Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

How To Put A Stop To Negative Self-Talk

Throughout our lives, we receive all sorts of criticism, some valid and some that are simply meant to pull us down. And yet, for many of us, the worst criticism we face is not external; instead, it’s those comments we make to ourselves that question our ability to succeed or receive recognition from those around us. Consider, for example the following comments:

No one is going to listen to me.”

This isn’t going to work.”

I hope they don’t hate it.”

I don’t deserve all this attention.”

On the surface, these comments seem fairly harmless, which is probably why many of us have said it either out loud or inwardly to ourselves. However, the problem is that such comments can not only have a negative impact on how we see ourselves, but also in how we present our abilities to others.

To give this a proper frame of reference, consider the examples of business leaders Jack Welch and Ursula Burns. When they attain the goal they set out to reach, their response is not one of boasting or grandstanding over the accomplishment. Instead, they merely view it as being a given outcome for the efforts they helped their organization to attain.

Similarly, when things don’t go the way they wanted it to, there’s no put-downs or dismissive remarks, that they were being too ambitious or over-extending themselves. Rather, the talk is more about trying to figure out what went wrong and what they can do to address the problem so that they can get back on course.

In these cases, we see that it’s not just a matter of how they view themselves; it’s also a result of them having about them a sense of purpose, a sense that they’re attempting to do this because it’s within their abilities to reach it and thus, succeed. They weren’t just removing any negative self-talk from their minds; they were also believing what they were telling themselves.  Subsequently, they were able to convince their employees that they could indeed reach that goal working together as a team, following the lead of this person who both believed in their collective abilities as well as their own.

Of course, many businesses and their leaders would like to mirror the accomplishments of Welch and Burns and as such, much time and effort has been spent pouring over their strategies, approaches and decisions to understand their recipe for success.

And yet, if we simply look at how they communicate with others, we’d see that one key to their success is the fact that they’ve silenced that inner critic which expects us to fail at every turn and in its place nurtured an inner voice that compels them to push ahead, to get up when they fall down, and ultimately to become the kind of leader we’d all like to work with and in some cases, become.

So how can we master our inner voice so that it can be the source of encouragement and strength that helped propel leaders like Welch and Burns? Here are three steps to reassert control over your self-perception:

1. Become more aware of when you engage in negative self talk
As with any change in behaviour, the first step is making a conscious effort to recognize when you’re doing it and work at putting a stop to it. In the case of your inner voice, you need to become more aware of when you start saying these negative things about your abilities, regardless of whether it’s to yourself or others.

In those moments, you need to replace the “I can’t” feeling with “I can”. For example, say you’ve been assigned a task you’ve never done before by your boss. While the task itself might be something you personally can’t do, you certainly can ask your boss or others to help you to get the work done. In this way, your focus moves away from your weaknesses toward your strengths and using it in a collaborative fashion with others to achieve the goals at hand.

2. Don’t let your past determine your future behaviour
Another important point to remember about our behaviour is that it is a result of influences from our surrounding environment and from events based in our past. As I discussed how environmental influences can affect our behaviour in my piece, “Changing Our Behaviour – A Lesson From The Birds”, I’ll focus here more on those behaviours that stem from what we’ve learned from the past.

While past events can offer us insights into why we didn’t succeed at a particular task or role, what we often get wrong is assuming that it’s also a good indicator of what will go wrong either in the present or future. Although there’s nothing we can do to right any mistakes made in the past, we still have the opportunity to ensure that the present and future turn out differently from what we previously experienced.

A good place to start is to review why things didn’t go well in the past and use those lessons in the present to make sure it doesn’t happen again. These days, there’s a lot of talk about how failure is a good thing. What we need to realize, though, is that this statement is true only if we’re willing to learn from those mistakes in how to address these problems head-on, as opposed to running from them when we face them again.

3. Perseverance is key to making the change
As with any habit, it’s going to take a good amount of time and effort to change your inner voice and with it, how you communicate and interact with others. There’s no question that it’s not going to be easy and at times, you might fall back to your old negative voice pointing out how this isn’t going to work.

And yet, if we look at any example of individuals who represent models of personal or professional success, we’ll find one trait they share in common – they persevered despite the setbacks they faced because they believed in the end outcome. As much as athletes need to train hard if they want to be the best in their sport, being able to re-train our inner voice to focus on where we can go and on what we can accomplish is hard work that requires a firm commitment on our part to see it through.

Without question, the inner voice that resides in all of us plays a critical role to our successes, both now and in the future. With this in mind, it becomes all the more important that we master this voice in order that it encourages the use of our abilities to succeed, instead of holding us back out of fear that we might repeat the mistakes of our past.

Coming up in the second part in this series – a look at five steps you can put into action today that will help you to build a greater sense of confidence about your abilities and contributions.

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5 Comments
  1. On August 3rd, 2010 at 7:12 AM John Haydon said:

    Tanveer – Excellent beginning to the series!

    The critical point I see here is this: Its ok to globalize victory, but don’t globalize failure.

    Saying to yourself “I’m awesome” after a victory can be a cause for more success (if it’s not said with arrogance). Saying “I suck” after a failure on the other hand will only create more failure. And nobody wants that.

    Thanks for the wisdom!

  2. On August 16th, 2010 at 6:54 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks John – glad you enjoyed it. You're absolutely right that it's important that we celebrate our wins, regardless of how big or small they are, and deter ourselves from tearing into ourselves because we failed. It's key to remember that failures are useful only if we recognize them as opportunities to learn on the way to achieving success.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts on this, John. Appreciate your contribution to the discussion.

  3. On August 12th, 2010 at 8:00 AM Cheska said:

    Very inspiring. I suggest everytime we don’t feel confident about ourselves; we read this article to remind us of being more positive. I liked the part when you mentioned instead of saying “I can’t”, we say “we can” and find ways on how we can do it. It’s inevitable to encounter a task that we are not familiar with and initial reaction is really to say ” I’m not sure about this” or “I can’t do this” but if we just know how to be more resourceful or if we are not ashamed to ask our friends or colleagues, there’ll be more of us saying “Yes, I can” and less of “No, we can’t”.
    P.S. Please check out – it’s about what makes a good leader. interesting as well.

  4. On August 16th, 2010 at 11:09 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Cheska; I’m glad you found this piece helpful and informative.

    There’s unquestionably a fear of failure at play that causes us to react with “I can’t” instead of rolling up our sleeves and looking at how we can tackle the task at hand. Of course, when we say “I can’t”, we basically shut down our ability to think of what resources or people we know could help us complete this task because we convince ourselves the problem is insurmountable so why bother conjuring up possible routes to resolve it. It’s an empowering act to make this mind shift and a great way to combat that inner voice that might be holding you back from reaching your full potential.

    Thanks again, Cheska, for sharing your thoughts on this.

  5. On December 16th, 2011 at 5:09 PM Ron said:

    Thanks for sharing, we all can be negative sometimes. One thing I like to do when my negative thoughts is taking over is hit the gym! Hitting the gym can relax your mind and make you feel better physically and mentally. Thanks for the tip about changing "I cant" to "I can." Great work keep it up!

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