#31 It's Only Temporary: Self Talk Done The Right Way

It was the first real speech of my life - high school graduation. I'd written my remarks and all I had to do was stand there and read them to the crowd. No memorization or ad-lib required.  Piece of cake. 

Not so! Absolute terror! 


While I’d always considered myself literate and well spoken, this was a different beast. Me alone, in front of lots of people, with a microphone. I knew with 100% certainty that I was going to bomb in epic fashion.

Then the day came and I did the speech. And, in truth, I don’t remember anything about it. I just know I didn’t trip and fall, or vomit, or say anything embarrassing. 

But I did vow to never again speak in front of a crowd.

Which is ironic, since I ended up happily delivering hundreds of speeches and presentations throughout the US, and a few internationally, during my career.

So what made the difference? 

I quit sabotaging myself with negative self talk.


I briefly introduced today's topic, negative self talk, back in post 14 - The Asshole That Puts Me Down.

So today I’m going to pick up where I left off in that post. Where I said there’s research stating that up to 80% of self talk is negative. As I dug deeper into what the “up to 80%” actually means, things got a little sketchy. The research in this area involves people self reporting their inner thoughts. They’re asked to go about their day with a beeper. Each time the beeper goes off they write down their thoughts. Later the researchers code the thought as either negative or positive. 

To me, that protocol feels a little weak. (If you really like this kind of stuff, there're studies here and here that talk about the quality of this style of testing.) So I wouldn’t bet my life on that 80% number.

But I am confident they have one thing right. That calling myself a useless mouth breather over and over isn't a good idea. But, maybe it’s not the end of the world either, so long as I do it the right way.


I learned something a decade or so ago that helps me bad mouth myself in a better way. It came from a book called Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman. He’s considered the father of Positive Psychology and here’s a quote from page 52 of the book.

“If you believe the cause of your mess is permanent - stupidity, lack of talent, ugliness - you will not act to change it. You will not act to improve yourself. If, however, you believe the cause is temporary - a bad mood, too little effort, overweight - you can act to change it…People must have a temporary style for bad events - they must believe that whatever the cause of the bad event, it can be changed.”

Amen. That is such a critical point that I want to repeat it.

“People must have a temporary style for bad events - they must believe that whatever the cause of the bad event, it can be changed.”

So as I said in post 14, I am my biggest critic. But, the key fact that I left out, is that I'm my biggest temporary critic. My long term outlook is much more positive and confident, almost to the point of being stupid. It's Mom's fault, she raised me to believe I could do pretty much anything. 

So on bad days I might still tell myself I’m a useless mouth breather -  which is a permanent and lonely condition. But on good days I’ll see my screw-ups/weaknesses as temporary and fixable. 

So looking back at the public speaking topic, here's how my self talk evolved. 

I'm a terrible speaker - permanent.
I'm an inexperienced speaker, but I'll get better with each speech - temporary.

My screw ups will destroy my career/reputation - permanent.
My screw ups will provide a learning experience/laugh, but they won't destroy or define me - temporary.

Here are some other examples to give you a better idea of the concept…

I am a terrible writer - permanent.
This post sucks, it needs a lot more editing - temporary.

I will never understand math - permanent.
This is hard, I’m going to need a tutor - temporary.

No one will ever find my lonely pitiful little blog - permanent.
It takes time for word of mouth to spread. I just need to keep doing the work I enjoy and the rest will take care of itself - temporary.

And here’s one more real-life example from my past...

Over the years I’ve participated in well over two hundred board meetings. And in the early days I always felt like an imposter. 

“Why would this company want a knucklehead like me on their board? I’m not smart enough to tell them anything they don’t already know. My experience is useless and irrelevant to their situation.”

Lots of permanent negative self talk, but I did the meetings anyway. And over time, as I got more comfortable, my inner voice changed. Here’s what my better self talk sounds like.

“There’s going to be a learning curve before I feel useful on this board. Once I understand their business, I'll be able to relate my past experience to their situation and add value."

This may sound trivial, but it makes a difference when I walk into that first meeting. I spend less time pressing to immediately prove my value, and more time just listening. I feel more relaxed and genuine.


I must PURGE permanent negative self talk from all of my stories.

I'm a bit of a cynic by nature so I'm always going to be critical of myself. But at least I can do it in the least damaging way. A temporary way that leaves room for growth.

But while I’m at this, why stop here? Why not go all the way to full blown, glass is half full, positivity. Tell myself that I'm amazing all the time and in every way?

Nah, I'll blow up that bad idea next time...

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