The illusion of the power of positive self-talk

I’ve recently been watching SAS: Who Dares Wins for Stand Up To Cancer, where a group of celebrities are put through gruelling SAS type training. A key theme with this training is that it pushes the celebrities to not only their physical limits but also tests their mental resilience. What I find fascinating as an academic who works in the field of coaching and behavioural change, is the assumption played out in this programme (and elsewhere for that matter), that suggests that when one is faced with a mental challenge, such as racking doubts about our own abilities to succeed under adverse conditions, the prevailing belief is that we can just tell ourselves that we can do it, that we are worth it, we will succeed and ‘poof!’ the doubt is gone!

Of course, in reality, it is far from this simple. The formation of our views of who we are and the value we place on our own self-worth, is a hugely complex process and varies from individual to individual. If self-belief was as simple as a little positive self-talk, then surely self-doubt and the subsequent negative impact on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours would be a thing of the past? The most challenging part of this prevailing view for me, is that the implied simplicity of positive self-talk is likely to lead to even greater perceptions of failure for those who are not able to overcome feelings of self-doubt through the process of positive self-talk.

Self-belief vs Self-doubt

I am not denying that positive self-talk is an important part of overcoming self-doubt, however, to suggest that this is the answer to this particular affliction is oversimplifying the matter. To overcome self-doubt means, identifying the reasons why we are experiencing self-doubt in the first place, working to understand these causes and finding our own way of dealing with them. For some, positive self-talk maybe the solution, for others however, positive self-talk will not go far enough to enable them to overcome the barriers to believing in oneself. The popularity in encouraging leaders to reflect, taking time out of their day to think and contemplate, continues to grow and the reason for this is our increased awareness of the importance of reflection in understanding ourselves and others. Humans are complex, messy creatures. There is so much that we don’t understand about the human mind and most of us blindly go about our lives with little consideration for why we think, feel and behave the way that we do. If we can understand ourselves a little better, then we can start to understand what we need to do to remove the shackles of self-doubt.

Tips for raising self-awareness:

  • Read up on the topic – there are a huge number of books aimed at increasing our self-awareness – I particularly like De Haan & Kasozi (2014) ‘The leadership shadow: how to recognize and avoid derailment, hubris and overdrive’, as this text helps to enable reflection by raising awareness of how you might behave during challenging times
  • Form a reflective habit – we all reflect best in different ways – I find it easiest to reflect when walking, others like to use approaches such as reflective writing. Find what works best for you and schedule time to do this frequently
  • Find someone to reflect with – when we have the privilege of discussing ourselves with another who truly listens, believes in us and does not judge our actions, we are able to reflect at a much deeper level. This trusting relationship forms the basis of coaching and is why coaching is an excellent approach to enhancing self-awareness

Dr Rebecca J Jones, Associate Professor in Coaching & Behavioural Change

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