The Most Important Conversation You’ll Ever Have

Beat yourself up in your mind whenever things don’t work out? Fight the negative self-talk and spin it around to a positive.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Beat yourself up in your mind whenever things don’t work out? Fight the negative self-talk and spin it around to a positive.
Corbis/Click Photos
Corbis/Click Photos

It’s Saturday night and you’re sitting in your favourite chill-out spot. The lights are dim, the wine is perfect, and you know you look great because you’re wearing the “investment” dress that cost you this month’s pay. The only problem is your date’s not there yet. In fact, the last time you checked, he was already 15 minutes late.

At this point, do you:

A. Start thinking that he may never turn up.

B. Feel humiliated and decide that he may not be that interested in you after all.

C. Give him a call and find out what’s happening.

If your answer is a) or b), chances are, you’re prone to negative self-talk. We often interpret stressful situations through “conversations” we have with ourselves. Psychologists refer to this as “self-talk” – the constant stream of internal dialogue that shapes the way we see the world.

While most of us tend to go about our lives without taking much notice of this background chatter, it’s estimated that we carry out our internal dialogue at a rate of 150 to 300 words per minute – easily making it the longest (and most important) conversation we have.

Daily Soundtrack

Psychologist and performance expert Tracey Veivers believes this inner chatter plays an important role in our lives. “Self-talk is behind whether we’re experiencing a good or bad day. It affects whether we acquire new skills quickly, or successfully change bad habits… It can influence our moods and, ultimately, our self-esteem,” says Tracey.

You Are What You Think

So how can we turn our self-talk around so it always works to our advantage? Megan Varlow, senior clinical psychologist of the University of Technology Sydney’s Health Psychology Unit, explains that the first step is to learn to tune into our thought pattern.

“For most people, negative self-talk is in the background… Once you notice it happening, you’re in a position to do something about it,” says Megan. By recognising that you can decide how you interpret a situation, you can challenge irrational thoughts and replace them with positive ones, thus changing your mood and actions. This technique forms the basis of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy – a common tool used by counselors and therapists.

Turning It Around

Here are some examples of the most common negative thought patterns and what you can do to challenge them.

“My date is 15 minutes late. He must’ve changed his mind about me at the last minute.”

Thought pattern: Immediately jumping to negative conclusions.

How to break it: Tracey says that any negative conclusions should only be drawn “beyond reasonable doubt”. “If you don’t know for sure what is happening in a situation, try to seek clarification rather than assuming the worst. [In this case], phone him and see where he is,” suggests Tracey.

“All my relationships end badly. I always pick the wrong men.”

Thought pattern: Generalising.

How to break it: “Stick to the facts. It’s very easy to make sweeping statements or lump experiences together, instead of honestly comparing relationships,” says Tracey. In this instance, Megan adds that it’s also important to remember your strengths and what you do well. A useful thing to ask yourself would be: “What advice would I give to my friends if they were in this situation?”

“I was passed up for a promotion, so I must suck at my job.”

Thought pattern: “All-or-nothing” thinking.

How to break it: According to Tracey, this is the most common form of negative self-talk. “Categorising everything as successful or unsuccessful, good or bad, denies learning from experiences and leads to judgmental thinking.” Megan believes it’s important to focus on the big picture. Instead of giving yourself a hard time, try looking at the situation from all angles. “It could mean that there was someone who was more qualified. It could also be that you missed out by chance,” says Megan.

“There’s so much work to do. I have no idea where to start!”

Thought pattern: Emotional reasoning.

How to break it: “If you don’t know where to begin, then how would you know exactly how long it would take to complete the task?” asks Tracey. “Either commence with the easiest, smallest bit of paperwork or just start somewhere – anywhere. Being emotional will only promote procrastination, which will just make it longer for you to finish.” Try to overcome any habitual feelings of stress and panic, and approach the job calmly. You’ll be surprised at how much more effective you’ll be.

“Most of my friends are more financially well off than me.”

Thought pattern: Disqualifying the positive.

How to break it: Tracey says: “Take a step back and see the whole scenario – you may not have as much saved as others, but you may have had a lot more worldly experiences. Don’t discount the wealth in these lifeenriching moments.”