It is what we say about ourselves to ourselves that threatens our destiny.
Words matter. And the words that matter most are the ones we say to ourselves.
Any athlete understands that the pain and discomfort of pushing oneself to grow is not pleasant. Over time, an inner conversation or self-talk arises that questions the sanity of jousting with pain before attempting to offer encouragement to keep moving forward despite the pain. 1 I can recall runs in sub-freezing conditions where fleeting ruminations of a warm bed tortured my psyche as a form of negative self-talk. I never conceded the argument.
Those rough comparisons are defined as self-talk, or the inner narrative expressed internally or aloud where the message’s sender (me) is also the receiver (me). 2 During prolonged physical exertion, self-talk arises from the perception of discomfort and pain which researchers have labeled exercise-induced stress. 3 As a species, we avoid pain and pursue pleasure as a matter of survival. Human beings are hardwired with a negativity bias, a psychological principle asserting that we are more susceptible to negative stimuli than positive ones. But what happens when we do not shut down the nagging inner voice that seeks to undermine our performance and growth?
Recently researchers began to examine the effect of negative self-talk on performance. For most of us, we fully realize that negative self-talk (NST) and performance never mixed. Recent studies validate our long-held notion that NST reduces our performance metrics. For example, a study of twenty-nine well-trained male runners found that NST adversely affected the runner’s breathing pattern, hormonal response, cardiorespiratory function, and perceived exertion.4 In simpler terms, their bodies and minds perform worst with NST.
There is a method to my madness, starting with effects of negative self-talk (NST). Most believe that identifying negative self-talk is the essential first step toward thinking positively. Most of us engage in negative self-talk when we feel anxious or insecure. Or when they find themselves in a situation in which we lack confidence. However, letting negative self-talk continue damages our self-esteem and belief in our abilities. It is a vicious cycle.
The College of Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CCBT) indicates that negative self-talk can foster brutal cycles and self-fulfilling prophecies. 5 If someone’s internal dialog says they will not be able to do something, they will agree with themselves and give minimal effort. Which results in the mediocre performance proposed. Additionally, to no one’s surprise, research from 2018 indicates that repetitive NST presents risk factors for severity, persistence, and relapse of anxiety and depression. 6
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety affects over 40 million people aged 18 or older in the United States: over 18 percent of the population. Anxiety also quickly spins out of control as once it gets triggered, we begin to overthink. And then our mind starts cranking out negative self-talk, which not only exacerbates our feelings of anxiety but sometimes causes it to occur.
Realize what we focus on expands. The more attention and negative self-talk we give to any situation, the bigger and darker it becomes. Engaging in negative self-talk is rejecting ourselves. We are telling ourselves that something is “wrong” with us and that we are unworthy and unlovable.
However, we can use positive self-talk (PST) to counteract negative self-talk (NST). For example, a 2020 Iranian study shows a significant impact between self-talk and problem-focused coping. In this study, the quality of self-talk showed a significant influence on how people coped with anxiety in the COVID-19 pandemic.
The study also found that those who engaged in positive self-talk developed effective coping strategies for their emotions and mental stress. 7 Another study found students using positive affirmations experienced less anxiety in public speaking. 8 For athletes and individuals who participate in sports, positive self-talk may be motivating and improve technical performance. Researchers also found that positive self-talk increased athlete engagement and fun. 9 Also, positive self-talk improved athlete’s performance times and output in endurance sports settings. 10
Lastly, how people address themselves during self-talk affects their feelings of well-being. Even small shifts in the language in talking to ourselves during introspection influenced our ability to regulate our thoughts, feelings, and behavior under social stress. 11
Understanding our inner experience of thoughts, feelings, and sensations was the goal of psychology at its birth. William James’ Principles of Psychology (1890) begins: “Psychology is the science of mental life, both of its phenomena and of their conditions. The phenomena are such things as feelings, desires, cognitions, reasonings, decisions, and the like.” 12
Advances in neuroscience have allowed us to be more precise in our monitoring and metrics of our mental life. Recent studies pinpoint the regions of our brain used for self-referential memories, error monitoring, punishment and behavioral inhibition are activated when in self-criticism mode. In other words, the self-critical brain sees these setbacks as a tangible threat and firing-up the threat system. Our brain also goes into sharper error-monitoring mode, creating a self-punishment narrative for errors and activating a hyper-focus on “not letting this happen again.”
Positive self-talk is an invaluable technique for improving human performance across various endeavors. The key finding for my worldview is that constructive self-talk bolsters problem-focused coping. Meaning that under pressure or in my case, in “life or death” scenarios, those using PST stay on task working on the problem, and do not get distracted in a spin cycle of excessive and unhelpful emotions.
Evolutionarily hard-wired to be hyper-focus on threats as a matter of survival, we experience negative self-talk as part of being human. But we have the power to override our nature by nurture. The solution lays in challenging the negative thoughts in an intentional practice of cultivating self-awareness. By adding gratitude to our awareness, we improve our emotional well-being and boost happiness, rewiring our inner critic’s whispers. 13
Until next time. Travel safe.
1) Gammage, K. L., Hardy, J., & Hall, C. R. (2001). A description of self- talk in exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 2(4), 233–247. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1469-0292(01)00011-5
2) Conroy, D. E., & Coatsworth, J. D. (2007). Coaching behaviors associated with changes in fear of failure: Changes in self-talk and need satisfaction as potential mechanisms. Journal of Personality, 75(2), 383–419. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2006.00443.x
3) St Clair Gibson, A., & Foster, C. (2007). The role of self-talk in the awareness of physiological state and physical performance. Sports Medicine, 37(12), 1029–1044. https://doi. org/10.2165/00007256-200737120-00003
4) Basset, F. A., Kelly, L. P., Hohl, R., & Kaushal, N. (2022). Type of self-talk matters: Its effects on perceived exertion, cardiorespiratory, and cortisol responses during an iso-metabolic endurance exercise. Psychophysiology, 59, e13980. https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13980
5) Joseph, Avy Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Your Route out of Perfectionism, Self-Sabotage and Other Everyday Habits with CBT Capstone Publishing July 22, 2022
6) Philip Spinhoven, Albert M. van Hemert, Brenda W. Penninx, Repetitive negative thinking as a predictor of depression and anxiety: A longitudinal cohort study, Journal of Affective Disorders, Volume 241, 2018, Pages 216-225, ISSN 0165-0327, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2018.08.037.
7) Sadri Damirchi E, Mojarrad A, Pireinaladin S, Grjibovski AM. The Role of Self-Talk in Predicting Death Anxiety, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and Coping Strategies in the Face of Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19). Iran J Psychiatry. 2020 Jul;15(3):182-188. doi: 10.18502/ijps.v15i3.3810. PMID: 33193766; PMCID: PMC7603592.
8) David Shadinger, John Katsion, Sue Myllykangas & Denise Case (2020) The Impact of a Positive, Self-Talk Statement on Public Speaking Anxiety, College Teaching, 68:1, 5-11, DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2019.1680522
9) Park SH, Lim BS, Lim ST. The Effects of Self-Talk on Shooting Athletes’ Motivation. J Sports Sci Med. 2020 Aug 13;19(3):517-521. PMID: 32874104; PMCID: PMC7429435.
10) Hardy, J., Thomas, A. V., & Blanchfield, A. W. (2019). To me, to you: How you say things matters for endurance performance. Journal of Sports Sciences, 37(18), 2122-2130. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2019.1622240
11)Kross E, Bruehlman-Senecal E, Park J, Burson A, Dougherty A, Shablack H, Bremner R, Moser J, Ayduk O. Self-talk as a regulatory mechanism: how you do it matters. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2014 Feb;106(2):304-24. doi: 10.1037/a0035173. PMID: 24467424.
12) James, W. (1890). The Principles of Psychology. New York: Henry Holt and Company the Principles of Psychology.http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/11059-000
13) Cunha LF, Pellanda LC and Reppold CT (2019) Positive Psychology and Gratitude Interventions: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Front. Psychol. 10:584. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00584