At the end of 2017, I decided to take a leap with my life and career. For seven and a half years I worked in Miami as a professor and did some consulting for the athletics department and a few clients outside the university. I was just promoted to the rank of Associate Professor, but I decided to leave my job and life there in order to move to New York City to pursue my dream of being a full-time consultant. Personally, I wasn’t happy living in South Florida. Professionally, I felt like my career had plateaued. I had been waiting for the right time or opportunity to come along to make this transition, but it never came. I was unhappy and felt like I was surviving rather than thriving in my career and life. I realized I was holding myself back and I knew I would really regret letting a few more years go by, waking up 40 in the same place!
So, I leapt. I tried to be as proactive as possible, saving some money, selling my car, finding some part-time teaching opportunities, following up with some connections I had made already in the city. While I felt a sense of calm, and felt the proverbial weight lifted off the shoulders — once I made my decision and started putting things into motion, none of that could completely get rid of the fear, doubt, and negative self-talk that sometimes slowly crept its way in and other times hit me like a ton of bricks. There have been many sleepless nights when the anxiety was so strong and the worried, pessimistic voice in my head was so active that it felt overwhelming. And then there have been days when I’ve felt insanely certain about my move and my ability to be successful. On those days the voice in my head left me feeling so confident and motivated I just wanted to hold onto that for dear life. I like to think that I’m pretty mentally strong; I grew up doing equestrian showjumping for thirteen years, getting thrown off a million times, and even once breaking a jump with my face. And I’ve been in the sport, exercise, and performance psychology field for 15 years now. Yet this life transition has felt like I’m riding a roller coaster of emotion which sometimes wreaks havoc on what I think and say to myself.
That voice in my head, the one we all have that’s always there trying to guide us, was sometimes my biggest ally (“You can do this.” “You’re working so hard to make this work.” “You’re great at what you do and have invested a lot in yourself over the years to be where you are.”) and sometimes my biggest nemesis (“What have you done?” This is the most expensive city in the world, how are you going to continue to pay the bills?” “What if you can’t make it work?”). Sometimes I couldn’t even tell you what the voice was actually saying because it was going so fast, moving from thought to thought, fear to fear, that I couldn’t even keep up with it.
Our minds and bodies are built to protect us, to keep us safe by being reactive to our environments and situations; but their acts of protection don’t actually always serve us well. With all those fearful and doubt-filled thoughts, my mind was trying to make me aware of the danger I was getting myself into so that I could effectively guard myself from it. If I had let that voice lead me down a path towards inaction, ineffectiveness, or indecisiveness, I would be letting it lead me astray. It thought it was protecting me, but what it was really doing was trying to keep me in my comfort zone, nice and safe.
To navigate my way through this time of excitement and courage mixed with worry and what felt like sheer terror at times, I’ve kept a few important things in mind about self-talk:
- In order to have optimal self-talk you first have to get to know your habits and tendencies. What do you say to yourself, when, and why? How often is it positive, negative, or neutral? How does it affect you and for how long? Do you use single words, short phrases, or have a full blown conversation with yourself? Is the voice making statements or asking questions? Are you in control of what you’re saying to yourself or are your thoughts running away with themselves on their own? When is that voice quiet versus active? Notice and profile your self-talk in general and during specific situations.
- The tense you use when talking to yourself can play a role. Do you say “I’ve got this”, “you’ve got this,” or “Lauren you’ve got this”? Using first person personalizes things which may or may not be helpful to you. And some recent research suggests using third person can help you distance yourself from your emotions. So, it’s important to get a sense of your tendencies and determine which tense works best for you and when.
- The content of self-talk isn’t the key thing to think about in and of itself (the words you’re saying to yourself and whether it’s positive or negative). What makes self-talk so powerful is its impact. It can either help us or hurt us: focus us on the right things or the wrong things, shift our perspective to threat or challenge, make us feel defeated or energized, increase our effort and persistence or lead to inaction, lead us to feel confident or filled with doubt, prompt helpful or harmful emotions. In psychology, when we talk about the importance of positive over negative self-talk what we’re really talking about is whether what you say to yourself is constructive or destructive, not whether it’s worded positively or negatively. I’ve worked with many athletes and leaders over the years who thrive when saying negatively worded things to themselves or when the tone they use with themselves is harsh.
- We have hundreds of cognitive biases at work behind the scenes that are intended to help us economize our thinking. However, sometimes they do more harm than good. For example, the confirmation bias leads us to seek out or notice evidence that supports a belief we have, particularly when it’s a strong one. So, if you have a belief about yourself that is negative or self-defeating you will be looking for evidence that supports that belief without even realizing it.
Throughout these past few months of vacillating confidence and fear, I’ve used several strategies I recommend to clients in order to use self-talk to my advantage, make sure the right voice is in my head more often than not, and quiet the wrong voice when it rears its head to signal danger, danger, danger ahead.
- I fight back. This voice will always be there trying its best to protect me when I need it. But I don’t have to let it win the battle and lead me down a path that isn’t going to help me do what I need to do in order to put myself in the best position for success. So, when it starts talking, I start talking back. And I get specific. I don’t just tell myself I can do this, I remind myself of reasons why I should believe that (show me the evidence!). And I get focused back onto the reasons I made this move (my why) and what I need to continue to do and focus on (the what). An old Native American fable talks about a young boy whose grandfather teaches him about the two wolves, one evil and one good, we all have within us. It is up to us which wolf will win so I try to feed the good wolf daily.
- I practice mindfulness daily to have some self-compassion and focus on the WIN (what’s important now). This includes mindful moments throughout the day – noticing the sun on my face, the feel of the ground underneath my feet, the sounds of the people around me. I also do mindfulness meditation daily. Sometimes it’s only a minute, sometimes ten, but I make sure to do it every day so that I’m practicing my ability to notice what it’s my mind and what impact its having on me, and then refocus back onto what’s important rather than getting caught up in emotion or things that will distract me from what I need to be focusing on. This also helps me to not be overly critical of myself which likely won’t help me to stay motivated and persevere. It can be easy to berate yourself too much for what you’ve done or not done, or compare yourself to others. For some and in small doses this may be motivating, for others and if done too much it may not help you keep moving forward on a path towards putting yourself in a position to be successful.
- I practice gratitude. There is always something to be grateful for even in the most challenging or scary moments. I look for these things and remind myself of them especially when that voice of fear or negativity is particularly strong.
- I work on my resilience. Every failure is an opportunity to learn if we choose to let it be. When things don’t go how I want them to or when I’m not able to get to the place I want to be at times, I focus on what I can learn from the situation rather than getting stuck in how I feel about it. Allowing yourself to feel negative emotions can be good to a point because it can motivate you for next time. However, it can be harmful if you let those negative emotions linger and affect what you do next. So, the voice I activate in my head is all about how I can be better for having done or experienced this moving forward. Language and perspective are powerful; it’s important to make sure you aren’t being too positive or too negative in how you look at and talk to yourself about your experiences of adversity. In order to do this, I reflect (written or in thought): what went or is going well, what could I do or have done differently, what will I do next.
- I imagine my future. I don’t do this in a super positive, everything is going to be amazing way (some science suggests this can be more harmful than helpful). Instead I imagine myself giving pitches to clients, leading workshops, in client meetings, on phone calls, etc. and talk myself through these scenarios using if-then planning to think about what I want to do, what could happen, what I will say, and how I will respond and adapt if needed. This helps me feel prepared, ready, and confident. Visualization is a really effective tool if you use it effectively.
- I use a mantra. I have a short phrase I use to remind myself of what’s important and keep hold of the good voice in my head, the one that’s going to help me rather than get in my way. It’s important to get this right and not just use a generic affirmation or one you don’t really believe. The mantra should have the intended impact you are looking for (for example, increase your confidence, get you focused on the right things, increase your motivation, refocus you on your values) and should be something you consistently use throughout your day starting with when you wake up in the morning and especially when that evil wolf within gets talking. Keep in mind that it may need to change each day or you could have one that stays relevant for some time; you may also need different mantras for different situations. Alternatively, you can ask yourself a question instead of saying a statement.
I don’t know whether my move is going to be successful or not. After a few months of giving it a shot, I do know I’m really happy I made the move; I absolutely love living in the Big Apple and I love what I’m doing. That voice of doubt still rears its head from time to time reinforcing that I have to stay committed to practicing what I preach so that I can be in control of my fate as much as possible. We’re human and there’s no way to rid ourselves of the voices that sometimes pop up in our minds that usually have the best intentions or are just acting out of habit, but aren’t leading us in the direction we need to go.
Take steps to own your voice more, especially at times when you’re stretching your comfort zone, stepping into situations that can lead you to accomplish your BHAGs. It might be scary, you might not end up with the outcome that you want, but you will have strengthened your mental muscle and become better for it.
“Be careful how you are talking to yourself because you are listening.” – Lisa M. Hayes