While you are going through your workday, how do you think about yourself? Do you think things like “Yes! I am so good at this. I’ve really got what it takes to succeed here!” Or is it more like “Who am I kidding? How did I ever think I could pull this off?!” Let’s really test this. Think of the last time you made a mistake. What did you think then: “Loser?” “Idiot?” “I always screw things up?” “I’m just not good enough?”
Most of us seem to have some of those kinds of negative thoughts about ourselves come up, especially when things aren’t going our way or we’ve made a mistake. When I talk to clients about their negative self-talk, they usually think that it’s a good motivator, pushing them to work harder, fix what they’ve been doing wrong, or just get it right the next time. At the very least, they think the negative messages they give themselves are harmless. They are wrong.
The truth is these kinds of messages are damaging. They will slow you down, demotivate you and limit your creativity. I’ve seen them be completely debilitating, leading clients to essentially give up. It’s as if they’ve mentally thrown up their hands and said “Why bother. If I’m such a loser, I might as well not try.”
What can you do if you have one of these negative messages blocking you? I use two different techniques. The first works quite fast but you would need to learn to use a strange-looking technique. The second will take a commitment on your part to follow through with it, but you can start it right now with just paper and pen.
1. Using EFT (“tapping”) to eliminate negative self talk
When a client comes to me with a prominent and persistent negative statement, it tells me that they’ve learned over time to believe something unhelpful about themselves and it’s become a significant block for them. In these situations I will often use a strange looking but surprisingly effective interactive relaxation and refocusing technique called EFT which helps them “unlearn” negative beliefs. I use this technique because I’ve found that it is the fastest way for my clients to let go of those negative statements. When my clients stop using their negative statements all the time, those statements stop doing damage to their motivation, focus, and ambition. They can think about their present situation and options, and even mistakes they make, in a much more objective way.
It works like this: I lead my clients in a guided conversation in which we review the evidence they have for their negative emotional beliefs, while—and this is the strange looking part—they tap with two fingers on a series of acupressure points on their own hands, head and torso. I tap on myself at the same time while guiding the conversations about their beliefs. If you want to see what EFT looks like in practice, you can check out my article about “tapping down” stress.
Let me break out this technique for you with a little more detail. First I ask my client to repeat out loud the negative statement they’ve been thinking about themselves. Then I ask them to tell me, on a scale of 0 to 100%, how true their statement feels (not how true they think the statement is, but how true it feels). Next we begin a few short rounds of tapping—I show them where to tap, but they do their own tapping—while talking about an event that led to their negative emotional belief. When this process is complete I ask them to tell me again, on a scale of 0 to 100%, how true their statement still feels. Very often, after we have tapped and talked about the first event they offered as evidence for their emotional belief, their negative statement comes down from feeling 70% true, or higher, to zero. We’ve relaxed and refocused that negative belief right out of existence just with a little tapping and talking. And we can get back to business.
However, if after some tapping and talking we find that the self-defeating emotional belief is still at work, at least in part, this may mean there are more events underpinning that belief that we can talk and tap about. Often another event, or a different negative statement, occurs to the client after the first one has been minimized. In either case we do another round of tapping and talking, which takes care of the new statement or event the same way. So you can see that this works faster for some folks than for others, but it brings improvement for just about everyone relatively quickly.
You can use EFT all by yourself to eliminate your own negative statements—I teach clients how to do this, as a matter of fact—but the guided conversation part takes a bit of training and practice so you may want to get help with it. Even EFT practitioners such as myself will often turn to another practitioner to help them get rid of an emotional belief. It can be difficult to see something that you’ve lived with for a long time in a new way that allows you to get rid of it.
2. Using your own evidence to eliminate negative self talk
Of course, I know that learning do-it-yourself EFT is not on most people’s To Do lists. If that’s you, there is an alternative way to get rid of your negative self-talk. It will take longer, but all you’ll need is paper and pen.
Draw a line down the center of a piece of paper. On the left-hand side of the paper near the top, write down the negative statement you use most often. Next, in the right-hand column write down all the evidence that your negative statement is not true. Evidence can come from any time in your life. Individual pieces of evidence can be minor by themselves. The point is that each thing you write down puts the lie to that negative statement you’ve been telling yourself.
Let’s say you wrote down the negative statement “I’m such an idiot.” You would write down everything that’s ever happened that proves that you are not an idiot. You might start with things from your youth like: “I got a lot of Bs and some As in junior high and high school;” “My art teacher told me I had a good grasp of perspective;” or “I memorized the entire opening to He-Man!” Don’t stop with school. Try things from work: “My first boss said I was a quick study when we put everything into an online format;” “I’ve been hired for four different positions that took a fair amount of brainpower;” or “I was picked to create a new process in my last job that led to our department using one-third less time to get the data out.” Don’t forget other areas of your life: “I was asked to lead the fundraising auction for the kids’ school;” “My brother always wants me to look over his taxes;” and “I was able to explain the basic idea of String Theory to my friends over dinner last month.” Don’t stop at three. You should put down at least ten things on the right side of the paper. The more the merrier—or more powerful
Once you have a fair amount of evidence on the right hand side of the page, it’s time to change the negative statement. On the left hand side of the page, near the bottom, write down a positive statement that you can use instead of the negative statement. By positive, I don’t mean Pollyanna, like “Everything always works out perfectly for me.” What you want is something that is stated in positive terms. So instead of writing “I’m not an idiot,” you might write something like “I’m smart enough to figure things out.”
Make sure your positive statement is supported by the evidence. That way, if you catch yourself rolling your eyes when you say the new positive statement, you can pull out the piece of paper, read the evidence (yes, all of it), go back and say the new statement knowing that it is true. So don’t use “I’m the next Einstein” unless you really are.
There will undoubtedly be a number of positive statements that could fit your evidence. You might want to write down several, then pick the one that seems the most powerful to you. Circle that one. That’s the new statement you are going to replace the old negative one with.
Here’s where the real work comes in. From now on, every time you say that old negative statement to yourself (“I’m an idiot”), you need to stop yourself and say instead the new positive statement (“I’m smart enough to figure things out”). Yes, every time. What you are trying to do is change an ingrained habit. To do that you need to replace the old habit with a new one. If you occasionally let the old habit slip by, you are reinforcing it and the whole process will take longer.
How long does this take? Well, research says that changing an old habit takes around two to three months of actually doing the new activity (here, that means saying the positive statement instead of the negative one). I know, I know. That sounds like a very long time. But think about it. You’ve been saying the negative statement to yourself for how long now? Years, maybe? A few months is small sacrifice to reap the benefits of getting it out of your head.
Plus, you will start to notice improvements much sooner than two months if you put this plan into place. The old statement will come up less and less. You will have more energy for what you need to do since that old statement won’t be bringing you down. You’ll be able to think more clearly, get more creative. After a while (say, two to three months) you will notice that you haven’t said that negative statement in over a week. Soon after that you will stop thinking about it at all. In a year or two you’ll find that old piece of paper when cleaning out your desk drawer and realize that you just don’t think that negative thought anymore. Congratulations! You’re done with it, and can throw out the paper.
You will want to change all the negative thoughts you have for the reasons I’ve mentioned above. Here’s one more word of advice about that: don’t try to do them all at once. For one thing, actually writing down a lot of negative statements about yourself is likely to bring you down. In addition, it can be overwhelming trying to change everything at once—so much so that you might give up before you make any headway. That would be a shame since you will get a great benefit from changing even one negative statement.
So work on one, get rid of it completely, then pick the next one. Each negative statement you work on should be easier to change than the last one. And you’ll be amazed at what a difference that makes in your work.