Who’s Talking in Your Head?

Make sure your self-talk is helping not hurting

James was a junior tennis champion. He was 16 years old and was hoping to enter the professional circuit. He came from a “tennis family.” He was four years old when he had his first lesson. He won his first competition when he was seven years old. There wasn’t enough cabinet space to display all the trophies he had won since then. The media often billed James as a “future star” of tennis. He was usually seeded number one for the competitions he played in. A lot was expected of James.

James had a perfect mix of natural talent and superb attitude. In tennis you need a great attitude because in every match you play you lose points, commit unforced errors, serve double faults, fail to make returns, and mishit shots, and you still have to remain positive. In fact, in tennis it is possible to lose more points than your opponent and still win the match! In spite of James’s great attitude, he had hit what he called a “mental wall” that he couldn’t dismantle. That was when he decided to see me.

James had not won a tournament for six months—his longest dry spell ever. He had reached seven consecutive competition finals, as he was expected to, but each time he had underperformed and lost to opponents he should have beaten.

“It’s since gone from bad to worse,” James told me. “I’ve now lost in the first round of my last three events.” As I listened more to James’s story, I agreed with him that his failure was not a talent gap, but a mental block.

I asked him, “What do you say to yourself just before you play a match?”

“I just focus.”

“On what?”

“The game.”

James struggled with this line of questioning. He was largely unaware of the inner dialogue of his thoughts. But he eventually identified a single mantra he repeated to himself: “I must win.”

I asked James, “Why precisely do you tell yourself, ‘I must win’?”

He told me, “It’s expected. I’m the favorite. I want to play professional tennis. I must win.”

In our first session, I asked James to say “I must win” out loud 50 times. Each time James repeated “I must win, I must win, I must win,” he noticed that this mantra actually increased his physical tension and mental anxiety. He also noticed how saying “I must win” generated mental pictures of tough points and poor shots.

Next, I got James to repeat “I can win” 100 times.

“Saying ‘I can win’ feels completely different,” he said. “I feel no negative pressure, the tension isn’t there, and all I feel is positive.”

James won his next three tournaments back to back. A different thought, a different result.

Here is the question: “Can a single thought really make that much difference?” Notice your conversation with yourself as you answer this question. It’s important.

A person’s inner dialogue is often the key difference between faith and doubt, courage and fear, success and failure. In essence, the inner dialogue sets the tone for every external dialogue with other people, life events, and creation itself.

People talk to themselves constantly. Psychologists call this behavior inner dialogue or subvocal speech. They estimate that you speak to yourself at a conservative average of 50 words a minute, 3,000 words an hour. If you listen to your inner dialogue, you will notice an assortment of observations, judgments, commentary, beliefs, doubts, hopes, fears, anxieties, chatter, and general nonsense. Fortunately, it takes only one great thought—one inspired piece of inner dialogue—to create some success.

The most important conversations you hold in life are the ones you hold with yourself. Your own inner dialogue is an important key to success.

Notice how often your inner dialogue is a commentary about you. In any moment, you may be praising yourself or putting yourself down; you may be believing in yourself or doubting yourself; you may be encouraging yourself or criticizing yourself; you may be acting as your own best coach or your own worst enemy. Inner dialogue is full of “I am” and “I am not” statements, “I can” and “I can’t” statements, and “I will” and “I won’t” statements. Listening for the wisdom, if any, in each statement is a true test of intelligence.

Thoughts are choices. The most accomplished people experience doubts every day, but they have learned how to choose a higher thought. Great actors experience huge performance anxiety, but they have learned how to choose a higher thought. Sports champions feel like quitting every day, but they too have learned how not to take these thoughts seriously. The same is true for successful artists, writers, teachers, physicians, and peacemakers. As you choose your thoughts, you choose your experience.

Most people I know experience a spectrum of hopes and fears every day of their lives. The people who experience consistent success have learned how to identify with the thoughts that create the best outcomes. Even these people may still hit rough patches. And when they do, they call someone, they pray, they meditate, they get coached, and they find a way to choose again.

Excerpted from Authentic Success by Robert Holden, Ph.D. Copyright © 2011 (Hay House).

Robert Holden, Ph.D., is the Director of The Happiness Project and Success Intelligence. Robert coaches leaders in business, education, politics and healthcare. Visit: RobertHolden.org.


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