Cheer Yourself On!

The Problem

“You f—ing idiot.”

This morning I banged my elbow on a doorframe. My response? Negative self-talk. The insidious problem I (and many other British people, I imagine) deal with every day. And why do we habitually and instinctively putting ourselves down? Because we’ve done it for so long that it’s become ingrained; we believe it’s what we deserve; if you ever make a mistake, you are to be punished or humiliated (the teaching method at my posh boys’* school in the eighties seemed to be built around this core principle. That’s how you build a generation of confident young men destined to make a positive impact, right?).

* (a posh school for boys. Also a school for posh boys.)

I think British self-deprecation was once polite humility e.g. “No no no, my depth of knowledge is nothing compared to yours” (said while bowing with a flourish). However, it seems to have become an attempt to gain favour or sympathy by degrading ourselves: apologising unnecessarily or just telling our audience “I’m terrible at public speaking”. But unless your credibility is already established, this approach backfires, and persuades an ambivalent audience that you are, indeed, at fault, or ‘terrible at this’. Oh dear.

This negative talk can have a long-lasting effect, shaping your future, reinforcing a very unhelpful narrative that becomes a solid barrier to progression: if you believe that you’re incapable of being confident, loved and successful**, then trying to achieve them is hopeless, right?

** (this is purely subjective. Your definition of success is your choice. Obvs.)

These beliefs are not serving you.

Putting yourself down and hiding from attention may have worked at school, but now you’re an adult, and avoidance simply isn’t an effective strategy. At some point you will have to tackle your fear of public speaking, as many jobs require you to give presentations of some kind, and without this fundamental skill it’s likely that you will miss that promotion or other vital chance to raise your profile. The longer you put it off, the worse it gets. Sorry to break it to you.

A lot of my clients have simply avoided speaking in front of people their whole career, and come to me having reached a point where speaking to a group is an integral part of their new role. Others are simply fed up with being afraid of speaking, and realise that now is the time to make a change, no matter how terrifying. Their need outweighs their fear.

Confident speakers can seem to be lucky or unfairly privileged, getting opportunities that you feel that you deserve as well. The reality? They probably had a positive experience early on that tipped their confidence in the right direction. Which leads us neatly to…

The Cause

Where does this damaging practice come from?

Perhaps it’s a result of well-meaning parents who repeatedly told you to “stop being silly”, resulting in a slow, subtle (yet probably unintentional) process of confidence erosion; or it was sudden: that time at school when you did something embarrassing and everyone laughed at you, resulting in a specific moment when you firmly decided to never put yourself in that situation again. That moment may be buried, but the effect of that decision is informing your behaviour every time you duck an opportunity to speak.

The negative stories we tell ourselves about the way we look, sound or behave are as damaging as they are false. And they’re almost always false e.g. “I could never…” is usually followed by something that you can do, but are fearful of.

Charles Horton Cooley, an American sociologist at the start of the twentieth century, said: ‘I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am’. Or: we define ourselves by how we think others see us.

Many of the people I coach believe that they are so flawed that significant speaking confidence will only be achieved through pain and struggle. The first thing I do is to correct their perspective; I point out how I see them when they speak, and I ask the rest of the group for their thoughts. Nearly every time, our perspective is far more positive than the speaker’s own. By doing this, I improve their effectiveness by about 50%. Like a sort of positivity optician***.

*** (A ‘positician’, if you will. (Actually, forget that, it sounds too much like ‘politician’ <shivers>).)

The Solution

Right. Let’s fix this.

Let’s erase your current, negative story and write a new narrative, one that serves you, with positive thoughts and spoken words. Here’s a way to do it:

  1. Define the negative values. What do you dislike about yourself? What are your flaws? Write them down. Not on your laptop, but with an actual pen (this is important).
  2. Cross them out. Aggressively (that’s why you use a pen). Tell yourself out loud that each belief is s–t. It is harming you and is in your way. Crumple it up, throw it in the bin and tell it to ‘get lost’. ****
  3. Write new beliefs, ones that serve you (they can be the inverse of the unhelpful ones). Be as positive and ambitious as you like. These are for you alone, and can sound as ludicrous as you like. Go large. Really, really large.
  4. Say them out loud. Repeat this every day, at least once.

**** (swearing really helps at this point, by the way – the fouler the better. So do this in a private place where you won’t be heard – being thrown out of the library may impede your journey of positive transformation.)

These four steps are a way to re-programme yourself in order to succeed.

Every time you feel you’re going to tell yourself something negative (like when you bang your elbow on a doorframe), replace it with a positive thought e.g. ‘That’s fine, it doesn’t bother me’, or ‘that was part of my plan’.

If you think that this is fluffy and too forgiving, please remember that ‘positive’ doesn’t equate to ‘unrealistic’. Being kind and forgiving doesn;t mean ignoring the problem, but moving on with as little friction as possible. In fact, I would argue that being positive is the most practical and effective course of action in any situation.

It’s a long road, but the most important one you’ll travel.


Take your time with this; start with small steps and keep at it.

Laugh at the challenging situations.

Go easy on yourself.

Go for it.


Further Reading (and Watching)

‘Yes, and…’ by Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton. A great book describing how the core principle of improvisational comedy can be applied in everyday life.

‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’ by Susan Jeffers. A book full of great advice, particularly the idea that positivity can be unrealistic (‘Dont be such a Pollyanna’).

‘Impact Theory with Tom Bilyeu’ YouTube channel. Tons of useful interviews on self-development.

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