If you ever talk to me around exams, you’ll notice that I never say that I am worried about them, or that I won’t be able to do well. In fact, I probably come across with an air of confidence that borders on arrogance. Why? Because how I talk about exams greatly impacts how I feel about them and how I actually perform.
I am a good student. I work hard and do reasonably well. I am excellent at making study a priority when it needs to be, in spite of it making me a bit of a social hermit during the busiest times. And, after completing my fair share of assignments and exams, I have developed lots of great study habits. But my biggest secret is how I talk to myself.
Before you start to think that there may be something wrong with me, let me say that we ALL talk to ourselves. Not out loud (usually). But rarely will you find a time where you do not have some dialogue going on in your head. Whether you listen to it or not, it’s there. And it has a powerful impact on how you perceive and cope with many different situations and how you feel about yourself.
Positive self-talk can boost your confidence, it can improve your mood, and it can actually improve your performance. In one study, looking at dart-throwing, it was found that those in the positive self-talk condition performed significantly better than those in the negative self-talk condition.
Negative self-talk can have the opposite effect.
Unsurprisingly, I have noticed that the times that I have done worst are when I have doubted myself and my abilities. When my internal dialogue has been closer to the metaphorical little devil on my left shoulder, than the angel on my right.
The way that we talk to ourselves is often so deeply ingrained, that we don’t notice how it impacts us. Like any habit, it can be extremely hard to break out of. But it is possible.
Often the hardest part of breaking a habit is starting. Here are five easy steps that you can take.
- Listen to yourself. What are you saying about yourself? Are they words of encouragement, like “I can do this” or discouraging statements, like “This is too hard for me”? Take some time out to be aware of what is actually going on in your head.
- Identify negative self-statements. Without knowing what you are saying to yourself, it is difficult to replace this with positive alternatives. I suggest making a note every time you fall into negative self-talk for a week with the time and task that you are doing. That way you will be able to clearly see what usually triggers these statements and the impact that they have.
- Develop a list of positive self-statements. You might like to write these down and put them somewhere that you can easily refer to (like on your computer screen or bathroom mirror). These can be as general as “Life is good” or “I am loveable” (trust me, you are) or more task and context specific, like “If I don’t do *insert task* well, then that’s ok! I am still good at *insert other task*”.
- Insert the positive self-statement instead of using a negative self-statement. You can do this before you use any negative statements, or whenever you catch yourself being hard on yourself. It may feel forced at first – but don’t worry, that’s normal. Keep going, and after a while, it won’t feel so strange.
- Reward yourself for using positive self-statements. Initially, you might like to make a note of the times that you use positive self-statement and treat yourself after you reach a certain number of times. Eventually, as your mood, confidence and performance improve, this artificial reinforcement probably will not even be necessary.
How do you talk to yourself when you have a difficult task? I would love you to share in the comments below.