Why Most Positive Self Talk Doesn’t Work And What to Do About It

I have always been a huge proponent of positive self talk. I use it all the time in my own life.

When I have to have a conversation with someone that I’m dreading, or I’m just tired and have a long day ahead, I look at myself in the mirror and say, something to the effect of, “you can do this! You have what it takes. You’re smart and capable and savvy.”

Makes you look pretty ridiculous if anyone ever walks in on you in the bathroom—but whatever.

If it works, it’s worth it. Right?

But to be honest, I wasn’t really sure if it was working. I had never thought to measure if it was actually improving the outcomes of my life, or if it was just making me feel better.

Recently, I heard something that made me rethink my un­challenged love for positive self talk.

I was listening to one of my favorite business authors, Dan Pink present at a conference.

He’s a really smart guy who has written a few New York Times Bestsellers, including one I love called To Sell Is Human.

He said something about self­ talk that really caught my attention.

Namely, he said, it just plain doesn’t work.

At first I felt myself getting a little defensive. “It doesn’t work?! What do you mean it doesn’t work? It has to work!”

But then I listened as he went on.

Basically, he said, research shows that positive self talk like “you can do it!” doesn’t have much of an impact on performance because the self ­talk has nothing to do with performance itself. It isn’t clear or directive.

Self talk doesn’t have any clear plan to follow.

On the other hand, if you were to talk to yourself like this: “I’ve done presentations like this dozens of times before and every time I’ve told the story about that one business owner,that’s gone really well.”

Or if you were to say, “Your biggest weakness when you’re facing a hard day is you get overwhelmed too easily. So watch out for that.”

That’s the kind of positive self talk that works.

That positive self talk gives you a clear path you can follow ahead.

Positive self talk that works isn’t just “rah­rah you can do it” self­ talk but it comes with a plan.

Makes sense, right?

In case you were wondering if this works, I tried it.

A few weeks ago I had to have a hard conversation with someone I loved and I was nervous. I gave myself this positive self ­talk beforehand.

I told myself, “your biggest weakness in these conversations is that you let your emotions get the best of you and you lose sight of what you’re trying to communicate.” I also said to myself, over and over again, “Don’t forget—the objective of the conversation is ______.”

And you know what?

That conversation went better than I could have expected. I stayed cool and collected and was able to direct the conversation in the way I wanted it to go.

Turns out Dan Pink was right.

And if I can change the way I talk to myself, I just might be able to have a small hand in shaping the future in front of me.

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Allison Fallon

I write books. I help people write books. I believe a regular practice of writing can change your life.

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