The One Voice Holding You Back Could Be Your Own

We act on the things we tell ourselves. Here’s how to make that internal dialogue work for you.

As I work with clients to help them become the leaders they want to be, I often find that the singular thing holding them back — or pushing them forward — is what they tell themselves.

Take, for example, my client Carissa, a high-tech professional on the path to a leadership position. Carissa has a promising career. She holds a Harvard MBA. Her company has flagged her as a high-potential leader and enrolled her in a robust leadership program.

During our first coaching session, I asked Carissa what she’d like to work on. “I constantly self-sabotage,” she replied. “I put myself down all the time and I don’t see my own worth.”

This ongoing internal dialogue affects how she presents herself at work. When Carissa facilitates meetings, she uses self-deprecating phrases like, “I’m not an expert,” “I’m not sure if this is right,” and “I may be wrong.” This language immediately tells her audience, “I don’t believe in myself. You shouldn’t either.”

Carissa’s internal dialogue affects her non-verbal communication, too. When she’s not leading a meeting, she tends to sit in the back of the room, out of sight, sending the message that she does not belong. Even though her education, experience, and performance more than prove she does.

There are many cultural, sociological, and personal reasons behind the things we say to ourselves. But one thing is universally true: Our internal dialogue can become so powerful that it can change the way we live our lives.

The story you tell yourself can hold you back, or it can power you to move forward. Here are some strategies to help you change your story.

1. Identify your story.

Many of us are not aware of our internal dialogue. The first step is figuring out what we’re telling ourselves, and making sure it’s helping, not hurting. What do you say to yourself after a success? After a failure? How do you approach high-stress situations — do you build yourself up, or tear yourself down?

2. Develop a growth mindset.

According to researcher Carol Dweck, there are two types of mindsets — a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. People who hold fixed mindsets believe their talents and abilities are permanently in place, inflexible to change. On the other hand, people with growth mindsets focus on the future. They believe their talents and abilities can grow and develop. Our internal dialogue can reflect a fixed mindset (“I’m just not good at public speaking”) or a growth mindset (“With some practice, I’ll be a great public speaker.”)

3. Think in the “now.”

People often place conditions on their happiness or readiness for success — “I’ll be happy when I get a different job,” or “I’ll be confident at work once I have enough experience.” This type of thinking may focus on the future, but it is limiting. It keeps us from living in the moment, from taking the experience, knowledge and confidence we have now and using it as fuel for growth.

4. Treat yourself with respect.

Before you engage in internal dialogue, ask yourself, is this something I would say to a friend? A colleague? A family member? If it’s something you wouldn’t say to someone you respect, don’t say it to yourself. The inspirational George Raveling, Nike’s former Director of International Basketball, said it best when he said: “Most relationships come with an expiration date. The most important relationship you will ever have is the relationship you have with yourself.”

5. Be intentional.

In his book “Triggers” executive coach and author Marshall Goldsmith describes a set of questions he asks himself at the end of each day. The questions start with the phrase, “Have I done my best” as it relates to health, relationships, and professional matters. For example, “Have I done my best today to build positive relationships?” Think if there are any areas of your life that can benefit from specific, intentional self-messaging. Replacing negative, self-sabotaging internal dialogue with questions like these can lead us on a more proactive, positive path.

6. Meditate with a mantra.

Marshall’s questions are intentional. Another way to integrate a daily intention is through meditation, specifically with a mantra that focuses us in a positive direction. Deepak Chopra has authored many of my favorite mantras, including “Everything I desire is within me” and “I move through my days light-hearted and carefree, knowing all is well.”

As I meditate, I use these mantras as reminders of my intention, reminders that as I change my internal dialogue — my own story — I change my life.