John Ainley: Don’t let your mind talk yourself down

If you were helping a child who said they weren’t very good at something how would you respond?

You would probably offer support and encourage them to think about the activity in a different way and not let it define them as a person. So why do many of us allow negative thoughts about particular skills or attributes to define our whole selves? Time and time again I see individuals I coach who experience ‘limiting self-talk’ – where their internal ‘voices’ focus on what they can’t do rather than what they can do. It could be a skill such as public speaking for instance or something much deeper that stops them from achieving their potential. Typically in these situations many of us become self-critical of ourselves and let our supposed deficiencies in that area define our whole person, rather than simply seeing it as part of the multi-faceted person we are. More often than not, the fall into ‘limiting self-talk’ can spiral down into a self-fulfilling act that simply serves to reinforce a perceived weakness.

What then can you to do about ‘limiting self-talk’? People often try and shut it out, reject it, or simply fight against it but, in my experience, that is not the best way. You need to start from a position of kindness towards that aspect of yourself, noticing these thoughts, accepting them as part of you; and then working on supporting and nurturing that part of you, that perceived weakness to help it to become different over time.

The Inside Out approach

There’s a psychological approach called Internal Family Systems which sees the human mind as a composite of different family members representing different parts of your sub-personality. Disney’s Inside Out film played on this theme – older readers might also remember the Beano comic’s Numskulls – with characters playing Joy, Disgust, Sadness, Fear and Anger all competing for supremacy in an 11-year old’s head. However you characterise it, the idea is to think about yourself as a multi-faceted person with many different – and competing – strengths and weaknesses.

In working with clients, I try and get people to notice where the ‘limiting self-talk’ keeps coming up and to become aware of it and instead of being very self-critical of it and themselves, try and treat it as a part of you – not the whole of you – and start to nurture it into a better or more effective way of being. In that way you can nurture whatever it is that you perceive as a weakness back into being something less inhibiting or disempowering.

Be kind to yourself

Most people reject what they see themselves as not good at and, guided by their ‘limiting self-talk’, simply put it back in a box. The way to deal with it is to accept it and help it. Be kind to yourself rather than self-critical and a weakness can, over time, become a strength.