Whether you realize it or not, you have a coach that gives guidance, critiques performance, and analyzes results. That coach is your self-talk—that voice inside your head that provides a running commentary on your life. High performers recognize that self-talk isn’t just background noise; it can be a powerful force that either helps us succeed or holds us back.
“Everyone engages in unhealthy self-talk at times, it’s just part of the human condition. But, obviously some people do it more than others,” says clinical psychologist and performance coach Lubna Somjee.
When it comes to self-talk, high-performers tend to have a different track running through their heads, Somjee says. When their self-talk takes a negative turn, they consciously stop and course-correct it. Here are six hallmarks of successful people’s self-talk.
Successful, optimistic people don’t get caught up in a cycle of shame and name-calling. They give themselves a break, says psychotherapist Mary Jo Rapini. Instead of poring over every second of an unsuccessful interview and berating themselves, instead they look for lesson and move on, chalking up the exchange as a learning experience, she says. When they find themselves slipping into “I suck” territory, they work on focusing on their positive attributes and strengths.
Sometimes, messages received in childhood stick with us, Rapini says. High-performers weed out the negative messages that were picked up in childhood, often by well-meaning adults. Successful people trace the origin of those messages and determine where they came from, then work on eliminating them.
While some of us get thrown by challenges and setbacks, high-performers take the lesson from the experience and see it as an incremental movement toward where they ultimately want to go, Rapini says. Their inner coach quickly gets them back on track to try again.
“They don’t get into this ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking, which is a huge mistake that a lot of people who fail a lot do. They tell themselves that if they don’t get this particular thing, they won’t ever succeed. Most of us know that you’re going to make mistakes—that setbacks are stepping stones,” she says.
When one thing doesn’t go right, it can be easy to survey the landscape for anything else that’s less-than-perfect and create a giant snowball of unhappiness, Somjee says. People who have healthy self-talk are able to compartmentalize various challenges instead of viewing them as a full-court-press of setbacks.
They see each challenge as individual and not part of some greater, negative pattern, so they’re able to create a plan of attack for each, while others are just left feeling overwhelmed.
If high-performers have less-than-stellar performances, they don’t assume all of the fault. Instead, they look at the factors that contributed to the outcome and don’t take it personally. Just because one thing didn’t go their way isn’t a reflection on their ability, commitment or value as human beings, Somjee says.
One of the most important things that high-performers do is forgive themselves. Even when they make mistakes, they look for ways to improve and move on.
“It goes back to being kind to yourself, not calling yourself names. Rather than looking at how much you messed up, take the lesson from the situation and work on doing a better job next time,” Rapini says.