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Everyone engages in self-talk sometimes. Take Scottish tennis pro Andy Murray, who despite his many titles has a well-documented habit of chewing himself out on the court. It’s easy to think there may be some value in the practice — if negative self-talk is so bad, then how did Murray win so much?
But a hand-written list, apparently penned by Murray ahead of a match in 2015, reveals that he was actively working on silencing his inner critic. “Try your best,” the note instructed, followed by “Be good to yourself” and “Be intense with your legs.”
Entrepreneurs have a lot in common with tennis players. Tennis, like starting a company, is a solitary endeavor. Emotions run high — one minute you’re up, and the next you’re down. But whether you’re on a court or in an office, the messages you’re sending to yourself will have an impact on how you perform.
The all-encompassing and often isolating nature of founding a business creates the perfect environment for destructive thoughts to take hold. Here’s how to stop them.
Why how you talk to yourself matters
The majority of your emotions are determined by the things you think and what you say to yourself throughout the day, writes Brian Tracy, author of the book Million Dollar Habits. In other words, you become what you think about most of the time.
If you don’t believe him, consider the science: A study from 2013 found that women suffering from anorexia angled their bodies as they walked through doorways, as though they were overweight and wouldn’t fit if they walked through normally. The way we view ourselves shapes our realities.
It goes the other way, too: “Positive, successful people make a habit of continually visualizing the outcomes they desire, thereby programming their subconscious minds and shaping their self-image and external performance,” Tracy says.
There are three types of self-talk: positive, neutral and negative. In order to figure out whether your mental chatter is working for or against you, write it down. You may find certain phrases coming up again and again — or realize that your self-talk isn’t quite as encouraging as you think it is.
Give yourself some distance
Take a look at what you’ve written down. Now ask yourself: Would you say these things to a friend? Probably not, if you ever want to spend time with them again.
It can be useful to apply the same thinking to yourself. One study, published in The European Journal of Social Psychology, found that students who wrote out self-advice using “you” instead of “I” not only successfully completed more problems, but were also willing to take on more in the future. Using the second person gives us a better perspective, making it easier to approach a situation with objectivity, rather than emotion.
Another way to achieve some space between you and your thoughts is to give yourself advice the same way you would give it to your best friend, partner or child, says Ethan Kross, a psychology professor at the University of Michigan who also runs its Emotion & Self Control Laboratory. Appearing on HBR IdeaCast, Kross points out that distance self-talk “leverages the structure of language to help us relate to ourselves like we were relating to another person.”
“When I’m experiencing chatter, I will very, very quickly start trying to coach myself through the situation using my name: ‘All right, Ethan, how are you going to handle this?’” he says. “And it very quickly breaks me out of that tunnel vision that characterizes chatter.” He does suggest that you may want to avoid doing this in front of other people, but hey — Andy Murray never let that stop him, right?
Want to know the fastest way to send negative thoughts packing? Instead of ruminating about what you don’t have, use that time to think about what you’re grateful for.
Gratitude has a raft of benefits, from reducing stress to feeling more optimistic about life. And lest you buy into the old (and inaccurate) trope that successful entrepreneurs are all megalomaniacal tyrants, research actually shows a positive correlation between power and gratitude. As someone who runs JotForm, a company with more than 300 employees and millions of users, this doesn’t surprise me at all. Making sure my employees know how much I appreciate them and their work creates a positive cycle for all of us.
Like anything, training your mind to focus on gratitude can take some practice. Donald Altman, a psychotherapist and former monk, suggests starting with three simple exercises:
Write down one thing you are grateful for right now. Be sure to include why you are grateful for it.
Keep track of each day’s gratitudes. Label a container of some kind with the word “gratitude.” Then, for each time you feel grateful during the day, drop in a penny or some other small object. At the end of the week, see how many gratitudes you felt.
Share your daily gratitude with someone else. “Don’t underestimate the importance of this for relationship building, at home or the workplace,” Altman writes.
Surround yourself with positive people
There’s a saying, attributed to motivational speaker Jim Rohn, that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Whether we know we’re doing it or not, humans have a tendency to absorb the behaviors and habits of those around us.
While everyone has their off days, there are some people for whom pessimism and negativity are the norm. These are energy vampires, and you’ll know you’re in the presence of one when you find yourself mentally and emotionally zapped when you interact with them.
Even though you can’t always escape energy vampires completely — say, if they’re coworkers — you can limit the amount of time you spend with them. Instead, surround yourself with people who are upbeat and practice positive self-talk themselves. These are the ones whose habits you want rubbing off on you.
The things you say to yourself matter. Everyone is familiar with the Golden Rule, but I propose an addition: Treat yourself the way you want others to treat you. Don’t settle for less than what you deserve.