Is Negative Self Talk Harming Your Career?

Is Negative Self Talk Harming Your Career?

We all have those silent, internal conversations in our heads. Chances are you’re doing it right now.  Sometimes the conversations are neutral, or actually helpful – like when you talk yourself out of having that second (or third) donut.  But, sometimes the voice in your head is negative, even destructive – like when you beat yourself up for having a donut at all.  What you may not realize is that negative self talk can create unnecessary obstacles at work and harm your career.  

Making Up Stories (In Your Head)

The Ask Ajna mobile app, the preeminent career guide for professional women, lists ‘Making Up Stories’ as one of the top 10 mistakes women make.  It happens when our immediate emotional reactions lead to thoughts we perpetuate into stories we tell ourselves, and sometimes other people. It becomes a problem in the workplace when the stories we make up are at the expense of potentially productive and mutually beneficial working relationships, even friendships.

Here’s the scenario…

You’re in a meeting with your project team and your boss.  A co-worker voices disagreement with your recommendations.  You leave the meeting and your internal voice starts screaming – “She’s trying to undermine me!  She doesn’t like me.  She wants to make me look bad.  Who does she think she is!”  By the time you reach your desk, you’ve fabricated an entire story (in your head) in which the co-worker is your arch-enemy plotting to sabotage the project and your career. Sound familiar?

Here’s the problem…

When we give too much credence to the stories rattling around in our heads, we start to believe they’re true, even when they’re not.  We use these stories to compensate for our own insecurities and to reinforce negative feelings.  The result?  The other person is being maligned without her knowledge and we’ve just created a conflict that may not really exist.

What Else Could Be True?

Instead of letting your emotional response turn into a negative story, Marsha Clark, women’s advocate, consultant, author, and executive coach, recommends stopping and asking yourself, “What else could be true?”  Clark suggests keeping your mind open to other possibilities and not just letting yourself buy in to the negative self talk. Consider alternatives as to why the situation occurred and what you can do about it.  In most circumstances, the reasons things happen are not as Machiavellian and evil as the voice in your head may lead you to believe.

What Else Can You Do?

In the mobile app, Ask Ajna also recommends dealing with the situation directly.  In the scenario above instead of making up a story, take time to talk to your co-worker honestly and openly, checking your anger or defensiveness at the door.  You might say, “When you disagreed with me in the meeting, I felt undermined and I’m concerned about the success of the project.  I’d like to understand your perspective so we can move the project forward.”

Have an open mind and listen to your co-worker’s response without judgment.  By taking this approach, you may learn something you didn’t know that can contribute to the success of the project.  At minimum, you’ve opened the door to a better working relationship with your co-worker.

Self Sabotage

Internal self talk is part of being human.  Clinical psychologist, Dr. Alice Domar notes that we each have about 50,000 thoughts a day and that the “healthy self talk ratio is around 2 positive thoughts to every 1 negative thought.”  Positive self talk helps people achieve great things. It has been linked to higher levels of motivation and success, especially in athletics and at work. But, negative self talk can be devastating for you personally and for your career.

“Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded.” – The Dhammapada

When your internal dialogue is negative, “I’m no good, I can’t do it, she’s better than me, I’m a failure,” you experience increased stress levels, your performance declines and your chances of succeeding are greatly diminished. Negative self talk is a silent saboteur, lingering in your mind waiting to strike you down. Domar calls it “a form of psychological torture.”

How negative self-talk can hurt your career

When you let those negative voices in at work, it can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. “He’s going to get the promotion instead of me. I want a pay increase, but I know my boss won’t give me one. This project is too big, I can’t do it.”  If you think you’re going to fail, chances are you will.

Negative self talk can also impact how others see and respond to you. When you don’t believe in yourself, it becomes harder for others to believe in you. Even if you don’t verbalize your negative thoughts, they show.  Oftentimes you’ll begin to lose the support and confidence of your co-workers, boss or clients without any tangible reason. It may be because they’re picking up on your negativity, low self-esteem or poor self-confidence.

Don’t make up stories or let negative thoughts turn into gossip that you share with others.  Nothing will derail a career faster than being branded as the office gossip or the negative nelly.

Try ‘Thought Stopping’ to ward off negative self talk

Positive affirmations, power music, and even power posing can motivate us and help us stay positive.  But, if you struggle with negative thoughts and self talk, there’s a proven psychological technique you can use called Thought Stopping.  It’s even used by some organizations to help with addiction. The technique has 4 very simple steps:

Step 1: Notice Negative Thinking

Acknowledge and pay attention to your thoughts.  Notice when you are thinking negative, stress inducing thoughts.

Step 2: Stop The Negative Self-Talk/Thought

Stop the negative self talk by visualizing a big, red stop sign in your mind’s eye and shouting stop, silently. You can use an elastic band on your wrist and snap it against your skin, as you say, “STOP.”  A small gentle snap on the back of your wrist is all that is needed. Then, breathe slowly in through your nose and as you exhale through your mouth and imagine the word – “relax.”

Step 3: Replace the Negative Self-Talk/Thought

Replace the stressful thought or negative self talk by imagining a positive, relaxing thought in as much detail as you can. In other words, use positive, relaxing imagery – picture yourself on a tropical beach, envision yourself getting the promotion or successfully completing the project.

Step 4: Return to Task

Simply go back to doing whatever it was you were doing when you noticed the negative thought.

Thought Stopping is very simple, but very effective.  Try it the next time you start making up stories or are being too hard on yourself.  It certainly can’t hurt!

What are your thoughts creating for you?  Have you made up a story that hurt you at work?  Share your thoughts with us and remember, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” ― The Dhammapada   


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Passionate advocate for the advancement and empowerment of women. Prior HR exec and co-founder of Ask Ajna - helping women find their voice in the workplace.

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