You are a bundle of nerves. You have an important presentation to give. You have been dreading it for days. You barely slept last night, and you can feel your heart pounding and the panic rising.
You look in the mirror, smile, and repeat three times, “I am a calm and confident speaker, and I am going to be amazing.”
Instantly you feel calm and reassured. Two hours later, you give your presentation. It is a huge success!
That’s great! If positive affirmations work for you, by all means, keep using them. But if instead, you have an inner critic that responds, “You liar. Don’t fool yourself. Last time was a disaster and this is going to be just as bad,” you need to try something else.
Dr Joanne Wood and her the University of Waterloo team published a study in 2009 that explains why positive affirmations don’t always work — especially if you are suffering from low self-esteem.
The study published in the Journal of Psychological Science concluded that,
“Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, such as individuals with high self-esteem, but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”
The team found that if your affirmations are incongruent with deeply held negative beliefs, they are unlikely to be effective — and can even make you feel worse. In other words, it is hard to trick yourself into believing that you are a calm and confident presenter when you know that it not true.
However, self-talk is vitally important, even if positive affirmations don’t work. Here are a few alternatives. They have a lot in common, but each has a different emphasis.
Adopt neutral self-talk
Even before discovering Dr Wood’s research, I had doubts about self-affirmations — mainly because they have never worked for me.
I ask my clients to identify unhelpful thoughts such as, “Last time was a disaster, and I am going to freeze again this time.” And I encourage them to replace unhelpful thoughts with neutral self-talk. For example, they might try, “Last time did not go well, but I am better prepared this time and can reasonably expect that it should go better.”
My views about self-talk have been influenced by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which focuses on cognitive biases or errors in our thinking.
Assuming that you will repeat a bad experience, is an example of ‘catastrophising’ — imagining the worst outcome from all possible outcomes. When you learn to recognise that you are catastrophising, you can consider other possibilities. For example, Your presentation might go a lot better than last time because you are better prepared.
Another cognitive bias is ‘black and white’ thinking. “I am not good at public speaking and never will be.” If you use words such as ‘never’, ‘always’, ‘every’, in your self-talk — you may be engaging in ‘black and white’ thinking. You could replace this with, “I don’t find public speaking easy, but I am willing to learn how to improve.”
These are just two examples of how your self-talk can be unhelpful and often wrong. You could even be wrong that the last time was a disaster. The ‘negativity bias’ encourages us to focus on what went badly and dismiss or minimise what went well. Perhaps you fumbled over your words when you were last presenting, but the rest of it was fine. Quite likely, the mistake is the only part you remember. And more likely, no one in your audience remembers it!
By calling out the errors in our thinking and replacing unhelpful self-talk with neutral and (importantly) realistic self-talk, we can reduce anxiety levels without trying to convince ourselves of something we don’t believe.
Counter your inner critic
In my introduction, I mentioned the inner critic. This is the voice in your head that runs a non-stop commentary, reminding you of your inadequacies and talking you out of actions that might expose your weaknesses.
In her book Playing Big, Tara Mohr explains that the inner critic’s role is to keep us safe and stop us taking risks where we might make a fool of ourselves. Unfortunately, we have to step outside of our comfort zone to improve, but our inner critic will strongly resist!
Mohr explains that we can counter the inner critic by nurturing the inner mentor. For example, imagine your inner critic is persuading you to cancel the upcoming presentation by convincing you that it will be a disaster. Your inner mentor might respond with, “Thanks for your concern, but I have got this. I am well prepared and not likely to repeat the mistakes of last time. I need to do this presentation to restore my confidence.”
Notice again that the self-talk involves introducing a reasonable voice — not a relentlessly optimistic one. Occasionally the inner critic has a valid point! For example, if you have not done any preparation, you should probably cancel! But your inner mentor can be more objective and prevent the inner critic from always prevailing.
Try an alternative form of self-affirmation
In her book Presence, Amy Cuddy recommends a different type of self-affirmation that,
“..doesn’t have anything to do with reciting generic one-liners in the mirror. "
Instead, she encourages us to identify and affirm the values, traits and strengths that represent our authentic best self.
“It is a way of grounding ourselves in the truth of our own stories.”
Amy discusses a study that has direct relevance to public speaking. Participants were asked to deliver an impromptu speech before a panel of judges and then count backwards in intervals of 13 from 2083 with the judges barking at them to go faster! Before they started, half the participants were asked to write about a personal value and the other half to write about a value that was not important to them. A saliva test showed that people who had written about personal values that matter to them had significantly lower cortisol than the other group.
How can you apply this practically? If you feel nervous and inadequate about an upcoming work presentation, take a few minutes to jot down the core values important to you in your job. Then spend a few minutes reflecting on how your identity reflects these values.
For example, perhaps ‘ customer service’ is one of your core values. You might reflect on a recent time when you gave great customer service. This has nothing to do with presenting but can help reduce your anxiety by putting it in perspective. Regardless of how well or badly your presentation goes, you know you give great customer service and are good at your job.
Kristen Neff is a pioneer in the field of self-compassion research. In fact, it was a Peter Attia podcast featuring Neff that triggered the idea for this article.
Neff’s definition of self-compassion includes the following:
“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticising yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings — after all, whoever said you were supposed to be perfect?”
Most of us would find it easy to feel compassion for someone else who feels incredibly anxious about giving a presentation. But we are quick to judge ourselves as being unworthy and inadequate.
Self-compassion is not the same as self-pity, but it also differs from self-esteem. While Neff acknowledges that low self-esteem can be a problem, she warns against focusing on self-esteem. She points out that self-esteem is about evaluating yourself against others. With self-compassion, you do not have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself.
Neff’s work suggests several ways in which we can practice self-compassion, including guided meditations and journaling. One exercise is to change your critical self-talk.
The first step is to recognise and identify your negative self-talk. The second step is to use self-compassion to soften it. So you might change, “I am no good at public speaking and never will be” to, “OK, it is true that I have struggled with public speaking in the past and that has been really hard for me. But focusing on past bad experiences is only making me feel worse.”
The final step is to frame the observations made by your inner critic in a friendly, positive way. Kristen suggests if you are having trouble thinking of what words to use, you might want to imagine what a very compassionate friend would say to you in this situation.
For example, you might try, “I have had some bad experiences in the past, but I feel proud of myself for not giving up. Improving my public speaking skills will take some time and effort, but I am determined to put in the work.”
Kristen makes other suggestions that might help generate self-compassion, such as using terms of endearment (address yourself as ‘darling’) or stroking your arm during self-talk. Personally, these don’t resonate so much with me — but they might work for you.
And I like her conclusion,
“The important thing is that you start acting kindly, and feelings of true warmth and caring will eventually follow.”
I have found it surprisingly easy to generate feelings of self-compassion when I am feeling worried — and have found it effective. It has even helped me get back to sleep when I have woken up in the middle of the night, worrying!
OK, I am cheating here. Visualisation is not strictly self-talk. But it is worth including as a strategy to counter negative self-talk.
To try it:
Visualisation is not the same as positive thinking. Instead of thinking positive thoughts, it is about imagining a positive outcome. The theory is that we record imagined events as memories.
When we visualise an action, the same regions of the brain are stimulated as when we perform that action. And the same neural networks are created. Your confidence grows when you have a good experience. For some people, visualisation can be as effective as a real experience.
When it comes to public speaking, I suggest you don’t rely on visualisation alone. Without proper preparation and practice, it’s just wishful thinking!
Ditch the affirmations if they are not working for you, but pay attention to your self-talk. Practice neutral, realistic, objective and compassionate self-talk that allows you to acknowledge your fears without dwelling on them. Remind yourself that your core values define you — not your weaknesses. And visualise a favourable outcome, not the one you dread!
These strategies work well together. Focusing on core values might get you the quickest results as it doesn’t require practice. By contrast, developing self-compassion is a journey because you first have to recognise how you are judging yourself. You then have to soften the judgement while finding ways of talking to yourself with compassion. Eventually, self-compassion will become automatic, but this is likely to take time.
Article written by Catherine Syme
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