Re-framing your internal voice

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
I often tell people to be careful with their "self-talk" and I've received some puzzled looks in response, writes life coach Jan Aitken.

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken

I've figured out that mentioning "self-talk" tends to conjure up images of less than sane people muttering to themselves while others look away and take a wide berth. However, I've been told a there's some research looking at the effects of talking to ourselves and it's useful! But, more about that later.

When I'm talking about "self-talk", I'm referring to the internal commentary that rolls through your thoughts on a constant basis.

Those of us who work closely with people making life changes, undertaking personal growth or helping people to heal from past issues have long known that how you talk to yourself is very powerful and can have either long-term positive or negative effects.

Research into this is growing and there's been a lot of focus on sports performance. Sport often seems to lead the way in research around human development and mindset improvement. Often those findings can be readily transferred into everyday living for those who aren't professional athletes. A great example of this is creative visualisation/guided imagery/picturing the outcome. If you watch tennis or golf/rugby/softball or just about any sport you can often see the player/kicker/pitcher take a moment as they run through in their "mind's eye" exactly what they are about do and the result they are anticipating. Likewise, it's a technique that's useful in a lot of other situations i.e. before public speaking, building self-confidence, reducing anxiety, minimising physical pain, and so on.

So how does this work with self-talk?

Too often, the pattern of self-talk that's developed is negative. You remember the negative things you were told as children by your parents, guardians, siblings or teachers. You recall the negative reactions from other children. Through the years, these messages tend to build up and be replayed over and over in your mind. Those replays become fuel for the feelings, thoughts and beliefs around yourself. Often these are of inadequacy, incompetence and hopelessness.Your thinking is bathed in negative feedback.

Now imagine if the athletes visualised shanking the shot or missing the goal every time. It would be a disaster and they'd be in the clubhouse or on the bench, with not much prospect of a long, enjoyable career.

Negative thinking is partly due to being wired with a negative bias that used to help keep us safe, but it's not particularly useful now. So how can you change it?

Firstly, you need to pay attention to what's going on in your head. What are you saying to yourself? Is it things that you wouldn't say openly to others? Is it so harsh and deprecating that you wouldn't say it to a friend? If it is, then maybe it's time for an upgrade in your self-talk.

Once you've figured out what you're saying to yourself - pay attention and when you become aware that you are being hard on yourself, stop. Try not to judge yourself, that will just complicate matters. Take a moment to intentionally counteract the negative messages with positive one about your life. The key word here is "intentionally". Perhaps you have a negative message that replays every time you make a mistake. As a child you were told, "You'll never amount to anything" or "You can't do anything right". When you make a mistake, and you will because we all do, you can choose to overwrite that message with a positive one, such as "Everyone makes mistakes, I'm not a bad person because of it" or "I'm going to learn and grow from my mistake".

It can help to be prepared. If you wish you can jot down all the negative beliefs and things you say to yourself - then next to it write a positive response that helps to re-frame how you talk to yourself.

Another strategy lies in recalling your past successes and writing them down so you can look back at them every now and then. Even the simplest achievement can cause you to feel positive. More importantly, those thoughts, along with the positive words, crowd out the negative words stuck on repeat in your head. Positive self-talk helps with attention, it serves to help people focus and block distractions.

One of the keys to success is practising because it's too easy to fall back into old habits. Remember, you deserve to treat yourself kindly!

So, back to talking to ourselves out loud. Apparently, researchers have found that repeating the name of the item you're looking for in a supermarket helps you to find it more quickly. I'm yet to find the research to support that, but I might give it a try next time I'm walking around the aisles lost in frustration! What I won't be doing is telling myself I'm an idiot and berating myself for not being able to find it.

If you see me walking around the supermarket, looking lost and chatting away to myself, don't be alarmed, I'm just researching my next column!

If this column has triggered feelings of anxiety, hopelessness or depression, please seek the help of a health professional or call one of the numbers from the following website:

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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