This change all came from how I spoke to myself. 

Now let’s focus on you. I want you to reflect for a moment on how your self-talk has been in three different timeframes: 

  1. When you were performing well and/or in a positive state
  2. When your performing poorly and/or feeling in a rut
  3. Your self-talk in the last week

Analyze the words you were saying to yourself. On a scale of 1-10 (1 being very negative and 10 being very positive)  rate your self-talk. How was it? Good, negative, neutral? I’m confident that a huge influence in the state you were in (and are in right now) and the actions you were taking were a direct correlation from the words you were saying to yourself. 

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Why is this important? It’s important because we often look for outside forces to create internal motivation. Listening to podcasts, reading books and blogs, and getting pumped up from a motivational speaker will help. However, they all pail in comparison to the influence you have on yourself by the words you say to yourself.

Russell Wilson’s mental conditioning coach, Trevor Moawad, says, “Positive thinking doesn’t always work, but negative thinking always works... for the negative.” If you are looking to get out of your own way, below are three pitfalls of negative self-talk.  

1. Rehearsing Worse Case Scenereos

Whatever you continually repeat to yourself, you will become.

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When you envision scenarios and identity statements using the words “don’t” and “can’t,” you are creating a neuropathy for your subconscious to follow these negative outcomes and internal stories. Example, “I can’t talk confidently on the phone.” That was a self-filling prophecy I created for myself. Instead, say to yourself your strengths and qualities (tip: write these down somewhere and look at them often). Even if you don’t totally believe it, you’ll be blocking out negative self-talk... which will at least, create a neutral state (this is much better than a negative state). 

Don't listen to the doubt that is going to naturally pop up. Instead, proactively talk to yourself using positive re-affirming statements like you would with your best friend. Replay times when you’ve had success before and trust that you can execute at a similar level again.

While working with the Pullman High School Volleyball team, their coach, former All-Pac 12 Conference setter Kali Gesser, said she would use this tactic when she was in a funk as a player. “When I noticed I was performing poorly or out of rhythm, I would go back and think about moments when I had success and was performing well. That usually helped me get my confidence back.”

Your past success is more real than catastrophasizing a future that hasn’t even happened yet.  

Exercise: Write down moments, experiences, or performances when you executed at a high-level. Use these as fuel to improve your self-talk and confidence during moments of doubt.

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2. Not Having a Plan

As a performance coach, I try to help people have a plan for success AND when adversity strikes. Most people spend the majority of their preparation diagraming all the steps to win, yet lack a routine when they fail or feel nerves or stress take over their body (often caused by negative self-talk).

Focus on the function, not the future.

When you feel your body altering its state due to negative arousal (ex: elevated heart beat, butterflies, thoughts swirling), try this three step approach offered by former St. Louis Cardinals Director of Mental Training and best selling author of 10-Minute Toughness, Dr. Jason Selk:

  • Step 1 - BREATHE: Slow your biochemistry down by taking several deep breaths (inhale for 6, hold for 2, and exhale for 7 seconds). This will calm your heart rate, and give more oxygen and energy into your brain and relax your muscles. 
  • Step 2 - POWER STATEMENT: What is a phrase or word you can say to yourself to help eliminate the negative self-talk? This phrase could also be a positive movement or focus that you want to execute (my phone phobia power statement example: “I am perfectly imperfect”). This phrase will narrow your scope, and quiet you’re inner-judge.  
  • Step 3 - MENTAL MOVIE:  With imagery, visualize the scene of you executing and making your goal happen. This will give your subconscious a roadmap to perform the tasks you want to achieve.  

3. Comparing

Comparing yourself to others is robbing yourself of joy. No one is a master of everything. Stop comparing yourself to every person who has a skill you don’t have. That is unfair to yourself. Also, quit evaluating your shortcomings on someone else’s turf (as in, their skill or area of expertise). I guarantee, you have a skillset that they don’t have as well. No one is better or worse, just different. Embrace your strengths and double down on what brings you energy. Celebrate other people’s success, so they can celebrate yours. Give yourself permission (like I had to do) to be imperfect. 

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Exercise: Write down three of your strengths and three characteristics that make you unique and different. Celebrate those!  

The most important relationship you have is the one with yourself. 

If someone at your work or team made a mistake, you would never go up to them and yell, “You suck!” So why would you do that to yourself? I know this sounds silly but, be nice to yourself. This approach doesn’t make you conceded or a narcissist. I like to say, be confident inside, but humble outside.

In summary: 

  • Stop orchestrating worst case scenarios in your head. Give yourself permission to be imperfect, while reminding yourself of times when you’ve had success. 
  • Have a plan to recover from fear or doubt: Breathe, say a power statement, then visualize a best case scenario.
  • Stop comparing. Just do you! 

Speak to yourself the same way you where taught to speak to others. Protect your self-talk like your life depends on it... because in all reality, it actually does... whether it’s a simple tasks like speaking on the phone or pursuing your dreams. 

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Collin Henderson is a High Performance Coach who specializes in Mindset, Leadership, and Culture Training. Buy his books here and learn more tools and strategies to become the best version of you.

Collin Henderson