How Our Self-Talk and Language Can Sabotage or Support Us

“Today I want you to think about all that you are instead of all that you are not.” ~Unknown

“Love the pinecones!”

This was an anonymous comment made by my friend from one of my photos on Facebook. It is a gorgeous seaside hike full wildflowers and other natural wonders.

When I responded with “It was a puzzle figuring out how to best photograph them” (not what I originally planned to write), she wrote, “Gregg, that’s such a fun part, isn’t it?” That comment was the brightening of a bulb that had already been going off in my head. This led me to deep self-reflection, and increased awareness of my self-talk patterns.

We’ve all heard that how we speak to ourselves has a huge impact on our life. Your self-talk that is negative can affect your self confidence, self-worth, motivation, creativity, spirit and passion for life. This affects your ability to communicate and joy. Your self-talk should be compassionate, understanding and loving. This will allow you to live your life more easily.

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The obvious negative patterns in language can be seen, while there are subtler or more subconscious ways. Some of the worst are those habits that make us resentful or call others names.

How would you react if, for example, you make dinner but then just before you’re done, you throw the entire thing on the ground? Although it is normal to feel upset and disappointed, how can you express that feeling within yourself?

Perhaps you think, “Geez, I’m such an idiot!” or “I’m so stupid!” If so, rather than simply expressing your disappointment over the action or result, you are taking one moment in your life and using that to malign yourself at your core.

Self-fulfilling prophecy could include calling yourself clumsy. Maybe you feel it’s actually true. Maybe others have also told you this. Regardless of how kind or gracious we are, the truth is that our brain searches for evidence to support what we tell it.

Without judging yourself, you can admit to a mistake or express your frustration about an experience. One example is self-talk that can be easily seen. This includes harsh or name-calling at yourself. What about the hidden, unconscious patterns of self-talk?

This type of self-talk may be more dangerous and prevalent than you realize. It was for me. It’s something I’ve been internally exploring lately and why I was struck with my friend’s comment on my post. It has helped me to develop more powerful language, which I use every day.

Although I had been affected by ADD my entire life, I wasn’t diagnosed until my forties. The first book I read on the topic and perhaps my favorite is called You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy?

It was a great book that taught me valuable things about myself and my brain. I disagreed for several years with the title. I reasoned that I had never used those negative terms to describe myself. At least, not something I was conscious of.

Over time, though, I realized there is a part of my brain that has been actively trying to prove I’m not those things. And if part of my brain is trying to prove I’m not that, then another part must in some way be telling me that I am lazy, crazy, or stupid. That’s when I decided it would be helpful to start consciously examining my unconscious patterns for the voice in my head.

I’ve noticed my persistent stories of “I don’t know how” or “it will be too hard,” which have been a mantra in my head since childhood. I’ve long been mired in those stories, though they can show up in sneaky ways.  For example, if I see a picture of a place I’ve never been, I have a habit of thinking with melancholy “I’ve never been there” or even feeling jealousy or envy for the photographer.

While it’s not wrong to have such thoughts, and it makes sense for them to come up from time to time, I noticed I was letting a beautiful photograph put me in a state of dissatisfaction, or even feeling sorry for myself. Instead of being empowered, I perpetuated victim stories and limiting patterns. After recognizing the pattern I was creating, I resolved to try new ideas.

That might involve using that beautiful photograph of a place I’ve never been to remind myself of all the amazing places I You can find it here been. You might feel joy or gratitude at others enjoying these places.

Or it could be as simple as thinking, “Oh that looks so interesting.” Or even “How do I get there?” That last one could be said with an air of resignation as a way of holding myself small and complaining, or it could be excitement over the possibility, all depending on how I choose to hold that thought.

It’s not just the specific words we use but what meanings we ascribe to them that give them their energy and power. I’ve found it invaluable to notice my energy as well as the words I choose.

With the Facebook exchange about my picture and the puzzle of figuring out how to best photograph the pinecones, my first thought was to write, “I was struggling to figure out how to photograph them.”

But then I thought, “Why am I saying it that way?” I did not feel in struggle. It was not fair to anyone, or myself. The wording was changed. I felt empowered, and definitely less victim-like after that change. But again, it’s not just the words, but noticing the energy as well.

Because depending on how I choose to hold it, “a puzzle” could be a game or it could be a chore. I was already leaning toward the more positive aspect but with residue from my initial thought of “struggle.”

So when my friend chimed in with “Gregg, that’s such a fun part, isn’t it?”, I felt light, happy, and energized. To be honest, at first I felt embarrassed. This was because I realized how much I had unconsciously created a lot of energy over an enjoyable experience.

This realization brought me excitement as I realized how my words patterns could create sadness and disappointment in my nervous system.

It’s not just about whether we overtly beat ourselves up but what patterns we use. I’ve had a lot of unconscious patterns that have kept me in the mode of victim of the world rather than the creator of my life.

It’s an awareness that I am continuing to deepen. I’m finding that my resilience is increasing, that negative emotions are less frequent, and that I have greater access to joy, aliveness, and happiness. Simply by how I talk about and to myself, I can immediately change the way I feel.

It is possible to do this for yourself. Below are the steps. These steps are not necessarily in chronological order, and they may occur at the same time as step 1.

1. Slow down, notice your patterns and start slowing down.

Do you berate yourself? Do you use words that feel untrue or create some kind of internal discord or discomfort that would not otherwise exist, as I had when I was going to use the word “struggle”? You can explore ways to change these patterns, and find more powerful phrasing.

It is important to recognize that we all have moments of struggle, sadness or hardship. You might be surprised to find out that how you perceive and feel about the circumstances can influence your behavior. The situation could be seen either as an obligation or opportunity. All it takes is how you view it and what you talk about.

2. Your word selection can be changed

On my journey of monitoring my patterns, I noticed that I’d write things like “I can’t figure out xyz” when, for example, I wrote to a company asking for technical support. The word “can’t” has such a disempowering connotation. So I started changing my word choice to things like, “I would like your help to figure out…” or “I would like to understand how to xyz.” This difference can seem subtle, but the impact on my psyche was immense.

With the word “can’t” I was literally stating I’m incapable of something, whereas in the other two examples, I’m simply acknowledging information that I lack. Which one feels more powerful to you?

Language can feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable at first. Perhaps you don’t feel sure how to make the shift. Simply notice. As you increase awareness, your brain will begin to look for opportunities to change toward your goal.

You can also ask your family, friends, or coaches to highlight any disempowering language you may use.

3. Pay attention to how your words affect your energy.

In the example above about asking for technical support, I noticed how my habit of saying “I can’t figure out how to xyz” was subtly chipping away at my self-confidence. I was frustrated and it made my energy insecure and small.

Making the change to “I would like to understand how to xyz” felt more expansive. It was more about expressing a desire for change than declaring my inability to do so. That feels more empowering in my nervous system, but still not with the aliveness I’d most desire. Now I’d say something more akin to “I’m learning your system” or “I’m gaining clarity around your system. Please explain to me how to xyz.”

Sharing in that way, I’m speaking to my growth instead of declaring a deficit. That last feeling is powerful, assertive and allows me to still ask for support. You feel most powerful.

4. Show compassion and kindness to yourself.

Don’t expect perfection. You can be compassionate about yourself. If you notice you’re reverting to old patterns, rather than berate yourself, use it as an opportunity to be excited. This is because you are paying attention. The idea behind meditation is to pay attention to your thoughts wanderings and then come back. Every time you take a moment to notice, you create an opportunity for more powerful patterns of flow.

Learning a new language can feel like learning another one. You are, in a way. Just as learning a new language opens up new possibilities, so will this. It can help you release shame and self-judgment, while also brightening your outlook and lifting your spirits.

For myself, changing my hidden patterns has helped mitigate the impact of historical victim stories that I’ve held. With more energy and empowerment, I am able to reach my goals. If you give it a try, I’d love to hear what you are noticing.

Gregg Berman

Gregg is an RN and certified coach helping motivated individuals gain relief from anxiety, overwhelm, and procrastination. EFT tapping and Forest Therapy will regulate your nervous systems so that you are at your best, and achieve your highest potential. Gregg supports friends and families as well as corporations in building stronger workplaces through guided mindfulness activities in the natural world. You can find out more about Gregg and how he can support you or your team at In Connection With Nature.

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Tiny Buddha’s first article was How our Self-Talk, Language and Communication Can Support or Sabotage Us.

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