Self-talk is a well-known psychological skill that can be used to enhance performance, but only if you believe what your internal thoughts are saying. Of course, the type of self-talk employed makes a big difference in belief. For instance, belief isn’t necessarily part of the picture when using internal cue-words to direct attention and focus, which is a form of self-talk but a special use of the same skill. If you are telling yourself, as a gymnast, “quick hands” when performing a back handspring on beam, you are not believing in your hands, you are directing your focus to a portion of a skill and these cue-words help to direct your abilities and intentions. On the other hand, telling yourself something encouraging like “You got this” is exactly where the efficacy of the skill can be diminished if there is not a belief that you can do what you are trying to do.
Self-talk as a skill is sometimes encouraged or promoted with the direction to simply state what you want and to rehearse and repeat this affirmation/statement as part of practice. Unfortunately, if we are not inclined to believe in the affirmation, despite wanting it to happen, we are lying to ourselves. We cannot lie to ourselves in this fashion and expect any great results. It is not much different from receiving the same “un”believable encouragement from others. Think of a coach or parent who continues to tell you how great you are and how capable you are of succeeding in your efforts when you don’t feel that their perceptions are accurate at all; when, in fact, you may even feel the opposite. Does this lead to your being able to execute your performance with confidence and success? Usually, it results in frustration and sometimes less reliability on the encourager’s perceptions.
Ridding yourself of the negative thoughts that you are likely trying to change (“You can’t do this,” “You’re not good enough,” “You don’t belong here”) would have been accomplished a long time ago if you were capable of just avoiding, ignoring, or changing them on a whim. Unfortunately, these thoughts will continue and coping with them is a matter of process and course. We are fully capable of diminishing their frequency, duration, and intensity. We are not capable of dismissing them entirely.
Strategies that Work
If you can’t tell yourself what you want and believe it, and you can can’t rid yourself of the negative thoughts, you will have to use a different strategy to manage and cope with them. One such strategy is finding something that is believable but not necessarily as positive as you want. First, make the undesired statement as precise as possible. Next, challenge the statement for overgeneralizations, extremes, and any potential doubts. Then, develop a new statement that is believable but calls out the challenges; or remove adjectives or extremes from the original statement without adding different adjectives or extremes. Finally, work with this new statement until it becomes comfortable to you and helps you grow.
Negative Statement: I’m stupid
Positive, unbelievable, desired replacement: I’m smart
Rephrasing the negative statement to be more precise: I am a stupid person
Challenge statement: overgeneralization? Am I stupid in all aspects
Challenge statement: extremes? Am I stupid at everything
Challenge statement: potential doubts? Are there times/areas I am smart
Potential New Statement: I am smart sometimes. I am smart in some areas.
Alternatively remove adjectives: I am a person (neither smart nor stupid; maybe sometimes a little of both) which is the middle ground.
Negative Statement: I’m the worst at backhand springs near the end of the beam
Positive, unbelievable, desired replacement: I’m the best at backhand springs near the end of the beam
Rephrasing the negative statement to be more precise: I am the worst of everyone in the gym at backhand springs near the end of the beam
Challenge statement: overgeneralization? Am I the worst of everyone in the gym [even lower level gymnasts?]
Challenge statement: extremes? Am I the worst [there are no positive qualities?]
Challenge statement: potential doubts? Are there times I have successfully executed this skill? What about other areas of the beam? Have I been working progressions?
Potential New Statement: I am struggling with a particular skill in a particular place and it can be scary, but I can work progressions and compare how I have achieved higher and higher skills through this process.
Alternatively remove adjectives: I am working on backhand springs near the end of the beam.
Take Action (in writing)
Working through this process is easier when you write it out, especially right after you become aware of it. Also, be aware that seeing your negative statements on paper may elicit an emotional response. Actually looking at what you tell yourself and writing it out can make you face something you would rather not face; but it does allow you to do something about it (take action) instead of hiding from it (a futile effort). Committing yourself to making the change and focusing your mind on the middle ground as often as possible with intention and purpose is essential to making the process more efficient and successful. Don’t get discouraged when you are aware of the negative original statement habitually coming back (again, if you could rid yourself of it on a whim, you would have done this already), just refocus and attend to the new statement.