CBT. Mindfulness. Positive psychology. Neurolinguistic programming… All examples of concepts/techniques that have become trendy in the world of work to develop people. There are two underlying topics across all of these I want to put into the spotlight – self-esteem and self-talk.
I believe organisations haven’t particularly taken self-esteem and self-talk head on because they fall into the realm of the highly personal. Many businesses have work cultures that have historically asked people to park half of themselves at the door for the sake of being ‘professional’.
I invite you to consider that our inner worlds hold one of the keys to modern businesses thriving, and I’ll also offer two solutions I’ve come across from the perspective of a professional coach. These relate to how to initiate meaningful, ongoing conversations about the connection between self-esteem, self-talk, wellbeing, and the way people think/feel/behave in environments where they are being asked to perform.
Self-esteem gets thrown out there a lot… let’s clarify what we mean with a definition from the personality theorist and researcher, Stanley Coopersmith:
“The evaluation which the individual makes and customarily maintains with regard to himself; it expresses an attitude of approval and indicates the extent to which an individual believes himself to be capable, significant, successful and worthy. In short, self-esteem is a personal judgment of the worthiness that is expressed in the attitudes the individual holds towards himself” (1967).
A simple definition from Psychology Today describes self-talk as “an inner voice that provides a running monologue on [our] lives… This inner voice, combining conscious thoughts with unconscious beliefs and biases, is an effective way for the brain to interpret and process daily experiences”.
When we label self-talk as ‘negative’, this is when we get hijacked by a hyper-critical inner dialogue that can limit the way we live, love, parent, and lead.
I love how Dr. Brené Brown describes the connection between unhealthy self-talk and fragile self-esteem: “Because of how you were raised or how you approach the world, you’ve knowingly or unknowingly attached your self-esteem to how your product or art is received. In simple terms, if they love it, you’re worthy; if they don’t, you’re worthless”.
She goes on to say that “the most dangerous stories that we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness. We must reclaim the truth about our lovability, divinity, and creativity”.
After all, in her words: “What’s the greater risk? Letting go of what people think, or letting go of how [you] feel, what [you] believe, and who [you are]?”.
As this article is meant to be more practical than research oriented, if you feel compelled to examine the relevant evidence base I’ll leave you with your curiosity and Google Scholar! I never like to tell a one-sided story, so you will find a body of research out there that debunks the idea that high self-esteem leads to positive outcomes, for example.
It’s worth clarifying that my intention is to champion conversations about self-esteem and self-talk for personal growth and fulfilment.
SELF-SABOTAGE… NAME IT TO TAME IT
One of the practical ways of addressing self-talk is the work of Shirzad Chamine. It is the product of factor analysis research on our most common patterns of negative self-talk, which he calls saboteurs.
Shirzad argues that with self-awareness and mindful practices we can literally rewire our brains to weaken the influence of these saboteurs and reconnect with our inner sage. This sage is our true self and the guiding light that enables us to live into our life purpose. It’s worth watching his TED Talk!
So how do you start a conversation about this with your team? Take the free Saboteur Assessment online and have a group discussion!
Below are the nine saboteurs that show up in our negative self-talk; in the assessment they are each scored on an intensity scale of 1-10. Each of these saboteurs have an adaptive origin story from our childhood, but easily come back up for us in adulthood in maladaptive ways. Which ones do you think have the most influence on you?
I’ve completed Shirzad’s Positive Intelligence course and can speak from my own experience that exploring these saboteurs is helping me to let go of ineffective ways of working that have historically led to chronic, unhealthy ‘negative’ emotions.
I want to be clear that it is healthy to be able to sit with ‘negative’ emotions in order to process them, but our saboteurs trick us into staying stuck in those emotions and often detract from our perceived self-worth.
I sat down with my own team to explore all of our report results together and I love that we now have a neutral common language to start conversations about when we aren’t showing up in the team the way we want and need to.
THE PERFECTIONISM EPIDEMIC > HEALTHY STRIVING
I’d like to dig a bit deeper into the ‘Stickler’ saboteur as I believe many workplaces are plagued by crippling perfectionism, and perhaps even fuel that fire by rewarding it, whether intending to or not.
As a recovering perfectionist (I’m 10/10 on the scale for this one!), I know that perfectionism has negatively impacted my mental health, kept me from taking risks for fear of failure, and in a team setting led me to be a difficult person to work with at times with my somewhat impossible standards.
I now know that with dedicated practice I can weaken the influence of my key saboteurs. When I then redirect and access my sage, I reduce my levels of anxiety because regardless of how something plays out, I know I have the resourcefulness to manage and there is a gift of learning in everything. So reframing processes help to manage our stress response too.
Shirzad describes the ‘Stickler’ saboteur as follows:
“Description: Perfectionism and a need for order and organisation taken too far.
Characteristics: Punctual, methodical, perfectionist. Can be irritable, tense, opinionated, sarcastic. Highly critical of self and others. Strong need for self-control and self-restraint. Works overtime to make up for others’ sloppiness and laziness. Is highly sensitive to criticism.
Thoughts: Right is right and wrong is wrong. I know the right way. If you can’t do it perfectly, don’t do it at all. Others too often have lax standards. I need to be more organised and methodical than others so things get done. I hate mistakes.
Feelings: Constant frustration and disappointment with self and others for not living up to ideal standards. Anxious that others will mess up the order and balance I have created. Sarcastic or self-righteous overtones. Suppressed anger and frustration.
Justification Lies: This is a personal obligation. It is up to me to fix whatever mess I encounter. Perfectionism is good, plus it makes me feel better about myself. There is usually a clear right and clear wrong way to do things. I know how things should be done and must do the right thing.
Impact on Self and Others: Causes rigidity and reduces flexibility in dealing with change and others’ different styles. Is a source of ongoing anxiety and frustration. Causes resentment, anxiety, self-doubt, and resignation in others, who feel continually criticised and resign themselves that no matter how hard they work they will never please the Stickler.
Original Survival Function: The Stickler offers a way of quieting the constant voice of self-judgment and fear of others’ judgments through trying to be perfect. If you do what is right, you will be beyond interference and reproach by others. Perfection and order bring a sense of temporary relief. Might have generated a sense of order in the middle of a chaotic family dynamic or earned acceptance and attention from emotionally distant or demanding parents by standing out as the irreproachable perfect kid”.
Now imagine exploring in this depth with your team! There are so many layers of learning available with this framework and it creates a non-judgemental platform to discuss unhelpful behaviours that show up in a team and what holds individuals back from doing their best work, more holistically.
WHOLEHEARTED, DARING LEADERSHIP
It only feels right to circle back to Brené Brown to bring this to a close. I would suggest this book to anyone and everyone, but I’ll especially direct this to people managers considering they play such a big part in driving this dialogue forward.
She describes Dare to Lead as “the ultimate playbook for developing brave leaders and courageous cultures. Daring leadership is a collection of four skill sets that are 100% teachable. It’s learning and practice that requires brave work, tough conversations, and showing up with our whole hearts”.
If aspects of what I’ve explored here resonate with you, pick up this book and start some conversations with your team about it. There is a free read-along workbook online with exercises that are easy to facilitate.
In particular, I’d suggest starting off with the ‘6 Myths about Vulnerability’ alongside ‘Assembling Your Armour’ in one session and then ‘Understanding Shame’ alongside ‘How Shame Shows Up at Work’ in a follow up session.
You’ll give your team a huge permission slip to lean into vulnerability, explore what holds them back from showing up the way they want to at work and beyond, and create a call to action for them to rewrite the self-limiting stories they have been telling themselves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kendelle is a trained psychological researcher holding a Master’s degree from King’s College London in Mental Health Studies, with a research focus on the treatment of affective disorders and clinical focus on psychological diagnostics and assessment. She transitioned into business psychology and currently works for a learning and development consultancy called Acre Frameworks, which focuses specifically on upskilling Health, Safety & Wellbeing (HSW) professionals with key non-technical skills. She is a BPS certified psychometrician and Co-Active Coach. As a coach, Kendelle unlocks the curiosity, creativity, and courage she believes is essential to thriving in an HSW role.