Five Proven Ways to Stop Crippling Negative Self-Talk
“Introspection is a double-edged sword.” ~ Ethan Kross
Our ability to observe our own mental processes defines us as human. While introspection can serve as a valuable tool for navigating life, it only works when we do it the right way.
Unfortunately, all too often we allow introspection to morph into harmful cycles of negative thoughts and feelings. As a coach, I’ve witnessed smart clients get sucked into downward spirals of worry about things that haven’t yet happened. The resulting mental paralysis halts their progress toward finishing their doctorate.
When you worry, ruminate, or catastrophize, you’re stuck in mental “chatter,” explains Ethan Kross, PhD., renowned U of Michigan Professor of Psychology and Management. Managing your internal conversations to avoid such chatter is the key to success, he finds.
Kross is no stranger to the downsides of negative introspection. After receiving an anonymous death threat, he spent a few sleepless nights wandering around his house with a baseball bat worried about his family’s safety. Fortunately, he eventually hit on a way to get back to sleep and a productive routine, embarking on a study of what makes our minds run amok. The result is the story of these studies, culminating in a handy toolbox for those beset by needless mental chatter.
Here are five of the best tools curated from his book. If you need to quiet the mental chatter to get traction, experiment with one or more of them. (And if you want the research details behind these strategies, I highly recommend his book.)
1. Harness your self-talk.
It is usually easier to give someone else advice than to advise yourself—and you can capitalize on this idea.
Start talking to yourself as if you are someone else, using “you” and your own name. For example, I might say aloud to myself: “Gayle, dear, simply follow the recipe. Just take it one step at a time. You’ve got this!”
Doing this helps you step back and put things in perspective so you can manage stress and reason better. “Indeed, subtle shifts in the words we use to refer to ourselves can influence how we think, feel, and behave, sometimes in surprising way,” observes Kross.
Or imagine you are advising a friend who has this problem. What suggestions would you offer them?
2. Choose thoughtfully to whom you vent.
Despite popular wisdom about catharsis, venting your negative thoughts will not help you recover and may exacerbate your bad feelings. Talking to someone who is good at commiserating makes you feel better in the moment. But the evidence is clear that it can easily lead you into a downward spiral that sets you further back.
While finding someone who will accept your feelings is a good start, make sure your chosen confidante is someone who will encourage you to broaden your perspective and seek solutions.
3. Make your bed.
Creating order amidst chaos, e.g., by making your bed or straightening your bookshelf, also helps calm a chattering mind. These concrete actions offer a sense of “compensatory control” aspect of your life, even if it is not your main challenge. This phenomenon may underlie the “life-changing magic of tidying up” that catapulted Marie Kondo to fame: Seeing neatly folded shirts and socks gives you the comforting feeling that other things will fall into place.
For me, weeding the garden and trying new recipes give me a sense of control. The steps are clear; the outcome is guaranteed. I feel empowered.
What would work for you? Keep in mind that it does not have to relate to your work. It only needs to make you feel in control.
Or you might turn to rituals, as do many athletes. Kross notes the quirky but predictable behavioral sequence of tennis star Rafael Nadal in high-stress games. Nadal sips his drinks in a specific order and then arranges the bottles “just so” before returning to the court. He also carefully arranges and rearranges his hair before each serve.
Some of my clients benefit from implementing pre-writing rituals that involve fixing a cup of coffee or tea, putting on music, lighting a candle, and so on. Personalize this so it resonates with you.
4. Reframe threats as challenges.
“Chatter is often triggered when we interpret a situation as a threat,” Kross observes. Reinterpreting it as a challenge helps your inner voice move from chatter to solution-focused behavior. Chatter can also be induced by physical stress symptoms, e.g., hyperventilating or sweating. You can remind yourself that these normal manifestations of your nervous system are adaptive evolutionary adaptations designed to improve your performance under stress.
More than one of my dissertation clients has experienced debilitating anxiety about potential criticism on their writing. At times, such anxiety is so bad that has kept them from completing anything to submit to their advisor in the first place. “What if they think I’m stupid? That I don’t belong in the program?” Reframing dissertation writing as a learning process aided by feedback rather than a final judgment of their intellectual ability often makes it possible to get words on the page again.
How can you reframe threats you may face?
5. Go for awesome.
“Research shows that experiencing awe doesn’t just make us feel good; it also provides us with a tool for broadening our perspective in ways that help keep our chatter at bay,” Kroll writes.
What inspires awe in you? Is it taking in a glorious sunset or walking amidst a cloud of fireflies on a summer night? Contemplating a work of art or music? Watching a stellar performance by an athlete or actor? Observing a toddler learning to walk or catch a ball?
When we feel we are in the presence of something vast and hard to explain, we grow our perspective. Our daily problems shrink in comparison—and the chatter quiets down. While you can’t force yourself to feel awe, you can choose to put yourself in situations where you are more likely to experience it.
When you can master the conversations you have with yourself, you are well on your way to mastering much of what life will throw at you. Without the unnecessary added drag of chatter, you will finish your dissertation faster—and have the pleasure of offering yourself a hearty “congratulations, doctor!”
Top photo credit: Unknown Author, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND