Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?

Alistair Skellern

Alistair Skellern

Principal Consultant

It’s a strange question. I ask it because having coached leaders and sportspeople over the last 20 years, one thing I’ve become acutely aware of is how many people “get in their own way”.

What do I mean? Well, I’m referring to that voice in your head, your self-talk or internal dialogue. We all do it by the way (talk to ourselves), most of our conversations are in the privacy of our own head! You are probably discussing it with yourself whilst reading this! Perhaps talking to ourselves is not the issue, it’s when we listen to ourselves…

The key then must be what we are saying to ourselves, and indeed, how we are saying it and the impact it is having on us.

During the profound upheaval many have faced globally during the COVID-19 pandemic, greater focus has been brought to bear on the mental wellness of our teams, our colleagues and our loved ones. Quite rightly so. I would add also a focus on our own well-being, in the form of attention to our self-talk.

The latest in neuroscience and psychology suggests that the kind of talk you engage in has a profound impact on the quality of your life.

Quite simply, the language you use to describe your circumstances determines how you see, experience and take part in them, and dramatically affects how you deal with your life.

It shows up in how you confront problems, large or small. Whether you catastrophise situations, or are able to zoom out and view rationally from a distance. In his recent book “Chatter”, psychologist and neuroscientist Ethan Kross, suggests tools and strategies to “tame” our inner-dialogue and “help people resolve the tension between getting caught in the negative thought spirals (catastrophising) and thinking clearly and constructively”.

The techniques he suggests are often simply applied “life-hacks” if you like, to shift our thinking to gain greater control of the conversations we are having with ourselves, controlling the inner-voice.

Whilst the techniques are scientifically validated, it is up to the individual to practice them, and discover which are most effective for them, but in short, the good news is that positive self-talk can dramatically improve mood, increase productivity and grow personal confidence.

So let’s take a look at two key examples.

The first is to use distanced self-talk.

Kross describes experiments whereby half of the participants were asked to view an upsetting memory through their own eyes, the other half from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. The groups were labelled “immersers” and “distancers”.

The immersers got trapped in their emotion and tended to focus on the hurt, leading to yet more negative feelings. The distancers were able to take a broader perspective, think more clearly and emerge with the insights of a third-party observer, often arriving at constructive solutions.

So what is the tool? Use distanced self-talk. Kross identifies the power of using your own name, and second person “you” to refer to yourself. “Alistair, calm down, this is not the end of the world”.

With practice, I have personally found this methodology really useful, combined with the question “What do you want now?”

The second example given is to “engage in mental time travel”.

By imagining how you will feel about your experience in the future, you can gain perspective and understand that the experience is temporary, providing hope! My Mum used to say to me, “one day you will look back at this and laugh”. I guess she was giving me the brain-hack, suggesting the future would be better (and it always was).

Mental time travel provides distance and enables you to broaden your perspective, to gain the realisation your current emotional state is not permanent. 

So are you your own worst enemy? Are you saying things to you, about you that are not useful? Things that no-one else would dream of saying to you? Learning to control your inner-voice is vital. It will enable you to connect to your reality, instead of your emotionally soaked self-talk story about your life. Now wouldn’t that be a fine thing?!

In closing, I will eave you with this thought. As a young man I used to swim competitively. A visiting team from Florida, USA were wearing cool T-Shirts, and written on the back was this: “The Access To Success Is Through The Mind”. I have never forgotten this, and indeed see them as words to live by. The first step is your self-talk.

Want to Learn More?

Choose your language