“I SUCK”: Insights into Negative Self-Talk and Why It May Not be a Bad Thing
November 9, 2022

When LeBron left his home team the first time in 2010, fans in Cleveland were furious. They burned his jersey in public, and Ohio sports writers were in shock that their native son would leave the Cavaliers in the way that he did. What was lost in the shuffle, however, was how LeBron James continually referred to himself in the third person. Specifically, he said:

“I wanted to do what was best for LeBron James, and what LeBron James is going to do to make him happy.” 

What most people don’t realize is that referring to yourself in the third person is a form of POSITIVE SELF TALK. We’ll get into this later but let’s backtrack a bit. 

What is NEGATIVE SELF TALK?

Why do we do it? And how does it affect our outcomes?

Negative self-talk is defined as any inner dialogue that expresses critical and unsupportive of self and peers, limiting your ability to believe in yourself in a demotivating manner

We do this to ourselves a lot. Statements like, “I can’t possibly do this” and “I’m just not ready for this test,” or “Man, I really suck at tennis” all qualify here. 

Do a quick google search and you’ll find endless streams of blog posts and other helpful wellness sites that state negative self-talk is BAD and that we should replace them with POSITIVE self-talk. 

But this ignores scientific research and the reality that negative self-talk in and of itself can bring about positive outcomes, and too much positive self-talk can have detrimental effects. 

Certainly, negative self-talk should be generally avoided. When low income babies reach 3 years of age, not only have they heard 30 million fewer words than middle class babies, but also the vast majority of the words they DO hear are negative, creating a lifetime of anxiety and permanent changes in the brain structure in children (Hart & Risley, 1990).  

So how can negative self-talk have POSITIVE outcomes? Interestingly, research shows that negative self-talk does NOT impede performance (Tod, Hardy, Oliver, 2011), and “self-criticism may induce a less confident state that increases internal motivation and attention” (Kim, Kwon et al., 2021). 

This makes sense. Criticism can be motivating, even if it’s negative. Your coach giving expert but critical advice on your pick and roll – “Dude, why is your left foot all goofy like that? Point it this way and stop your stupid habit of leaning to the right!” – or your boss providing constructive criticism on how best to create powerpoint presentations all can serve to lower your assumed confidence and pay STRONGER attention to the task at hand, resulting in positive outcomes. 

On the flipside, too much positive self-talk can be terrible. Giving yourself consistent, unwarranted props can induce improper OVER-confidence that will inevitably lead to unintended outcomes. In 2016, the venerable New York Times had a whopping 85% chance of winning for Hillary Clinton to win the Presidency against Donald Trump. Hillary never took Donald seriously, and her team’s overconfidence played right into their own demise.

Entrepreneurs are responsible for the vast majority of job creation in the US, accounting for over 50% of the Gross Domestic Product (Cornwall, 2008). But it’s also true that over 60% of all entrepreneurs fail after five years of starting up their businesses. Sure, confidence is important when starting a business, but data shows that overconfidence afflicts the majority of entrepreneurs, leading to disastrous (and painful) results. Too much positive self-talk and “overconfidence may cause entrepreneurs to fail to appreciate the difficulty of achieving success with their new ventures” and is “a significant cause of firm failure” (Busenitz and Barney, 1997). 

Too much negative self-talk is bad and too much positive self-talk is also bad. What to do?

When faced with difficult situations, we need to (1) acknowledge your behavior, (2) balance self-talk with both negative and positive affirmations, and finally, (3) reframe how you view these situations.

 

  1. Acknowledge our behavior: If you’re consistently engaged in negative or positive self-talk, recognize this about yourself. Listen to others since those close to you will often share this fact about you, whether you recognize it or not when you’re doing it.

     

    If your counselor shares that your GPA and resume does not align with your goals to attend Stanford University, no amount of self-talk is going to help you to gain admission to a top college, so listen to your advisors carefully, with an open mind, and look to adjust your behavior and actions accordingly. 

     

  2. Balance self-talk with both negative and positive affirmations: If you need to pay closer attention, engage in a healthy bit of negative self-talk to break down your confidence and humbly work on improving yourself.

     

    If you need to stay motivated, engage in a good bit of positive self-talk to counter unwanted negativity that may affect your productivity or performance. 

     

  3. Reframe your perspective: when the entire world was critical of Lebron’s decision to leave the Cavaliers, he engaged in illeism, or using a third person pronoun to refer to oneself. Psychologists have found that people in dire situations will often do this to distance the self, and reframe things in a manner that is understandable to the self. LeBron could not possible change how people felt about his Decision, but he CAN reframe his role by referring himself as if he was another person. It’s always easier to be kinder and empathetic to others than yourself. 

When Julius Caesar was tasked to record his conquests, he often referred himself in the third person. He was responsible for the deaths of nearly 2 million people in over 50 wars as a Roman general. Yet, in the Gallic Wars, Caesar refers to himself in the third person to distance himself from these atrocities and reframe his actions. Here he is talking about himself: 

All things had to be done at one time by Caesar: the banner had to be displayed, which was evident, when it was fitting to engage at arms”

Finally, if you think you cannot self-regulate, then professional help may be an option for you. Find a therapist who can provide you with medical guidance. 

Resources:

  1. https://www.absolutelystudying.com/organize-negative-self-talk-all-the-things-you-should-never-say-to-yourself
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-94328-9
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21984641/
  4. https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2014/10/07/353292408/why-saying-is-believing-the-science-of-self-talk
  5. https://crossworks.holycross.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1363&context=necj
  6. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1131404?seq=1
  7. https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/NEJE-07-2019-0031/full/html

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