How To Turn Off Negative Self-Talk
And tame the inner terrorist that can sabotage your success
By Susan Pedwell
October 1999 Issue of "Canadian Living" Magazine
"Before giving a class presentation at university, Cathleen Fillmore grabbed a pen and at the top of her speech she wrote, 'Good morning. My name is Cathleen Fillmore.' Fillmore's negative self-talk had whipped her into such a frenzy, she was afraid she couldn't remember her own name. It kept repeating, 'No one wants to hear what you have to say. What are you doing with these accomplished people? Who do you think you are?'
The term self-talk often refers to that subconscious voice inside your head that chatters away at you. Sometimes called egocentric speech or discursive chatter, self-talk can become as unnoticeable as background music. When self-talk is negative, it can sap your energy and fill you with self-doubt. But when self-talk is positive, it can cheer you up when things go wrong, encourage you to try new activities and deepen your relationships.
When Jessica Hewitt was a child, her family nurtured her positive self-talk. 'My parents would say, You can do anything you want to if you put your mind to it,' recalls Hewit. And she has. But years later, when she asked to join her local hospital board in a Toronto suburb, her self-talk initially stated, 'I don't know enough to be on a hospital board. Recommend someone else.' Then Hewitt's positive self-talk quickly countered with, 'If someone else can do it, I can do it.' It triumphed with the statements, 'I'll push the envelope. I can do a lot. I find I can do things that I've never had the opportunity to try before.' This positive self-talk led her to contribute eight fulfilling years to the hospital board.
Negative self-talk, on the other hand, can sabotage relationships and drain your self-confidence. When you're looking for a job or you have a job interview, negative self-talk can lean over and tell you how unqualified you are. In the middle of the night it can tap you on the shoulder and tell you that you're getting old and unattractive.
'We're very abusive to ourselves,' says Moyra Buchan, the executive director of the Newfoundland and Labrador division of the Canadian Mental Health Association. 'We say things to ourselves that we would never dream of saying to someone else. A lot of us feel we're basically inadequate, that we haven't done well enough. Through self-talk we can be very harsh on ourselves.'
Once you begin to recognize what's going on in the privacy of your own mind, you can start do tdeal with the negativity and lower its intensity. Better still, you can take this powerful source of transformation and try to harness it into positive energy.
It has been more than 30 years since Fillmore's shaky class presentation in university. Now she enjoys speaking in front of hundreds of people and even publishes a newsletter for Canadian professional speakers called Raise Your Voice! When she gives a speech, her inner voice bolsters her confidence by saying, 'You have something to say. You have something worth listening to.'
Not that change was easy. It took a wake-up call - in Fillmore's case, a brush with ovarian cancer at age 50 - for her to get up the impetus to look at, then confront, her inner terrorist. The courage to do this came from the loving relationship with her two sons, now 29 and 25. She knew that to have a fighting chance at her life, she had to learn to love herself. part of that loving meant opposing her powerfully negative inner voice, which not only made her unable to pursue her dream of public speaking but kept her locked into abusive relationships. 'Anything negative those close to me said, I internalized,' recalls Fillmore. 'My self-talk fed on their negative comments.'
For months Fillmore went to weekly one-on-one counselling sessions, which helped her realize how her negative self-talk largely came from family patterns of criticism and conflict that she'd experienced since childhood. Early in therapy her self-talk was erratic. One moment it would flatter her, the next moment it would tear her confidence to shreds. Eventually, though, positive self-talk prevailed. 'Now my self- talk is absolutely incredible,' says Fillmore, 58.
The Birth of Your Self-Talk
To confront our negative self-talk you have to turn around and look backward through time to your childhood. As Fillmore says, 'The path leads home.' Philip David Zelazo, a University of Toronto associate psychology professor studying the development of self-talk, confirms her statemtent. 'Parents play a tremendously important role in the fromation of self-talk,' he says. And it's not just what your parents said to you that's relevant. It's also what they said themselves. 'Children imitate their parents,' continues Zelazo. If you watched as a parent berated himself for being a failure at work, chances are your self-talk needles you for being a flop on the job.
Self-talk reflects more than just parents' sentiments. The inner family includes all the important people in your childhood; grandparents, siblings, babysitters, friends and teachers.
Your father might have consistently prasied you for how hard you worked on everything form your school work to preparing for your piano exams. Your mother may have always been criticizing you for being sloppy and leaving your things around the house. Your self-talk packs so much authority from important people in your life that it may sound as if it's God talking. It's not. It's Granny telling you that you really should do something with your hair, and your Grade 2 teacher saying you're bad at math. It's self-talk nothing more. So go ahead and talk back. But expect a battle; your inner voice is feisty.
Keeping self-talk positive is a lifelong journey, even for the most accomplished among us. In the evening, when Moyra Buchan is out walking her golden retriever by the river near her home in St. John's, Nfld., this respected executive is reviewing her day's preformance - and mentally beating herself up. She scolds herself for saying too much one meeting, then chastises herself for not speaking up in another situation. But when Buchan's self-talk is getting the best of her, she pulls back. 'Now wait a minute,' she tells herself in a tone that she says is like a nurturing parent consoling a panicking child. 'I may not be brilliant,' she continues but I trust myself enugh to know I did my best.'
Then Buchan pulls herself into the present, and by doing so, her negative self-talk dissipates. She feels the moist grass beneath her feet. She watches the familiar saunter of her dog. She looks up into the sky and wonders about the pure glory of it all."
How To Talk to Yourself
1. Tune into your self-talk throughout the day - when you're driving to work, looking in the mirror, drifting off to sleep. For one to three days, record your self-talk in a journal.
2. Confront your self-talk. Does it echo the judgments of family members or other people in your life? Evaluate your unchallenged beliefs. A therapist or trusted friend can help you distinguish the truth from the bunk.
3. Identify when you inner dialogue is supportive and when it's destructive. Your self-talk may encourage you in your role as a mother, telling you how attuned you are to your children's needs. Behind the wheel of a car, though, your self-talk may badger you for always getting lost.
4. Replace negative self-talk with words of encouragement. Change 'I never finish my work on time' to 'I'm taking steps to finish my work on time.'
5. Make your self-talk your best friend. When you unintentionally blurt out something you think is hurtful to a friend at a party, instead of lashing out at your stupidity say, 'It's okay to be human. It's okay to make mistakes. I'll phone my friend to apologize and I'll learn from this.'
6. When you look in the mirror, smile at yourself, don't frown. Treat yourself the way you would a friend. Tell yourself how good you look in your new outfit; point out how nice your hair looks; learn to appreciate your good qualities and to focus on them.