To effectively lead others begins with managing self: Tips for coping with negative thoughts

By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley

Leaders have been under enormous pressure over the past nine months. Employees are counting on you in ways they never have before. The reality or threat of layoffs, and possibly closures, is always looming large. And, every day, you face the challenge of keeping your business on course while adhering to ever-changing health requirements and restrictions. Not to mention all the pressures that exist outside of work.

No doubt you are holding yourself to very high standards in trying to meet all of these expectations, and when you fall short, or, at least, feel like you’ve fallen short, it’s easy to lapse into negative self talk.

We all talk to ourselves. Some of us do it under our breath. Some of us do it through self-deprecating comments in conversations with friends and colleagues. But no matter how we do it, whenever we form thoughts about how we’re feeling, we invite that particular emotion to sit and stay awhile.

The better we understand the power of self-talk, the more we can use it to create a more positive, healthy, and productive workplace.

What is negative self-talk?

Negative self-talk doesn’t have to be blatant disparaging language. “I’m so stupid,” and “There’s no way I’m good enough,” are indisputable examples, but so are, “I’m so irritated,” or, “I am always frustrated.”

Remember that adage, “You are what you eat”? The same is true for our mental state – we get what we focus on. The brain is an amazing machine, but it believes what we tell it. When we tell ourselves a bad news story, like “I’m so angry,” a powerful physiological response floods our system to prepare us for whatever fight or flight lays ahead.  That’s why negative self talk is so damaging. It doesn’t just affect our psychological state, it alters our biological one as well.

When we engage in negative thought loops, we can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we repeatedly tell ourselves how frustrated we are, our blood pressure rises, our breath quickens, and – voila – we’ve created our own reality.

Recognizing negative thought patterns

It can be hard to recognize when it’s time to adjust our self-talk. It’s helpful to take some time to reflect on the health and functioning of different areas of our lives, paying special attention to any changes. The toll of negative self-talk may manifest as:

  • Procrastination or lack of productivity
  • Strained relationships with family, friends, or colleagues
  • Poor sleep
  • Unexplained physical symptoms like headaches or digestive issues

To help identify our weak points, consider asking a trusted friend, family member or co-worker about negative catch phrases. Once we’re tuned in to their frequency, we’re better able to cut the transmission.

If this proves challenging, another option is to invite a colleague to be an “accountability” partner, someone who knows us well and is willing to remind us to course correct.

Reframing the narrative

We aren’t suggesting the solution to this challenge is to deny the difficulties we may be facing. It’s important to own our struggles and be kind with ourselves as we move through them. But that’s a different thing entirely from engaging in repetitive and unproductive negative thinking.

In fact, the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s self-assessment tool puts “negative thinking” in the orange, or injured, column – indicating just how damaging the practice can be. The fact is, what we tell ourselves becomes part of a belief system, and those beliefs correlate with our actions and, of course, the outcomes we achieve.

Writing a new ending

One of the best things we can do is take an inventory of our negative default responses by consciously writing down three to five examples of unhelpful phrases we tend to tell ourselves in times of stress. Then ask ourselves, “What does this do for me?” In other words, are the thoughts I’m telling myself moving toward a positive or negative outcome? Finally, we need to ask ourselves, “What could I be telling myself instead?”

The new phrase should be something believable. For example, if we constantly tell ourselves we’re irritated, simply stating that we’re not irritated will not work. Rather, we can say, “I feel irritated. I am going to take some deep breaths to calm me down and focus on my next step.”

It may feel odd at first. We should review the list each day and practice our new story until it comes naturally.

As we undertake this powerful exercise, there may be value in gently encouraging colleagues and employees to try it for themselves.

While the rollout of the vaccine is encouraging, we can’t be sure when we will truly be released from the binds of the pandemic, or when you will feel the weight of such enormous expectations begin to lift. While you have no control over this, you can learn to be kinder to yourself and can help employees do the same. Just as negative thought patterns can inflict harm, thinking more helpful thoughts can create an avenue towards more powerful results and more meaningful relationships. By working to improve our positive self-talk, we are equally working to improve the culture of wellness in the workplace.


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1 Response

  1. This is very useful, thanks for sharing this, I will be taking note!

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