3 Proven Strategies to Replace Negative Self-Talk
Self-confidence is important to success, but many women struggle to build, maintain, and express confidence consistently in their personal and professional lives. Confidence ebbs and flows based on the situations and the people around us. Just when you think you have locked it down in cruise control, a curve ball comes and takes it down a notch.
As Katty Kay and Claire Shipman discuss in their book Confidence Code, women’s brains are wired a little differently from men’s, and this impacts their confidence. In their research, they found that women have neurons dispersed throughout both the rational and emotional centers of their brain, while men’s neurons are concentrated in the prefrontal cortex where rational thought prevails. Furthermore, they note that men tend to focus internally, while women focus on the others around them, leading them to base their confidence more on the external environment.
Another confidence guru, Amy Cuddy, focuses her research on presence and its impact on confidence. Her studies on four- and six-year-olds, discussed in the book Presence, confirms that perceptions of gender differences are cemented at a young age. In the research, two gender-neutral dolls are placed in front of the children, who are then asked to identify which gender they see based on body positioning. One doll is in an enclosed position, with its arms and legs held close to the body (unconfident). The other doll is in an expansive position, with its arms and legs extended outwardly from the body (confident). Nearly 80% of six-year-olds and 60% of four-year-olds identified the doll with the enclosed body position as a girl.
The way boys and girls are raised also affects confidence. Girls are often taught to care for and share with others at a young age, while boys are encouraged to be brave and take risks. These subconscious gender roles are still at play in our adult lives.
Given these biological differences, compounded with the gender norms of women’s upbringings, women often naturally lack confidence. The good news is that there are proven strategies to overcome this confidence gap. These confidence-building tools counterbalance what I call the “negative thought reel” – the internal dialogue inside your brain that disrupts your confidence. It is pivotal to replace this reel.
The negative thought reel goes something like this – “I am not good enough,” “There is no way I could do that,” or “I do not deserve it.” It is very common to have these phrases pop in and out of your brain from time to time. But if these false thoughts occur too often, you may actually begin to believe them.
Those in the throes of the negative thought reel cycle might benefit from the following strategies to overcome negative self-talk.
Documenting your thoughts is a critical first step in understanding what fears may be driving your negative self-talk. Each day, jot down your thoughts about what made you happy, sad, proud, afraid, confident, intimidated, etc. It is critical that the thoughts are recorded exactly as they play in your head – no filtering. After about 10 days, you will be able to summarize key themes from these daily records. List these themes in categories that make sense – maybe just two columns of positive vs. negative, or in groups that work for you. Typically, the positive list is fairly short, yet affirming, while the negative column is lengthy and concerning. This makes sense – the brain is primal and responds to threats in the environment with a fight or flight response. But the world does not have the same threats it once did when saber-toothed tigers were walking around and this type of thinking was helpful. Now, humans, especially women, often act as their own saber-toothed tiger, attacking themselves with negative self-talk.
Once you have identified the themes, you can tackle them one by one. Start with the positive themes first. What makes you most happy, proud, and confident? You may discover that the people you are around or the experiences you have had drive these feelings. Remembering the importance of internal confidence, dig deep to find things within your control that fuel self-assurance. Chances are they are connected to your values – the attributes that are important to you in your life. Prioritize your themes into no more than three to five groups and name them. These are your confidence boosters, and your job is to align your efforts with these themes as much as possible in your daily life.
Themes in the negative column are also very revealing. Again, prioritize the top themes into a few distinct areas. These are your confidence limiters. If they are externally oriented, the good news is that you can choose to avoid these people and/or experiences as much as possible, or you can work to regain control of how you let them affect you. That’s the thing about confidence – it’s your choice to be confident, not someone else’s.
If the confidence limiters are internally oriented, you may need to do some soul searching. You need to understand the fear behind them – fear of failure, of not being perfect, of letting someone else down. These fears are real in your mind, but are not necessarily based in reality. The more you understand the fear and what is driving it, the more equipped you are to proactively recognize when you are slipping into the negative thought reel and can bring yourself back to reality.
Writing your own personal narrative is another powerful technique. Essentially, it requires you to ask yourself the question, “What do I want?” from all angles:
- For your business/career
- With your relationships
- With your family
- For your health/wellness
- Spiritually/from religion
- Overall to ensure future happiness
Once you have the answers, weave them into a short story about your life with all positive words said in the present tense. You may want to record yourself reading your story. Repeat it at least four times or find a recording device with an automatic loop. Then, each night for at least 30 days, listen to the recording. By listening to your personal narrative, your subconscious brain will begin to believe it and map your daily actions to achieve it.
Positive affirmations are another powerful tool to quash negative thoughts. These are encouraging statements that are aspirational and rooted in reality. Positive affirmations must be said in present tense and, by nature, are inherently optimistic. They answer the questions, “What is important to me?” “What do I want?”” and “What I will do?” Brainstorm all possible positive affirmations and then reflect on which ones make you feel most motivated. This is clearly a gut feeling – go with it. Then, select three to five statements, ideally, but no more than seven, and make them visual. For example, you can write them on masking tape and display them throughout your working space where you can’t help but notice them. Rotate and update them every few months if you feel yourself losing focus or letting them blur into the background. If a negative thought arises, recognize it as the negative thought reel and replace it with a positive affirmation.
Using these confidence-boosting tools will help to keep the negative thoughts at bay and the positive thoughts at the forefront, where they should be.9