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Are You Talkin‘ To Me?

We surveyed some of our users about the distractions in their work lives: What are you using Focus@Will to combat? Noisy work environments came up a lot. Co-workers’ constant questioning. Multi-pronged projects too complex to concentrate on.

But one of the most consistent answers, to our surprise, had to do with that voice of criticism in our own heads. The one that tells us we’re doing something wrong, we’re not good enough, we’ll never finish, never impress the boss, etc. Or the voice that prompts us to remember, outta the blue on a Tuesday, those humiliating antics we got up to two Fridays ago at the bar. That was us, right? My God. The horror.

And now we’re supposed to get that freakin‘ report buttoned-up?

The term for this is self-talk and, specifically, negative self-talk. Most of what you’ll find on Google and the literature beyond about self-talk concerns the benefits of positive self-talk: You know, standing in front of the mirror, eyeballing your bad self, and rattling off in a booming voice all your strengths and those goals you’ll rock lickety-split, whether you believe it or not. Think Tony Robbins and his ilk.

Alas, though, that voice in our heads is seldom so kind and encouraging to us. It’s our total certainty that the blank-faced person at the party hates us (black and white thinking), or that our spouse’s delayed text is a harbinger of divorce (catastrophizing).

It’s paranoid and self-defeating and, for those of us suffering from depression and anxiety, it can become the prevailing voice in our heads. It can do a lot of damage. A lot. Negative self-talk is one of the driving forces in the heads of those with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), where an untenable pursuit of perfectionism makes it nearly impossible to shut that voice up.

The good news is it’s all in our head. And because it’s our head, we can control it.

Psychologist and author Nick Wignall conceptualizes self-talk as narration. As we go about our day, processing things, there’s a narrator in our head spinning a story out of it, like a voiceover in the movie about our life. This narrator explains the world to us, and our place within that world.

And, as Wignall is quick to point out in his essay on self-talk: narrators are never totally reliable.

“Our emotions are always mediated by some form of cognition or thinking…If our thoughts determine how we feel, that means how we habitually think will determine how we habitually feel.”

This leads to some major Cognitive Distortions, “unrealistic or inaccurate explanations” that we contrive for the hows and whys of everything going on around us.

Bottom line is that some of our self-talk is unhealthy, irrational, and counter-productive. In short: Toxic. Just start saying nice things to yourself. Even if it doesn’t feel particularly natural at first. Say the kinds of things that motivate you to take constructive action:

“I’ve made progress on this report. I really get it. Inch by inch, I’m getting shit done. I’m going to keep going, and the results will increase.” You don’t want to demotivate yourself with niceties such as, “I deserve a break from this hellhole. I’m gonna go out back and polish off a fifth of Jim Beam.”

Stop judging yourself. Stop judging your self. Try a little USA: Unconditional Self-Acceptance. In other words, you might still judge certain of your behaviors critically, and make necessary changes accordingly. “It would work better for me to get in an hour earlier and tackle some work while it’s quiet around here.” But you should not judge your whole self. (“I suck at everything and this project’s gonna bury me.”)

Consider this: If we ever talked to our friends the way we talk to ourselves – “You fat, lazy, stupid piece of shit. Someone ought to put you out of your misery, Pal” – we wouldn’t have many friends left, would we? Yet we continue to go on berating ourselves, nonstop with these mean, self-defeating scripts.

In the next installment, we’ll go into more detail about how exactly we can kill off the bad narrator in our head.

Meantime, if you just want to shut that voice up for a couple of hours while you get something done, we have the playlist for you … Get started at

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