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Use these strategies for effective self-talk

How do you push yourself through hardship when your body is telling you to quit?

This is a question that I’ve been asked many times about my experiences in the military, and it is not an easy one to answer. There have been several studies on why one person can push through while another will quit, but with no clear agreement on what the defining factor is.

One idea that has been debated in particular is whether self-talk is effective, and there is evidence to argue it both ways. In my personal experience I have found it to be very defining in how I fare when I take on something challenging.

The first day you arrive to attempt Special Forces selection you automatically start weighing up the people around you. Many come from the Royal Marines or Parachute Regiment, both of which have gruelling selection tests in their own right. And most candidates have several years of military experience, usually including at least one tour of Afghanistan (at the time I attended).

And yet many will be gone within the first couple of weeks, even though physically they have more to give. The most fatigue I encountered during that 6 month process was during the jungle phase. A brutal 4 weeks spent living under the dense tree canopy which creates a hot stifling environment with humidity that saps your energy.

After inserting by helicopter the first few days are spent navigating the harsh and often steep terrain with bergan loads that feel as if they are tearing your shoulders off. And it was here that I have a vivid recollection of self-talk.

Physically I felt spent, but I distinctly remember knowing that I was walking a line in my mind, with a choice to step one way or the other: To accept the signals from my body and stop the suffering, to give in to that voice that can end it. Or to acknowledge the thought that says you’re not spent, that you do have more, that it’s going to hurt more until it can stop but it is possible.

It’s in those moments that what I tell myself has a profound impact on how I end up performing. And if you really think about it I would guess you can name similar experiences in your own life.

Self-talk is your internal dialogue, and the thing is that it affects every aspect of your life, so it’s worth understanding the power it can have and turn it into your advantage.

Man in yellow coat walking along vast landscape under stormy sky.
Photo by Madara Parma on Unsplash

Strategies for self-talk

Self-talk is basically statements that we tell ourselves about a situation we are facing. Although such statements can be said aloud, most self-talk is said covertly as a silent voice in one’s mind.

The nature of self-talk can reflect positive (e.g., I can do this) or negative (e.g., don’t screw it up) thoughts. But importantly there is also an interpretative element associated with self-talk, which is individual to each of us.

For instance, while two people might say the same phrase to themselves when fatigued (e.g., this is tough going), one may view the statement as an indication to give up, whereas the other might interpret it as a positive and keep going.

Use the following 4 strategies to improve your own self-talk

Bring awareness

Man sitting on cliff edge, looking at mountain range at dusk.
Photo by Elijah Hiett on Unsplash

Much of our self-talk flows from your subconscious and much of the time you might not even be aware of it.

Your brain is built to reinforce and regulate your life: It controls physical functions like body temperature, heartbeat and breathing. But what many people don’t realise is that it also tries to regulate your mental self.

Essentially we all see the world through a lens. Massive amounts of information floods our senses every second of the day and your mind is constantly filtering this to pick out what is relevant.

We do this by condensing everything down into narratives we use to navigate the world. These are shaped by a combination of biological factors and past experiences which have filtered down to form the story of who we believe we are. It’s the reason why what happens to us during childhood can echo throughout the rest of our lives.

These beliefs are our subjective truth, and this is different for each of us. You only have to look at the different religions around the world for the perfect example. What is true for you is not true for other people.

What this means is that until you start making a conscious effort to listen to those subconscious drivers you can’t hope to change them. You need to hear what that voice is saying before you can direct it to your advantage.

The simplest action you can take to achieve this is through a simple journaling task:

  • Do it first thing in the morning.
  • Give yourself 5-10 minutes.
  • Stream out your thoughts.

Many people find this tough at first, to literally write what pops into their head with no filter. It doesn’t even have to be complete sentences. Forget grammar and punctuation, just let it out. You will probably be surprised at what comes up.

This is not something you can do once, you must be consistent with the practice. But over time you will become far more aware of the internal chatter that is going on inside your head. Which will better enable you to identify and stop negative self-talk, and instead follow a narrative that helps you.

NB. As well as being too negative about a situation you can also be too positive about a situation. Being unrealistic is also unhelpful.

Get uncomfortable

Man cycling uphill in winter.
Photo by Mattia Cioni on Unsplash

Although self-talk is present in our daily lives, often it is during times of physical hardship that we need to call on it most. But rather than waiting for those times to happen and hoping for the best, you can prepare yourself by exposing yourself to discomfort.

You can do this in many different ways but an easily accessible one is to set yourself physical challenges every so often. And personally I love the rowing machine for these sessions.

Ranked as one of the most physically demanding sports, rowing is painful, demanding and draining. The combination of strength and power, coupled with exhaustive levels of cardiovascular endurance, will challenge in a way like little else in the gym.

While on my first tour of Afghanistan in 2010 we had a squadron competition with the ‘11 Minute Row’:

Row 1000m – Rest 3 min
Row 750m – Rest 2 min 30 sec
Row 500m – Rest 2 min
Row 250m – Rest 2 min
Row 750m – Finish

The aim is to have your cumulative row time under 11 minutes (it can be scaled to ability).

When you undertake a session that pushes your body outside of what is comfortable, it will tell you to stop. This happens to everyone no matter whether you are the average person on the street or an elite athlete.

By using controlled experiences of discomfort i.e. you plan when it will take place, you can practice self-talk and see what techniques work for you.

Zone your focus

Woman in gym clothes and boxing gloves in gym.
Photo by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash

My favourite strategy is to zone my focus down to only one step ahead of me.

  • Get to the gym: Many people defeat themselves before they even begin by worrying about session and what they have to do. Instead concentrate only on getting to the start line.
  • Warm up: It’s amazing how different you feel after the blood is moving and the body is warm.
  • Break it down: Even when I am ready to start I avoid thinking about the workout as a whole. I will break it down into smaller pieces and only focus my mind on that.
  • Break it down further: When it’s starting to get painful I will break it down to even smaller chunks, sometimes to the realm of 10 seconds or less.

By only focusing on one step at a time you accomplish two things:

  1. You lessen the chance of psyching yourself out
  2. You provide yourself with small wins by mentally checking off each small chunk you complete.

This strategy sounds so simple and you’d think the brain would simply dismiss you trying to ignore the bigger picture but I promise you it is highly effective. And it has been proven in some of the most extreme situations.

Your why

When all is said and done you aren’t going to talk yourself through a tough situation or challenge if you simply don’t have a strong enough driver to get to what is on the other side of it.

Shirtless man in black shorts standing at the edge of the sea.
Photo by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash


Final word

Self-talk can be incredibly powerful as long as you have an awareness of what it is you are telling yourself. Once you have this you can shape your response to testing situations through controlled exposure to discomfort that allows you to practice the type of self-talk that helps you.

And this is a key point: Your interpretation of their self-talk may be of greater importance than its content.

A set of research into self-talk has identified that some people reported negative self-talk to be motivating. And while the motivating effects of negative thinking may be only realised by certain people under certain circumstances, these findings emphasise the importance of understanding how you as an individual responds to self-talk.

For example, if an extremely resilient person uses negative and self-critical self-talk to increase his or her own effort or refocus attention following a lapse in performance, this may be an entirely functional use of self-talk. But for someone else it could be completely counterproductive.

Embrace self-talk, experiment with it and it can be a great tool to increase your resilience.

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