A student in the writing workshop I was leading mentioned how she made .04 per word at her local magazine. She was a regular at her small hometown publication making pennies writing travel articles that could appear in the New York Times. When I read her beautiful work in class, I turned to her incredulous, “why aren’t you writing for outlets that will pay more?”
She seemed stunned by the very question and proceeded to think up numerous ways in which she surely wasn’t ready for the big leagues, all of which were, of course, untrue.
Worse, I’d heard this all before. The ‘I’m not ready,’ ‘I’m no good,’ I can’t possibly do that’ speak coming from dozens of writers over the years. Just how does so much negative self-talk gain brain-play? Why is it that many of us go full tilt with our hopes and dreams while others linger in self-doubt listening only to the small, scared voices in their heads telling them how they can’t?
Researchers agree that a little self-awareness can be a reality check, but a constant barrage of self trash-talk is debilitating. Negative self-talk has implications on our emotions, motivations and potential accomplishments.
Brené Brown, Ph.D., research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, says negative self-talk (shame) relies on you buying into it. It’s believing you are flawed and unworthy of love and belonging. In other words, if you call yourself a lazy, fat, good-for-nothing for not working out enough, eventually you believe that as your truth. Same with being unready to write for the Times. Shame needs you to believe that in order to stop you from trying to overcome it. Brown says shame needs just three things to percolate: secrecy, silence and the perception of judgement.
People with a lot of negative self-chatter never go for it—the job, the business, the cutie at the bus stop, the New York Times—doesn’t matter what it is. Their shame-filled self-talk plays on an endless loop that keeps them mired in doubt, recrimination and criticism. They hold themselves back because that loop talks them down. ‘You’re not smart enough, pretty enough, wise enough, savvy enough, strong enough—so don’t even bother.’
But everyone experiences some level of negative self-talk whether from a specific incident or a lifetime of small hits that make you feel less than. And because words are powerful, often when you believe something can happen, it may, yet believing there’s not a snowball’s chance could manifest the opposite.
Brown says the cure is empathy. Shame simply cannot survive once someone, anyone, says ‘I understand but those thoughts aren’t true.’ Even if you’re saying it to yourself.
And therein lies the difference between the people who go for it, who quiet that negative self-talk, who shriek over it, ignore it and tell it where to go, and those who don’t. In fact, hasn’t the voice steered you wrong occasionally? Like that time you ate the carton of salty caramel ice cream even after your stomach felt a bit iffy? Or when you stole that pack of gum when you were nine? Or maybe when the voice told you to buy those expensive shoes you couldn’t afford? That voice is not always right.
Brown says to give your negative inner critic a name. She calls hers Gremlin, but personally, I’d like to think of something nastier. Maybe Shit Stirrer. Then spin the negative talk to possible talk. For every ‘I can’t’ replace it with ‘I might.’
And remember, shame only works when it’s a secret. As soon as you admit to someone you’re scared to pitch to the Times, or to ask out your crush, invent the app, or open a business, that shame loses its power so you can go after what you want.
Finally, define your through-line. Los Angeles-based writer, activist, and wellness expert Katie Horwitch says negative self-talk is a filler for uncertainty in purpose. She advocates quelling damaging self-chatter by finding the common thread that runs through everything you love and discovering your true purpose, your through-line. This is the stuff that fulfills you and gives you purpose—something you’re wonderful at and want to do. You might have one or a dozen through-lines, and the world is waiting for you to accomplish them. The thing is, once you find where you’re supposed to shine, that negative self-talk may just shut the hell up.