Think You CAN

“Make sure your worst enemy doesn't live between your own two ears." - Laird Hamilton

We have a talking problem in society today. Well, a self-talking problem to be exact. We tend to talk much worse to ourselves than we do our worst enemies. Instead of building ourselves up like a best friend would, we remind ourselves of past mistakes, we call out fears, and we point out shortcomings. We treat ourselves as bad as trolls online treat, well, everyone.

We struggle at the crucial mental skill of positive self-talk.

But it’s not because we were born without some special talent to be positive. Instead, it’s because we haven’t grown it. Just like building our physical muscles in the gym requires repetition and sometimes, discomfort getting under a heavier weight, we can only build our positive mental skill of self-talk one (sometimes uncomfortable) repetition at a time.

Watch this video of future Hall of Fame football player Aaron Donald:

Donald is having a conversation with himself. He's not only reminding himself of all of the work he's done to prepare for that moment (reinforce his readiness for the game) but he's doing it by asking himself questions - that his brain will instinctively answer.

He knows he's ready for this moment because he's done the work. He's reinforcing his confidence by reminding himself of his preparation. He's intentionally building his self-talk to silence his negative thoughts and doubts.

Donald didn’t just miraculously decide in that exact moment to start talking to himself that way. He slowly built that mental response to challenging situations through intentional practice. He started working on his self-talk long before that moment we just witnessed on the field.

Positive self-talk isn't just for athletes.

It's a crucial tool in your mental playbook to reinforce your confidence, battle doubt, and help you focus on the moment at hand. The words you tell yourself can shift your confidence, help/hinder your pursuit of goals, and enhance your overall outlook on life.

Although some people may seem to have a natural ability to stay positive and talk to themselves in a positive, healthy manner, positive self-talk is actually a skill that's built - not one you're born with. Here are five ways you can build a positive self-talk routine into your life.

  1. START WITH YOUR MANTRA.

What’s your go-to phrase when facing a difficult situation? Mine, as you can imagine, is “KEEP COMPETING.” It’s what I tell myself over and over again during difficult situations.

Tough workout that my brain is trying to get me to quit early? Keep competing.

That moment I realized I was up to my ears in business debt years ago? Keep competing.

That feeling when the entire world has caved in, you want to quit, cry, and just give up? Keep competing.

My mantra reminds me what matters – to not give up, to keep pushing through, and that the best way out, is forward. When I wake up each morning, I remind myself of what today’s goal is by looking in the mirror, smiling (or forcing one) and telling myself “Today, we keep competing.” It sets a strong, positive tone for the day that can bleed throughout if I continue to use it whenever I feel resistance.

  1. CUT OUT YOUR NEGATIVE VOCABULARY.

We all have excuses. It’s time to kill off yours along with the negative phrases we so easily retreat to.

I can’t.
Stupid.
Hate.
I'm an idiot.
I should be *there* by now.

The list goes on and on and on. We all have negative phrases we can easily use as part of our excuses for a lack of growth, effort, perceived results, etc. But a crucial step in developing a positive self-talk dialogue is to cut out the negative self-talk phrases that keep us in a poor inner loop.

Instead of being frustrated by what isn't working to your liking right now (I'm an idiot, I should be there, etc), try viewing it as a process you haven't fully mastered yet - but one you are farther along than when you started.

"I'm not where I want to be yet - but I've made progress by doing ____ and ____ and _____ so far."

Change your perspective by focusing on the growth gained instead of the distance you have left to travel.

  1. REPLACE "I CAN'T" WITH I "DON'T"

There’s power in this subtle shift in language. James Clear documents the importance of changing “I can’t” with “I don’t” for identity reinforcement. In his book Atomic Habits, he writes,

“I don’t” is experienced as a choice, so it feels empowering. It’s an affirmation of your determination and willpower. 'I can’t' isn’t a choice. It’s a restriction, it’s being imposed upon you. So thinking 'I can’t' undermines your sense of power and personal agency. - Heidi Grant Halvorson
"In other words, the phrase “I don't” is a psychologically empowering way to say no, while the phrase “I can't” is a psychologically draining way to say no."

When we say I can’t, we put limitations on ourselves in a negative sense. It pulls us downward. But when we use “I don’t,” we’re empowering ourselves with the mindset that the type of person I am becoming doesn’t do that. It’s freeing. It’s motivating. And it’s a phrase that pulls us upward – instead of drags us down. 

  1. CALL OUT YOUR INNER CRITIC

Give your evil inner voice a name. Mine’s “Jack.” I recently started calling Jack out when he would try to point out my shortcomings or shift my perspective to all of the areas I’ve “fallen short compared to so-in-so.” Jack’s an evil man, but I’m betting like your inner critic, he doesn’t like being talked back to.

So much so that he actually shuts up when his points are countered with factual responses.

“Jake, you’re not as successful as _____.”

“But Jack, they’re on a different path and a different race. I’m doing something different and focused on my race. It’s great for them, it only validates that what I’m focused on doing can be done. I’m not worried if I’m not ‘there’ yet. I will be.”

“Jake, you don’t have what it takes to be at this level. You don’t belong. Someone’s going to find you out.”

“Oh Jack, that’s pretty funny. I’ve put in the work. I’ve practiced and built my skills. And I’m not done learning or developing yet. Me being here is an opportunity to grow and get better. There’s nothing to ‘find out.’ I’ve done the work, I belong. But I don’t think you do.”

Giving your inner critic a name helps when you talk back to it, building your own confidence and inner positive dialogue.

  1. MAKE A DAILY GRATITUDE LIST

Learning to identify the things in your life that you're grateful for is a powerful step in building your positive self-talk. Research has shown that practicing gratitude will actually rewire your brain and provide longer-lasting positive thoughts. Like any muscle, your gratitude muscle is built one choice at a time. It’s a process, and like any process, it starts with your first step.

Charge your morning by making five minutes to write three things you’re grateful for in that moment. It may be that you slept the entire night without your dog waking you up, the fact that you are healthy, or something as simple about how great that cup of coffee tastes. It doesn’t need to be world-changing thoughts, but simple, present experiences that you’re thankful to have.

Repeat this process every single day. That’s a cumulative list of over 1,000 items by the end of a year. That’s 1,000 positive thoughts about 1,000 things to be thankful for.

And it all starts with you writing 1, 2, and then 3 things you’re grateful for today.

IT’S NOT ABOUT A NATURAL TENDENCY. IT’S ABOUT INTENTIONALLY BUILDING.

Pro athletes and people with naturally positive dispositions aren’t the only ones who can have positive self-talk. We all need a positive inner dialogue in order to thrive in our careers, relationships, and lives. Living with the opposite – a negative, draining inner critic – destroys our confidence and ability to perform when and where we’re needed most by our coworkers, friends, and family. Not to mention, living with a constant inner negative voice adds stress and anxiety to your life, which can negatively influence your health.

Be intentional and build the voice in-between your ears into your best friend.