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


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

“Love the pinecones!”

This was a comment from a friend on one of my Facebook photos from a beautiful seaside hike filled with 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. It led to deeper self-reflection and awareness around my own self-talk patterns.

We’ve all heard that how we speak to ourselves has a huge impact on our life. If your self-talk is largely negative, it lowers your self-confidence, drive, creativity, spirit, and enthusiasm for life. In short, it limits your self-expression and access to joy. If your self-talk is compassionate, understanding, and loving, it helps you to move through your life with much greater flow and ease.

There are the more obvious ways negative language patterns show up, and then there are more hidden, subtle, or unconscious ways. Amongst the more obvious are the habitual ways we berate ourselves or call ourselves names.

For example, if you are making dinner and just as you finish you knock the whole thing on the floor, how might you respond? It makes total sense to be upset or disappointed, but how does that upset manifest within you?

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.

Even calling yourself clumsy can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe you feel it’s actually true. Perhaps others have told you that as well. The thing is, whatever we choose to tell ourselves, whether unkind or gracious, our brain looks for ways to prove those thoughts are true.

You can acknowledge a mistake, express frustration over an experience, or even decide you want to be more careful in the future, all without casting aspersions on yourself. Name-calling or harsh language directed at ourselves is an example of the more readily visible forms of self-talk. But what about those hidden or unconscious patterns?

That kind of negative self-talk can be far more insidious and more prevalent than you may suspect. I know 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. Discovering the hidden ways I hold myself small has led to developing more empowering language that serves me on a daily basis.

Though I was affected by ADD (attention deficit disorder) my whole life, it was not until I was in my forties that I was diagnosed. The first book I read on the topic and perhaps my favorite is called You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy?

I loved the lessons I got from the book and all that I learned about the workings of my brain. For several years, though, I felt at odds with the title. After all, I reasoned, I never spoke of myself in those pejorative terms. At least not that I was consciously aware of anyway.

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. I was perpetuating limiting patterns of victim stories instead of empowering myself. I decided when I recognized that pattern to play with new thoughts.

That might involve using that beautiful photograph of a place I’ve never been to remind myself of all the amazing places I have been. Or it might be feeling a sense of joy that such places exist or gratitude that others get to enjoy them.

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. Why would I want to frame it that way to myself or anyone else? So I altered the wording. That change definitely felt more empowered and certainly less stuck in victim mode. 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. And in all honesty, I initially felt a little bit of embarrassment too. Because it really highlighted for me the heavier energy I had been unconsciously creating over an experience I had thoroughly enjoyed.

That awareness brought excitement for the deepening realization over the ways I can allow my word patterns to create disappointment and sadness or excitement and joy 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. As I do, I notice I feel more resilient, get stuck in negative emotions for shorter periods of time, and have more access to joy and aliveness. In an instant I can change how I feel just by the way I speak to and about myself.

You can create that for yourself as well. Here are a few steps to do so. Outside of step one, they are not in chronological order and may even happen simultaneously.

1. Start simply by slowing down and noticing your patterns.

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”? If so, explore how you can change those patterns and choose more empowering phrasing.

This is not about denying that sometimes we do struggle or feel sad or have hard things happen. But you might find that your language actually influences your perception and your feelings about your circumstances. You can view the same situation as an obligation or an opportunity; it all depends on how you choose to see it and talk about it.

2. Revise your word choice.

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 of those feels more empowering to you?

The language can seem new and uncomfortable or foreign at first. Perhaps you don’t feel sure how to make the shift. Again, the first step is simply to notice. The more awareness you create, the more your brain will automatically start looking for ways to shift toward your desired outcome.

In the meantime, if you feel comfortable sharing your journey, you can ask a trusted friend, family member, or coach to point out disempowering language when you use it.

3. Notice how your word choice affects 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. It kept me in a state of frustration and my energy small and insecure.

Making the change to “I would like to understand how to xyz” felt more expansive. I was declaring a desire to make a change rather than declaring what I was not capable of. 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. In my body, that last one feels powerful and assertive while still asking for the support I need. What feels most powerful for you?

4. Be kind and compassionate with yourself.

Don’t expect perfection. Be compassionate with yourself. If you notice you’re reverting to old patterns, rather than berate yourself, use it as an opportunity to be excited. Because it means you are noticing. As in meditation, the idea is to notice your wandering thoughts and come back. Each time you notice you are creating an opportunity for new and more empowering patterns to flow.

It can be like learning a foreign language. Because in a sense you are. And just like learning any new language can open up whole new avenues of possibility, this one will as well, releasing shame and self-judgment while brightening and uplifting your world.

For myself, changing my hidden patterns has helped mitigate the impact of historical victim stories that I’ve held. I feel more empowered, with greater energy to achieve my goals. If you give it a try, I’d love to hear what you are noticing.

About Gregg Berman

Gregg is an RN and certified coach helping motivated individuals gain relief from anxiety, overwhelm, and procrastination. He’ll regulate your nervous system with EFT tapping and forest therapy so you can be at your best to achieve your best. Gregg also supports families, friends, and corporations to have stronger teams through guided mindfulness experiences in nature. 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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