But once we start listening to that tiny voice, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that voice tells you, for example, that you won’t give a successful presentation, then you may decide not to even try to prepare – and you actually give a rotten presentation.
Beverly Flaxington, behavioral expert and career coach, says she often has heard from successful professionals that those inner voices plague them with doubt, anxiety and stress. That may be surprising because if you’re successful, what do you have to be worried about?
“What I see is that people will often hear their mother’s voice, or a teacher’s voice, “who criticized them in their childhood and “they may have never gotten over that,” she says. “It’s much easier for them to fall into old habits and believe that they’re going to fail.”
Flaxington teaches such professionals how to practice “positive self-talk” that can turn that nasty little voice into one that is an inner cheerleader. It’s not a “Pollyanna” outlook , she stresses, but rather one that looks at the reality of the situation and turns that defeatist voice into one that is positive – or at least neutral.
For example, let’s say the boss walks by your desk and he’s in a bad mood.
“He doesn’t say ‘hello’ to you, and your inner voice begins to say ‘you must have done something wrong,’” Flaxington says. “The next thing you know you’re in a tizzy.”
But what Flaxington tries to emphasize is that you look at it objectively: The boss walked by and didn’t say “hello.”
The road to positivity
When people are plagued by negative self-talk that provokes anxiety, sadness and stress, they often turn to pharmaceuticals. One in 10 Americans now take antidepressant medication and among women in their 40s and 50s, that number reaches one in four.
While Flaxington says that such medications are often critical for those with depression and other mental illnesses, she also believes “it’s one of the great tragedies of our time” that people are not taught how to deal with different problems.
“Instead of teaching us the skills to cope with our feelings, we use drugs to mask them,” she says.
So how should we better respond to everyday work events that may trigger that negative inner voice? Flaxington provides some solutions to potential problems:
1. “I’m a terrible public speaker. I know I’m going to bomb that presentation next week.”
Flaxington counsels that you move your feelings into a more neutral state by reminding yourself that most people are afraid of public speaking. “But then tell yourself that you can take steps to be well-prepared,” she says.
2. “I know I could never get that promotion because I’m up against Karen. The boss likes her more than me. I might as well not even try.”
Flaxington advises saying to yourself: “I’m going to try my best and do everything I can to do well. I’m not a mind-reader, and I don’t know what others are thinking about me.”
3. “Every day I feel like I’m going to lose my job.”
Flaxington says this is a very common negative refrain that plagues many successful people. “Tell yourself that every day all you can do is the best you can do. But also tell yourself that ‘I need to be strengthening my relationships every day and taking the right steps to protect myself if something does happen,’” she says. This tactic helps you acknowledge the reality that something like a job loss could happen, but every day you’re taking the right steps and making good choices, she says.
4. “Other people seem to be getting this new system much faster than me. I must be really stupid.”
Flaxington says to remind yourself that “we are all given gifts – just not all gifts.” That means that you should focus on the things you have been able to learn in the past, telling yourself you will also master this new skill. “Maybe you need to ask for help or spend some extra time trying to learn it, but tell yourself you will get it even though it may not come quickly,” she says.
While she advocates positive self-talk, Flaxington says we must also be aware of when we need to listen to unpleasant facts being revealed by that inner voice.
For example, there may be various signs at work that the company is in trouble. You can acknowledge those facts without panicking by making sure your resume is up-to-date and avoid saying things like, “If I lose this job I’ll never get another one because I’m too old,” she says.
“Always remind yourself that negative self-talk can zap your reserves, and you can’t let that happen because you’re going to need your energy for other things, like possibly looking for a job,” she says. “Always look at the facts and then make decisions based on those.”