Volume 89: Overcoming Negative Self-Talk

Posted on 07/19/2017


Last week, I wrote about the Dunning-Kruger Effect and how this cognitive bias distorts the self-perceptions of persons with low ability. These distortions has them overestimate their cognitive acuity so they may think that they are ” like, a smart person, you know.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) This portion of the effect makes sense to those of us who legitimately have the ability to understand it. But what about the other aspect of the effect?

If those with low ability suffer from illusory superiority, what about those of us with high ability? (Notice how I threw myself in that group.) According to the theory, “persons of high ability tend to underestimate their relative competence, and erroneously presume that tasks that are easy for them to perform are also easy for other people to perform“. In short,

The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.

In last week’s post, I focused more on those suffering with illusory superiority and how this limits their ability to succeed. But what about those highly competent people who struggle to find their way? Have you ever met someone who seemed too smart for their job? Do you have a friend with a lot of ability who just can’t seem to put it all together? Specifically, do you find yourself sinking in the quicksand of life because you can’t recognize your own greatness?

Sometimes, the highly competent can suffer from the lowest self-esteem. They don’t view or see their ability as making them different from everyone else. Additionally, there are those that sabotage their competence by convincing themselves their abilities are somehow commonplace. Or, even worse, they don’t believe they can achieve greatness because they consider themselves to be average. Negative self talk can stall and/or derail even the most talented individuals. It is for this reason that I chose to write this post. It’s time to Overcome Negative Self-Talk.


“Not Good Enough…”

I was at a Halloween party a few years ago. We were all in costumes and behaving like post-pubescent teens. One of the attendees was dressed like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. She was able to pull the outfit off and wore it quite well. (Yes, my wife was with me. Get your mind right, LOL!) Anyway, she obsessed about how she looked and pestered anyone who would listen with questions about her appearance. After about the fourth or fifth time asking me, I stopped her and asked, “Who told you you’re not good enough?” As she ran off crying, she sobbed through her tears, “My father!” Needless to say I felt terrible for bringing up painful childhood memories, but the story provides a good lesson about negative self-talk.

During our childhood, we develop a private “script” about ourselves and our abilities, aka self-esteem. Healthy development has our perception (private and public) and our reality in congruence with one another. In other words, competent people know they’re competent and those around them do too. They approach the world with confidence and society (family, friends, co-workers, etc.) provides the appropriate feedback. However, when our self-perception is incongruent with our abilities, navigating the world can prove to be challenging.

Negative self talk develops during our formative years as a result of some childhood trauma (real or perceived). The traumatic event could be major, like the rejection or absence of a parent or the birth of a sibling who garners all the attention. The event could also be minor, like an inability to make or keep friends, or early struggles in the classroom. The most significant point is when the event takes place. If the event happens during the critical period when we are developing our self-esteem, we could end up inserting negative self talk into our personal scripts.

Be careful how you are talking to yourself because you are listening.

– Lisa M. Hayes

Know Thyself

When I was counseling, one of the earliest goals I would set with a client was to help them understand their behavior. This “insight” was paramount for them to establish before we could ever develop a corrective action plan. You have to know where the rock hit the water to be better equipped to overcome the ripples. There’s no chicken-egg argument here. Insight must precede action to effectively extinguish negative self talk.

Insight is important because it provides the why. Why can’t I seem to stay motivated? Why do I self-sabotage when things are going well? Why, despite my best efforts, do I feel something is missing from my life? Negative self talk can permeate every aspect of our lives – if we aren’t careful. Developing insight fortifies us against the detrimental effects of lower self-esteem and negative self talk.

You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.

– Louise Hay

Speak Life!

Ok. So we’ve defined how the highly skilled can underestimate their own competence (the Dunning-Kruger Effect). We’ve also learned that developing a negative personal script, aka self talk develops when a traumatic event coincides with the formation of our self-esteem. Finally, we discussed the importance of insight to overcoming negative self talk. We know the why. Now what?

Good question. Below are five actions that, when applied appropriately, can serve to reduce (and hopefully eliminate) negative self talk and put you on the road to being your best you.

  1. Quiet the Noise – I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating. Quieting the noise means recognizing when the negative thoughts begin. It also means recognizing you can’t control the past or predict the future, but you can control the present. Focus on the moment and unleash your full potential!
  2. Self-Affirming Statements – This may seem a bit awkward at first, but they get easier, and they work! Write down self-affirming statements and place them all around your life – your car, your refrigerator, your mirror, your desk at work, etc. The quote above says it all. You’ve tried negative statements and they got you in the rut you’re in. Time to try a little positive.
  3. Unleash the God in You – As a Christian I realized a commonality in the stories of the Bible. The heroes and heroines all had flaws. They were imperfect or came from meager backgrounds. Moses was an orphan. David was a shepherd. Noah had a problem with alcohol. But God was with them and elevated them well beyond their environment and lives would suggest. Tap into the God in you and move your life from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
  4. Set Random, Yet Achievable Goals – The hardest addiction to break is gambling. Yes, it’s harder than any drug. Why? Because the rewards are random. Random rewards increases the corresponding behavior that achieves them because you never know when the reward will happen. Treat your rewards for reaching your goals like a slot machine. Keep repeating the positive behavior (pulling the lever) to receive your (random) reward.
  5. Seek Feedback – Early in this process, you may feel uncomfortable or even get discouraged. Find someone whom you trust and tell them about what you are doing. You can then lean on them for a pick-me-up during those times the negative self talk outweighs the positive. They can also recognize for you if your old “habits” start to resurface.


Conclusion: The Secret of Success

Success is like porn. We can all recognize it when we see it, but most of us aren’t willing to do what it takes to achieve it. This metaphor may be crude, but it makes an important point. Success requires work. Success requires you to bear it all and go for it (figuratively speaking, of course). Success comes to those who try and sometimes fail, but are willing to try again and again because they believe. They believe success can be achieved. They believe failure can be just as motivating as reaching goals. And, most importantly, they believe in themselves. The secret to success is there is no secret. You just need to stop whispering to yourself and shout, “Yes I can!”



“Peep my ver-na-cular cuz I don’t know how to act…”