World Champion road cyclist Peter Sagan was spent. His punished legs were full of lactic acid. His heartbeat raced into the red zone. By all standard counts, his incredibly high pain threshold had been reached, but the race still hung in the balance and there were many more kilometers to pedal, so Sagan did something during the race that was so simple and instantly effective, its power could easily be overlooked. Facing his moment of losing head on, he told himself he was only at 70% of his max effort. He lied to himself, to his body, and his body believed him.
There is a metaphysical magic that takes place during positive self-talk that baffles even scientists; After telling himself he had more energy to expend, Sagan accelerated into the headwind, left his rivals in purgatory behind him, and won the Tour of Flanders.
The achievements experienced by positive self-talkers extend beyond endurance sports. Surgeons, teachers, students, astronauts, managers, and high producers from many other fields are using positive self-talk to focus better on tasks and improve performance. A frequently cited experiment in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology by professors Gary Lupyan and Daniel Swingley, showed that when people verbalized an object they were looking for (a banana in an unfamiliar grocery store) they found it quicker and easier. There is a direct link between what we say and how we perform.
“Self-talk” refers to any internal dialogue we have with ourselves on a daily basis. It is that constant voice in our heads that is always evaluating our actions. If your self-talk is positive, it can motivate you to be more, go farther, get more accomplished; but when the words you tell yourself are critically judgmental, it can cripple your progress—give you an excuse to give up.
Listening to your own negativity is a form of self-paralyzing behavior.
Why do we tear our own egos to shreds with self-defeating words that are so blunt we wouldn’t say them to a loved one?
Shakespeare explored emotional paralysis in the tragedy of Hamlet. As a young prince, racked with fear and grief over his Father’s murder, Hamlet soliloquizes several self-defeating speeches. Instead of taking up arms and fighting for his throne, he allows his own self-doubt to make him helpless—leading to many unnecessary deaths, including his own.
Ancient cultures seemed to understand the role self-talk played in a person’s well being. King Solomon, supposedly one of the richest and wisest men who ever lived, spoke of the tongue’s “power over life and death.”
The yoga sutras, compiled before 400CE by Sage Patanjali, explain: “the cause of bondage and liberation is our own minds. If we think we are bound, we are bound. If we think we are liberated, we are liberated.”
To take self-talk seriously, we must accept it for what it really is: brain conditioning. Often our sensations and perceptions of an experience are filtered through the words we have already preconceived. Giving in to self-judgment will eventually lead to depression, increased stress, weight gain, and chronic illness. However, a habit of daily positive self-talk has been shown to raise our pain tolerance, increases our endurance, reduces stressful responses, and improves our mood.
Here are five simple ways you can use positive self-talk to bring out your personal best:
1. Try speaking to yourself in the third-person to activate your observer role. This will bring a new clarity to your situation by increasing your meta-awareness.
2. Identify the purpose of the self-talk. There are reminders that help us learn a skill like shooting a basketball (elbows in, knees bent) or motivators meant to push us beyond physical pain boundaries (a marathon runner telling their legs to “fly” in spite of fatigue).
3. Simple, repeatable phrases work best. A “mantra” was a chant developed in India over 3,000 years ago by people who understood that spoken words were sound waves that could function as actual transferable energy!
4. When negative thoughts appear, learn to turn them into positives. First recognize hurtful phrases such as: “you’ll never amount to anything,” or “you’re a quitter, just like your Father” for what they are—lies. Once you identify and stop believing these false statements about yourself, you can begin to erase for good by replacing them with constructive statements. “It’s not working, I’ll never get it,” can be replaced with the phrase: “Don’t give up now, you’re about to figure this out.”
5. Allow yourself permission to fail. We all fall short of our goals at times. When this happens, don’t abandon positive self-talk, instead use it even more to build yourself back up for another try. Successful people fail even more than people who never try. It’s how they are able to re-phrase their failure into a learning experience that helps them eventually succeed.
The brain believes whatever you tell it the most. The image of yourself that you speak into being is the one that will remain for others to experience.
Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, one of the winningest coaches of all time, defined success as “self-satisfaction.” The ability to reach the satisfaction level of success starts with the way you talk to yourself.