Avoid the death spiral: the huge benefits of positive self-talk

We’ve all been lectured on the importance of positive self-talk. Well used, it leads us to more productive lives and a deeper sense of well-being.

With all the thoughts and feelings floating around in our minds, it makes sense to notice which ones are dominant at any time. Once we’ve identified a few, we can take a closer look at them and decide how we’ll respond.

For example, imagine that you find yourself feeling really good about a particular project and the people with whom you’re working. Within the swirl of thoughts and feelings that dominate your thinking, you notice that you’re pretty excited. Once you figure out what it is about this project and these people that excites you, you’re in a position to decide what you’ll do to appreciate, nurture, and/or replicate the experience. In other words, you’ll get the most out of the emotion.

Without that positive self-talk chatter, the pleasant feeling tends to slip by, somewhat underappreciated, without triggering an action of ongoing value.

Now imagine that you find yourself standing before a crowd and offering a speech. Your mouth begins to go dry, which is odd because you feel the rest of your body going into sweats. Your normally expressive hands clutch the lectern in what’s turning into a death grip. If you’ve developed a pattern of positive self-talk, this is the point where you notice that your anxiety is escalating. There, you’ve named it. Now, you can decide to take a couple of breaths. You can decide to remind yourself that your content is sound. You can decide to focus on the faces in the crowd that are obviously engaged with what you’re saying. In other words, you can do whatever you know works for you.

This is so different than feeling the rising disquiet and mindlessly reacting to it, allowing it to spin out of control. When our self-talk chatter turns negative, we tell ourselves that not only are we failing, it’s probably going to get worse. Not only is it going to get worse, it’s typical that we fail. Well into the vortex, we’re soon thinking about what it’ll be like walking into the office the next day; all in the midst of our ongoing speech. This is precisely why it’s so important to develop a practice of positive self-talk.

To be clear, I’m using the word “positive” self-talk in a way that includes the notion of full critique, rather than something that becomes blindly self-congratulatory. Some of my most powerful self-talk has come in the midst of massive shortcomings, like when I notice my anger in the middle of an argument and decide that it’s misplaced or notice my jealousy in a conversation and decide that the moment isn’t about me.

Several of our great traditions share the notion that between any action and response there exists a space; in that space lies all sorts of possibilities and opportunities. It’s the place where we assign meaning to the action, where we give it context, where we place it in perspective, where we remember who we wish to be, and, ultimately, where we decide how we will respond. Part of our life’s work is to learn how to expand this space and use it effectively.

Usually, we apply this notion to external actions that happen to us. When it comes to self-talk, our goal is to expand the space within us, so that we seize the full benefit of our never-ending, internal chatter.

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