5 steps to break free from negative self-talk

Like Big Brother, your subconscious is always watching. We know the power of positive thinking, but many of us underestimate the impact of negative self-talk. We shouldn’t.

I’m bad with money
I’m not smart enough
I’m too busy
I’m unlucky
I don’t need help
The list goes on…

Self-limiting beliefs are negative things we tell ourselves. Make no mistake; they are a defence mechanism, protection from the potential pain that comes with failure. By believing them, we give ourselves an excuse to limit our ambitions. We set the bar lower, avoid hard challenges, and settle for less.

The devil on your shoulder is often invisible

Like many biases, self-limiting beliefs are often disguised as facts. They are self-perpetuating, leading to self-doubt, which, in turn, leads to self-sabotage. You don’t go for the promotion because ‘you’re not ready’. You don’t put your hand up because ‘it’s a dumb question’. Yay, you win: your beliefs are proven correct. The prize? A bonus bout of imposter syndrome

Whether or not you recognise them, your limiting beliefs are holding you back. There are enough structural blockers for women without us making life hard for ourselves. So let’s put that self-limiting baggage where it belongs: in the trash.

1. Identify your self-limiting beliefs

Years ago, Nat was on a leadership course swearing black and blue that she didn’t engage in negative self-talk. The coach asked her to take note of her thoughts anyway. A week later, Nat returned, exhausted by the sheer weight of the self-limiting beliefs she’d identified. 

The coach was not surprised.

We get so used to our internal dialogue that we stop noticing it. So pay attention. When you make a mistake or decision, when you try (or contemplate trying) something new, when you’re exercising, working or talking, notice the negative words that come out of your mouth (and the ones that don’t). Don’t be fooled by some common mind tricks either; we often phrase self-limiting beliefs as concern about ‘what other people will think’. Those people are innocent, your negative thoughts are yours.

This week, we’ve made life easy for you. Copy this template, or print it to start your list.

2. Understand your triggers

Now you have a handle on some of your self-limiting beliefs; it’s time to pay attention to what triggers them.

Keep your list on you. When one of your negative thoughts strikes, note down when and why it happened. Too overwhelming? This is about small habits – pick one to focus on, and you can tackle another one later.

3. Find the source of your negative self-talk

Get curious because every self-limiting belief comes from somewhere. Spend a few minutes thinking about the sources of yours: 

Did you grow up in a household that believed becoming a doctor/lawyer/accountant was the path to success? That’s impacted how you view yourself. Ever had feedback about your ‘high’ voice or lack of ‘executive presence’? Did your parents claim to be bad with money or that wealthy people are greedy? Have you been told you weren’t sporty? Does your partner roll their eyes when you say something ‘dumb’? 

For women of colour, the sources double (triple?!?). Stereotypes around angry black women and passive Asian women are just the tip of the iceberg. Over forty? You’re probably also experiencing the ‘invisibility war’. 

Over the coming weeks, you may remember more sources of your beliefs about yourself. Some may be major life events, others? A flippant comment.

4. Play defence

We know you’ve watched enough daytime TV (RIP Jerry Springer) to know it’s the prosecutor’s job to prove a case beyond doubt. You’ve really honed that role, but it’s time to switch teams. 

Play defence. Take an evidence-based approach to rip holes in your self-limiting beliefs. Some questions to start you off:

  • Are you receiving feedback that supports or counters your belief?
  • Do you have the same belief about the people around you?
  • What would happen if you stopped believing it? 

5. Change your internal dialogue

Go down your list of beliefs, and rewrite them as a positive (or neutral) statement. When you catch yourself saying or thinking something negative, repeat the positive version (out loud if possible). Some examples:

  • I’m not smart enough > I’m excited to learn this
  • I’m alone > I’m not in a romantic relationship
  • I come from a broken family > My parents aren’t together
  • I don’t have enough money > I have other priorities
  • I’m too old > It’s never too late to start!

Changing your language will help change how you see yourself and unblock some mental barriers in the way of your success. You are smart, beautiful, funny and strong enough. It’s time you told yourself so.

Case study: Public speaking

We asked Miriam Chancellor, Powrsuiter and public speaking coach for her advice on overcoming self-limiting beliefs. Miriam recounted the story of a woman whose confidence was decimated by a hostile audience. With anxiety at an all-time high and an entrenched self-belief that she ‘wasn’t a public speaker’, this brave woman put her hand up for help. Miriam re-created a high-pressure environment and gave her the opportunity to try again. She nailed it. By proving her belief wrong, this woman was able to change her perception of herself, which led to her changing her behaviour. Now, she confidently uses her public speaking skills in her career to communicate and influence.

Miriam’s top tip: Take a step that’s manageable for you. That could be speaking up in a meeting, saying ‘yes’ to being on the pitch team at work, or something as small as making a phone call instead of writing an email.

30 second action:

Download the limiting beliefs template to help identify and change yours.

Was this helpful?

Weekly leadership insights, straight to your inbox

One leadership skill, every week

Each week, we cover one leadership skill or challenge and share a 30-second action that turns theory into practice.