Negative self-talk

BY NICOLA JOHNSON

In the second of our blogs, aimed at helping young minds improve their communication skills and self-belief, I am delighted to lean on the fantastic Nicola Johnson. Usually found in legal and financial circles, Nicks also consults on governance and discipline in Rugby Union. But this piece speaks perfectly about an issue and situation any of us can face. Using her own experience, she provides some helpful tips and reminds us of a well-known and world-class rugby ritual.

Following on from Sam’s excellent blog last month discussing Imposter Syndrome, this piece is going to try to dig deeper into the subject, and to make some suggestions on how both of these can be managed. This is with the caveat that I am outlining my personal views and approach to the subject; what works for me won’t work for everyone, but hopefully it will provide a starting point.

Full disclosure: I have found this a very tricky subject to write about. It is a complex, very important subject, and I’m scared of getting something wrong. This is my negative self-talk kicking in, which is usually followed by the imposter syndrome – what right do I have to talk about this subject? Who do I think I am? I’m not a life coach; I’m not any sort of expert. However, I am a human being, who has experienced all of these emotions at one time or another. I have listened to, and read, a lot of experts, and in this blog, am regurgitating the parts which resonated the most with me.

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That’s the crux of it – negative self-talk, if it remains unchecked, can stop us from doing things that we really want to do: because we don’t want to fail, look silly or be criticised. At its worst, negative self-talk and imposter syndrome can stop us from reaching our full potential and achieving our goals. One of the fundamental learnings I have made in this area is that negative self-talk and imposter syndrome are completely interconnected. Managing one of these is to manage both. Equally, if you are doubting yourself, it will be both of these foes messing with your mind.

Why does it happen? How our brains and minds work is fascinating. There are many who know more about it than me, but what I can say is this: our brains don’t like to be wrong. If we tell ourselves something often enough, our brains will believe it. One of the many reasons behind this is that the primary purpose of our brain is to keep us safe. Moving out of our comfort zone may not be safe, so the brain actively discourages it. This starts in early childhood: trying new foods is a common example. It can also be conditioned into us, with the use of language, such as ‘you won’t like that’; ‘you won’t be able to do that’.

This can all be used to conquer the doubts. If the brain doesn’t like to be wrong, what if we tell it something different, and keep repeating it until it believes it? That’s the key to managing these issues – it can genuinely be that simple. Practising self-affirmations or mantras is proven to help people to perform better and to have more self-confidence. These mantras don’t have to be over-complicated or long – something as simple as “I am enough”, or ‘I am worthy/capable/strong” would be absolutely perfect. The key is to repeat it often – and by often, I mean multiple times daily; I mean every single time that you feel the doubts creep in. Make it a habit. Once it has become a habit, keep repeating it – practice it daily, the way Jonny Wilkinson practiced his goal kicking.

British and Irish Lions 2013: Jonny Wilkinson turns down place on Lions  tour - Wales Online
Jonny Wilkinson kicking at goal for the British & Irish Lions

Jonny is a great example to use. Someone who was at the top of his game for so many years, but was plagued with self-doubt and nerves, yet still succeeded. How did he manage? If you look at the routine he went through every time he kicked a goal, it is exactly the same – the ball placement, the actions, the rhythm, the process, the focus – exactly the same, every single time. This is another example of self-affirmation or mantra, but in a physical rather than verbal sense – he built a habit, and was able to silence the doubts by following his routine. That’s also why he was so unaffected by the noise from the crowd – he was totally focussed on his job.

To sum up, what practical steps can you take to tackle the imposter syndrome and the negative self-talk?

  1. Identify when you do it and feel the emotion, especially the negative self-talk. Would you speak to a friend like that? Probably not – so don’t speak to yourself like that. Stop yourself every single time you realise that you are doing it – I like to repeat my mantra until I am calm again.
  2. Write a mantra; repeat it; repeat it until it is the first thing you hear in your head when you wake up and the last thing you hear at night. Then keep repeating it. Write it on the bathroom mirror if that helps; put notes around your home, in your schoolbag, anywhere that you might need it.
  3. Practice – it is absolutely true what they say about practice making perfect. And prepare. Proper preparation always makes me feel more confident and more in control.
  4. Come with up goals – what do you want to achieve? Try to make them bite-sized – the SMART acronym is useful here (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timeframe).
  5. Find a mentor – someone who has achieved the goals you want to; someone you respect and someone who can coach, support and advise you.
  6. Remember that failure is part of life – there is not a single successful person on the planet who has not encountered failure at some point in their life. But failure does not define you; it is only a set back and hopefully a learning experience. Remember that it takes strength, courage and resilience to get back up after being knocked down.
  7. Finally, if you are struggling, talk to someone – a friend, a teacher, a coach, a parent. Never feel that you are alone.

Good luck!

Follow Nicks on Twitter @nicksjj

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5 Responses to Negative self-talk

  1. Kim Lee says:

    Thanks Sam. Sensible information translated in your excellent style into words.

    Like

  2. Kim Lee says:

    How embarrassing – I’ve just re-read the piece and realise I complimented Sam for writing it but all he did was facilitate it. My thanks and compliments should go to Nicola!

    Like

  3. Kim Lee says:

    I suppose I should admit to being dumb, but that would be negative self-talk………..

    Like

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