Negative Self Talk

How to Beat the Power of Negative Self-Talk

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I was working on a big fundraising project, and it was not going well.

It was an important project for an important new client. It really needed to be good.

But I was struggling. If this had been back in the days of typewriters and paper, I would have been responsible for some serious deforestation as I tried and abandoned idea after idea.

The deadline was zooming up fast. I was getting scared.

After one especially long and frustrating day, I was telling my wife about it. After the initial spilling my raw frustration all over the kitchen floor, I started trying to explain the root of the problem — why I was in this painful situation.

I tried to tell her whose fault it was. Which unhelpful colleague. Which unfocused department. Which not-supportive-enough boss. With each one, my “blame target” just didn’t quite fit.

Then she gave me a look. 

I hope you have someone in your life who can communicate without a lot of words. Words just give you something to argue with. The look can cut straight through to what you need to know.

The look made me see: The problem wasn’t caused by all those other people.

This problem was all coming from me. I was preventing my progress. I was killing all my ideas and progress. It was my own fault.

I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that this happens to you too.

We all do it: thwart our own progress with negative self-talk. 

Here’s the good news: The person whose attitude you need to change to get out of this situation is the one person whose attitude you can change: YOU.

Here’s the bad news: That person (you) doesn’t want to change. Negative self-talk is oddly comfortable. That’s why we all do it.

But being aware you’re doing it is the most important first step to defeating negative self-talk and starting to make progress. 

Here are four common types of negative self-talk and how you can overcome them, from a recent article in Fast Company, “4 science-backed ways to identify and stop negative self-talk.”

Personalizing: “It’s all my fault, and everyone is mad at me!”

This one can really freak you out.

If you find yourself having this thought, the first thing to do is ask yourself if there’s any evidence to support it. 

You’ll generally find there’s little or no such evidence. You’ll realize you’re interpreting the situation in an unlikely way.

When you have this thought, here’s what to do:

  • Slow down and take a deep breath. (A deep breath is good in almost any situation!)
  • Look at the situation from the outside. Think about other explanations for the way things are. You’ll usually realize there are better explanations than everyone being against you. Now you can tackle the real problem.

Filtering: “I keep messing up!”

With filtering, you magnify the negative aspects of a situation and filter out all of the positive ones. 

Things that have gone wrong in the past rise up in your mind. It’s like a parade of failure, with you as the Grand Marshall. 

Before you know it, you feel like the only thing you do right is fail. All the time. Which increases your chance of failing.

The reality: We all fail at times.  And we all succeed.

When you realize you’re filtering out success and focusing on failure, do this: Make a list of things that have gone right recently. Big things, small things, anything. You’ll start to see the truth: It’s not as bad as it seems. You aren’t the failure you feel like. 

That will free you to do the work you are capable of doing.

Catastrophizing: “It’s going to go wrong AGAIN!”

I do this a lot, especially when I’m traveling: I arrive at the airport, and the big sign says my flight is now going to leave 10 minutes later than scheduled. I immediately spin an elaborate tale that stitches together all the travel woes I’ve faced into one huge catastrophe where the flight is hours late, I miss my connection, get stuck on the tarmac forever, miss my meetings, get ill, and on and on.

I’ve gone from happy to miserable in one minute flat. Miserable about something that hasn’t even happened.

It’s easy to do this in fundraising too. If you’ve done it for a while, you’ve experienced a few disasters: The person you interviewed and got a great story from backs out at the last minute. Someone in your organization is trying to kill your appeal. Your printer runs out of envelopes. There’s a typo in the URL.

Before you know it, the whole project is doomed to failure, and you haven’t even started. That won’t exactly do wonders for your creative energy.

Bad things happen. But usually not all at the same time. 

When you find yourself catastrophizing, do a reality check:

  • How likely is each disaster I’m imagining?
  • If it does happen, how bad would it be, really?

Your catastrophizing inner voice doesn’t want you to be realistic. But when you do that, you can get on with the job and face any problems that crop up with the energy you need to overcome them.

Polarizing: “It’s a total disaster!”

Let’s be real: Most things we do end up somewhere between “total disaster” and “huge success.” But generally more toward the success side of the continuum.

But we all have a tendency to think there are only two possible polar-opposite outcomes: Total failure and total success. 

The problem with polarizing is it leads you to interpret anything that’s not quite total success as total failure. And then you start freaking yourself out about it. You start blaming yourself and focusing on avoiding mistakes, rather than doing your best work.

When you find yourself polarizing, give yourself a break. Remember these things:

  • You will make mistakes. Everyone does.
  • Most of your mistakes have much smaller impact than you think they will.
  • The most important thing about any mistake is that it is a learning opportunity — we learn more from mistakes than almost any other source in life!

Please don’t think that choosing a positive orientation means ignoring reality and practicing a “Pollyanna” approach that can leave you unprepared for the real world. It’s about overcoming that inner voice we all have that embraces failure and causes us to stumble needlessly.

Beating negative self-talk takes practice. But the more you work to replace negative thoughts with positive and realistic ones, the better you get at it. And remember: don’t forget to breathe!

Another way to keep your projects and strategies on target is to get quality advice. One of our Fundraisingologists just might have the answer to any question you have. Schedule a free 25-minute call. They will give you great free advice, and help you identify which Coaching+ program might be right for you. Click here to book your call.

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1 Comment. Leave new

  • Benita Cathey
    April 13, 2023 1:25 am

    This is a really great article. The applications are useful for day-to-day life as well. Thank you.


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