How to Combat Negative Self-Talk

There are many metaphors that people use to describe the inner experiences of being a startup founder, and “roller coaster” is one of them for a reason.

The ups are great. The downs are filled with ambiguous data you have to respond to, way too much to do, and people bringing their problems to you. This can fill you at times with some pretty rough demons in your head.

Related read: The Secret to Strong Leadership is Self-Care

In my practice coaching startup founders and leaders, I’ve found that the best way to counteract them is to get touch with the “three selfs.” They are: self-awareness, self-compassion, and self-talk. Here’s how they help.

Self-awareness

Sometimes you just get into a bad mood and you don’t know why. Probe yourself. Your emotion is getting in your way even if you don’t realize it. When you find out what’s causing the down-swing, you can do something about it.

One exercise I ask my clients to do is a very quick self check-in once or twice a day. The questions are:

  • What energized you today?
  • What demotivated you?
  • What steps do you want to take now?

My client Sanjay, a second-time startup founder who is in the early stages of building a novel energy company, did this. He knew that in his time at his first startup, he could be moody, and that at times it hindered the progress of the company.

When he got into the habit of a daily self check-in, he saw that what excited him was talking about technology—no surprise there. But he also realized for the first time that dealing with issues he saw as petty demotivated him and that his energy flagged at the end of the day.

Armed with those insights, he tuned his schedule to have technology discussions at the end of the day, to give him something to look forward to. To deal with those “petty” issues—largely, regular management issues—he hired a VP of people. That person helped him think through difficult but necessary topics such as compensation and career paths.

Self-compassion

When you find something very clear in your self-observation scan, sometimes you can simply fix it. But sometimes you identify some nasty gremlins that are whispering not-so-sweet nothings into your ears like, “You really screwed up this time” or “You’re such a fraud.”

Your next step is to take a moment, find perspective, and offer compassion to yourself. You will always have setbacks and times when you fall short of your own or others’ expectations. You may struggle with imposter syndrome—as many high achievers do—or from comparing yourself to others (“Jeff Bezos would never have this problem”).

Recognize that you are human and that everyone has difficult thoughts. Self-compassion helps you get through these tough moments by allowing you to accept and forgive yourself for real or perceived shortcomings. That allows you to have some distance from your feelings and gives you perspective. Research shows that when you have more self-compassion, you are able to work towards mastery more easily, to take on more risk, and to bounce back more quickly from setbacks.

One tool to help you bring more compassion to yourself: Ask yourself how you would feel about your best friend if she were sharing these voices with you? You would probably feel loving to her and offer her support and encouragement. Offer that to yourself.

Self-talk

Now that you’ve identified how you feel and you’ve given yourself permission to feel it, it’s time to do what I call “the turn” and give yourself some nutritious self-talk to take the place of the negative chatter.

When I suggested finding some productive phrases to my client Andrea, the CEO of a financial services startup, she looked at me skeptically and said, “Since when did you turn into Tony Robbins?”

Although motivational speakers may have given affirmations a bad name, there is actually very rigorous research that proves that motivational self-talk has a positive impact on performance. The science journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise has published numerous studies on using positive self-talk to improve athletes’ results. The effect is so dramatic that 93% of Olympic athletes use positive self-talk and visualization. (And, by the way, Tony Robbins’s work is backed by research, too.)

Once you become aware of your inner dialogue, you can see that you are constantly talking to yourself without being fully aware of it. You already have self-talk inside of you. If it’s negative, you can consciously switch it to positive. Some phrases my clients use are “You can do it” and “Step by step.” Get in the habit also of noticing when you do a great job and compliment yourself on it. I literally say “Good job, Alisa!” out loud when I do something I’m proud of. Think of some phrases and see what works best for you.

To combat your own negative inner voices, three selfs are better than one.

This article first appeared on Inc.com and was republished with permission.

More leadership advice from Alisa Cohn

Executive Coach

Alisa Cohn is an Executive Coach who works with startup executives to help them develop the leadership skills they need to scale their companies successfully. She has worked with companies from very early stage to Fortune 50. Her clients include Venmo, Foursquare, Facebook, Google, Cisco and Dell. She is based in New York City.
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