Why Negative Self-Talk Can Be So Rewarding

A few months ago I was reading a lot about self-esteem (and the lack thereof). One of the big questions I kept wondering about is “Why?”

Why all this negative self-talk?

Why can it be so addictive and habit-forming to run ourselves down and criticize ourselves?

I’ve heard lots of answers — it keeps us safe, it keeps us from ever truly facing our own power, it keeps us small, it’s easier not to try than to try and fail, etc…

But when I was reading McKay and Fanning’s Self-Esteem – The Ultimate Program for Self-Help, I got a new perspective:

We keep up negative self-talk because it gets rewarded. 

Rewarded — like the addictive random reinforcement schedule that a slot machine doles out.

So how does this work? I’ll use one of my go-to personal examples — the negative self-talk I love to run through before I deliver a workshop.


Here’s the situation:

I’m a kick-ass facilitator and workshop deliverer. I know this experientially and I know this objectively, and I have the feedback forms and workshop participant impact statements to prove it. Yet still, for years, before I deliver a workshop I spend a few days prior wandering around being a little self-hating mess, thinking things like “I have nothing of value to offer,” “This workshop will suck,” “I don’t know why I ever thought I could do this,” “Everyone will know what a fraud I am,” etc.

And then, more often than not, I get up there and run a fantastic workshop and feel incredible afterward.


So what’s the glitch in the system?

The glitch is that all my self-hating DOES NOT ACTUALLY HELP ME PERFORM BETTER.

But, if I go through my ritual of self-hating, and then perform well, my self-hating ritual gets rewarded.

“That totally worked!” some insidious part of my brain whispers. “The more we hate ourselves, the better we do! Let’s try that again!”


Yes, this is some warped, warped thinking.

But tell me honestly, don’t you feel just a wee bit of familiarity in this story…. like maybe this is part of your story too?

Walking through this example helped me better understand why so many coaching clients are reluctant to let go of self-abusive behaviour.

They put a spin on it — just like I do:

“I’m a perfectionist; I hold myself to high standards.”

“But I want to be critical! It keeps me trying harder.”

“The harder I am on myself the better I do.”

And maybe all of that is true.

Or, maybe, it’s just some straight up behaviourist phenomenon: the behaviour of self-hating is getting randomly reinforced when you perform well, even if the self-hating had NOTHING to do with it.


My invitation to you:

Notice if self-criticism really and truly is helping you out, or if it’s just along for the ride.


How Do I Build Confidence?

In this blog post, I answer a question about confidence.

Here’s the question I received:

I did well in school and I have a good job, but I still struggle with confidence and low self-esteem. How do I build up confidence?

And my response:

First off, I want to let you know that you’re not the only one wrestling with confidence. It’s one of the most frequent things I hear in my coaching practice, often from people who seem so outwardly successful, yet who struggle with low confidence on the inside. Sometimes I wonder what it is that causes people to put on a front of confidence when inside, I’m learning, so many of us are vulnerable and uncertain. (There’s an idea: what if you embraced your vulnerability and uncertainty instead of fighting for confidence? Something to explore…)

So, what do you mean by confidence?

I’ve learned that each individual has their own particular brand of confidence, their own personal definition.

What’s yours?

Take some time to explore it.

If you were confident:

  • How would you talk?
  • How would you stand?
  • What would you wear?
  • Where would you live?
  • Who would you surround yourself with?
  • What would your voice sound like?
  • What would someone else notice about you?
  • How would someone else describe you?

What builds confidence for you?

I invite you to survey different aspects of your life: different roles you have, different hobbies, different work you do. In which do you feel most confident?

Got one? Great.

Now think about how you came to build confidence in that area. What did it take? This example can be a clue to your personal method of building confidence.

When I look at confidence in my life, I notice that my tendency is to think that I’ll be confident when I know enough, so I try to build confidence by studying. But the evidence holds up that it’s not studying that builds my confidence: the true source of confidence for me is doing.

Check to see if you might be trying to build confidence in ways that aren’t actually supporting your confidence. What might you try instead?

Confidence through integration

I have only a few decades of life experience, but I’m fairly sure of this:

Confidence does not come from our grades at school.

Confidence does not come from our job.

It does not come from what we accomplish or achieve.

Confidence has its roots deep within an integration between our minds, our body, and our heart. When these three are in harmony, a beautiful sureness of self emerges.

Do you find yourself living in your head and ignoring your heart? Wrapped up in feelings and leaving your mind out in the cold? Pushing yourself intellectually and neglecting your physicality? Any of these may be symptoms of a lack of integration between your mind, body, and heart. Rather than seeking “confidence”, I invite you to consider seeking how to integrate these three elements, and gently observe the effects.