As much as I like the idea of affirmations, I’ve never felt anything but corny when saying “I can do it!” or any of the other types of positive self-talk that are supposed to motivate me. I have a pair of shoes with “I am enough” printed on the insoles, and I get inexplicably angry anytime I read that message. It feels like somebody is putting words in my mouth. If I’m going to say something that starts with “I,” it had better be a thought that I am actually feeling at the time, not a scripted bit of motivational nonsense.
If you, too, find yourself recoiling at “I am…” or “I can…” statements, there is a better way: Talk to yourself as if you were a different person. Instead of a monologue (“I can do this, I am strong…”) speak to yourself as if you were giving advice to a friend.
There is research supporting the idea that this kind of “distancing” can help our self-talk to be more powerful. The simplest way to do this is to stop talking about yourself as “I” and switch to “you.” But I think we can go further: Instead of just rephrasing empty platitudes, tell yourself how to get through the hard thing you are trying to do.
After all, you know what you’re doing; that’s why you are here. You have the knowledge and the experience to guide yourself through the hard thing you have set out to do. Acknowledge that expertise, and let the part of you that knows you can do it give a pep talk to the part of you that isn’t so sure.
Split yourself into a coach and an athlete
For example, let’s say I am heading out for a long run. Maybe I’m a little intimidated by the mileage. “Take the first mile slow,” my coach-self tells my runner-self. “The first kilometre is just to warm up. It’s OK if you walk some of this. But you probably won’t need to. When we get to the second mile, we’ll check in with our pace and see if we need to adjust.”
Sometimes I shift, as I did there, into “we,” as if my coach-self is taking responsibility for getting both of us to the finish line. Sometimes I prefer more direct instructions, and I’ll use the pronoun “you” to give myself instructions or to enforce rules. “You are running eight miles today. You can do part of the run on the trails behind the baseball field, but you have to make it around one lap of the paved loop first. You have enough water to last the whole way, but you can stop to fill up at the water fountain if you want — just be quick about it so you don’t waste too much time.”
I find this soothing, in a way. My inner athlete can trust my inner coach; she has everything planned out for me. And when the going gets tough, I can retreat from my body (which exclusively speaks in the first person: “I can’t”) and become the coach. “Yes, you can.” That is a message I’m able to believe.
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