Banish negative self-talk and think yourself to success

Anyone can access greater self-belief. Here, Psychologies’ Emma Cooling speaks to three experts and discovers their personal approaches to thinking more positively


Life’s winners are simply the top of their talent pool, right? Wrong! Or so the experts say, believing that success is not always down to ability. Often, in fact, those who appear to be nailing it are no more capable than their comrades. Their secret, then? Self-belief and positive thinking. And the good news is there are plenty of evidence-based tips on how the rest of us can grab a piece of it, and banish our negative internal chatter.

How many times does our inner voice rob us of the confidence to chase a goal or leave us shying away from an opportunity? Imagine if that voice was encouraging and positive, instead. Psychologists say those who pursue and achieve goals (and seem to smash it every time) are often not better company, fitter, or more intelligent than the rest of us – they simply think more positively and are not afraid to put themselves out there.

Self-belief doesn’t mean being big-headed – it’s about having faith in your own ability. When we believe in ourselves, we kick-start psychological processes that help us achieve our goals. The flip side is also true: when we judge ourselves to be incapable, we can unwittingly set ourselves up to fail.

Bigging ourselves up doesn’t come naturally – the thought alone can make many of us cringe. But it’s powers are proven. This much-quoted nugget of wisdom from US motoring magnate Henry Ford refers to the powers of positive thinking: ‘Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.’ The trick, then, is to believe that we can achieve.

The causes of our negative thinking will vary – from schooling, parenting and genes, to the company we keep, many factors will have impacted on how we view ourselves. And some of these reasons will be deeply rooted, but that doesn’t mean we can’t all work to improve our self-belief and develop strategies for positive thinking. But as with so many issues, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Finding the balance

For Gabriele Oettingen, professor of psychology at New York University and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside The New Science Of Motivation (Penguin, £21), engaging positive thoughts to power us forward is not just about visualising our goals and imagining ourselves achieving them (although, let’s face it, that’s fun!): ‘Positive dreams and images about the future heighten our mood in the moment and help us explore the various possibilities of the future.

‘But when it comes to implementing these possibilities, positive dreaming about the future does not do the trick! In fact, the more positively people dream about the future, the less energy and effort they put into achieving a positive outcome, and the less successful they are – in achievement, in interpersonal relations, in fitness, and in physical and mental health.’

Thankfully, Oettingen is not suggesting we do away with positive thinking about the future and immerse ourselves wholly in negative thoughts. ‘Catastrophising about future scenarios doesn’t do the trick either! On the contrary, it dampens our mood and fails to trigger action, just like pure positive daydreaming about the future.’

So what, then, is the solution? How can we get far enough past these negative thoughts to feel positive enough to act? For Oettingen, it’s about being realistic about the obstacles that might be holding us back, and forming a plan to counter them.

‘We need both positive thinking about the future and negative thinking about reality. Designing a positive future will give action a direction. The problem, however, is that it saps our energy. So, we need to complement our future dreams with a healthy dose of reality.’

So it’s about more than positive self-talk – we need to be realistic about what is holding us back from achieving, and couple that with a more optimistic outlook. ‘We need to consider the obstacle in us that stands in the way of implementing the desired future. Imagining both the positive future and the obstacle of reality will give us direction and energy,’ she adds.

Oettigen has named this technique of mentally contrasting the image of a positive future with the obstacle of reality ‘WOOP’ – Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan – a mental strategy to propel us into seeing preferences, fulfilling our wishes, and pulling us right back into active life.

Practicing kindness

Houston Kraft, a speaker and wellbeing author, takes a slightly different stance. He believes that, over time, external negative voices and influences manifest themselves as unhelpful thoughts that we come to see as fact, and that compassion and kindness are the route to a more positive outlook.

‘Negative self-talk speaks in hypotheticals that sound like absolutes. When repeated long enough, it can turn into a consistent experience of feeling shame. Shame is external commentary turned into internal criticism. It is a lie that once upon a time came from the outside, but that we’ve now repeated for so long, we only hear in our own voice.’

The good news is that we can change this negative self-talk through compassionate actions. ‘Negative thinking is a pattern we can interrupt,’ says Kraft. ‘One of the most powerful disrupters of negative thinking is compassion. The neuroscience of kindness reveals that acts of kindness have a profound impact on our brains and overall wellbeing.

‘When we engage in acts of kindness, our brains release neurochemicals such as oxytocin, which promote feelings of joy, connection, and trust. This behaviour activates the reward centres in our brains, leading to increased happiness and satisfaction. Kindness also reduces stress and anxiety by dampening the physiological responses to stress. Being kind strengthens social bonds, enhances mood, and decreases symptoms of depression.’

But what does this have to do with positive thinking? Houston explains: ‘When we can choose to act in kindness in spite of our given mood or internal dialogue, the neuroscience tells us that it not only benefits others, but – and perhaps even more so – ourselves, too. So, if you are thinking negatively, act positively!’

Boosting self-belief

Research scientist and author Courtney Ackerman acknowledges that we all struggle with self-doubt at some point. ‘It’s nearly impossible to stay confident in yourself and your abilities in all situations,’ she says. ‘It’s normal, and it’s human. But, fortunately for us, we have the power to choose how we respond in moments of self-doubt. We can practise boosting our belief in ourselves through some very simple actions.’

If you’re struggling with negative thinking, Ackerman suggests trying one of these techniques:

  1. Do the opposite. Next time you are feeling really nervous or doubting your ability to do something, make the choice to do it anyway. You’ll train your brain to recognise that your feelings and your actions don’t have to align, and that taking a successful action might actually help you feel more positive.
  2. Zoom out. When you’re feeling stuck on a problem that feels really overwhelming or difficult, it can be helpful to broaden your perspective. For example, if you’re stressing about your ability to complete a tough task, try zooming out from this one instance to think about how many new tasks you’ve completed in your life that seemed impossible at first. You were once a baby with no idea how to walk, but you figured that out!
  3. Be a goldfish. When we are struggling with self-doubt, we’re often remembering past difficulties. Next time, practise being a goldfish instead: approach whatever challenging situation you’re facing as a brand-new situation, with no memory of past ‘failures’. Each moment you encounter is an opportunity to be a new and improved version of you.

Our experts:

Gabriele Oettingen is an academic and a psychologist. She is a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. Her research focuses on how people think about the future, and how this impacts cognition, emotion, and behaviour.

Houston Kraft is a professional speaker, an author, and a curriculum developer, working with more than 100 schools to support the teaching of kindness in education. His latest book is Be Kind: A 52-Week Journal For Practicing Kindness ( Simon & Schuster, £6.99). @houstonkraft

Courtney Ackerman is a research scientist and evaluator of mental health programmes.
She is the author of several books, including My Pocket Meditations For Self-Compassion,
My Pocket Positivity, 5-Minute Bliss and My Pocket Gratitude (Simon & Schuster). @courtneyeackerman

Read more: 8 ways to discover your ‘why’

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