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How harnessing your inner voice can change your life

Discover the impact of self-talk on success through tennis superstar Aryna Sabalenka's journey in overcoming her inner challenges.

Whether it’s psyching ourselves up ahead of a big presentation, dealing with challenging personal news, or preparing for an important exam, the way we talk to ourselves has a huge impact on the result. It may seem trivial, but our relationship with the voice in our heads may be the most important one we’ve got. Hear me out.

Recently, I was watching the Netflix show Breakpoint which chronicles the top players in tennis right now. One of the featured players was Aryna Sabalenka, a Belarussian tennis wonder known for her strength and inconsistency. When she was on fire, she was unbeatable. When she wasn’t, there was many a broken racquet on the court. The culprit?

You guessed it: The voice in her head. 

Reflecting on losses in two semis, she said: “I lost, not like my matches. I played against incredible players, and they just played unbelievable level, but I felt like I got super emotional and I just let that semis go away.”

She and her coach recognized that to get to the #1 global ranking, Sabalenka would need to work on her mental game as much as her physical game. She needed to harness the voice in her head vs letting it control her.

Doing this well is the premise of Chatter, a book by psychologist and researcher Ethan Kross about leveraging psychological research to calm and control the voice in our heads. Consider that rumination (defined in psychology by dwelling on negative feelings), negative self talk, and phenomena like impostor syndrome all originate from the voice in our heads.

Rumination can impact performance in education, work, and most importantly our physical and mental health. In fact, rumination has been shown to be positively correlated with depression.

How can we mere mortals without the resources of someone like Aryna Sabalenka rise to the occasion when the voice in our heads suggests otherwise? How can we make the voice in our heads our friend vs our foe?

Some practical strategies to harness your inner voice

Kross starts with research based tools that we can use independently in a situation when we might experience “chatter,” how he refers to negative self-talk. The trick is to make these strategies a tool in a toolbox that can be highly individualized to the situation and person experiencing negative self-talk.  

While the books contains many, I’m going to highlight my favorite few:

Take a step back

Part of what makes rumination so powerful is the echo chamber that is within all of us. We can spiral quickly if we don’t pause and reflect on what the voice in our heads is actually saying. Distanced self-talk is a strategy where instead of thinking “I” we either use our name or “you” to create separation between the situation and our thoughts. This strategy results in less stress, fewer negative thoughts, and wiser thinking. Imagine changing the inner dialogue from, “I can’t do this,” to “You got this. Use the skills you learned from last quarter’s workshop.”

If that sounds too cheesy, another way to implement this idea is to imagine what we might tell a friend experiencing the situation we’re facing. We tend to be kinder to others and have more perspective. Instead of, “Toughen up!” we might say, “This sounds hard, but you’ve handled situations like this before and you’ll get through this too.” This method creates distance between the situation and ourselves. 

Another variation of this strategy is called The Batman Effect and works particularly well for kids. When they’re facing a tough situation, ask them, “What might Batman (or insert your favorite superhero) do in your shoes?” This helps kids and grown-ups have more confidence and think creatively about a solution.

Consider reframing the context

If we’re in a challenging work situation, it’s helpful to try and categorize it as something we are able to work through vs an insurmountable obstacle. Often, if we can take a beat to understand the context, we can be more objective about what’s actually happening. For example, a rejection from a potential client can be frustrating, but with a whole pipeline of other leads, it’s part of the sales process.

Similarly, if our bodies are having some sort of physical response, let’s say sweaty palms or butterflies in our stomachs, we can interpret these cues not as a hindrance but exactly as a performance enhancement. “Your bodily response to stress is an adaptive evolutionary reaction that improves performance under high stress conditions,” Kross writes in the book. If we interpret these cues as anxiety ridden, we can spiral into anxiety. If we reframe them as our bodies getting ready to help us crush whatever it is we’re doing, we’re more likely to rise to the challenge. 

Lastly, and one that Aryna Sabalenka (and many other tennis stars like Rafael Nadal who is famous for his pre-game rituals) have adopted is performing a ritual. Often, negative self talk can spiral when we don’t feel in control of our situations. Rituals can help us feel like we have control and quiet the mental noise. Sabalenka signs her bald coach’s head ahead of every match. “I don’t know why but I started to do it before my first match. He is not happy with that. I think we are going to do it for the year now,” she said. It may sound weird, but when an outcome is unknown, rituals give us comfort regardless of a positive or negative outcome. 

Taking control of the inner voice

In the final of the Australian Open last year, the world saw a different Aryna Sabalenka. She had fired her sports psychologist and spent significant energy not only on perfecting her technical tennis skills, but also her mental game. She said, “Honestly, I decided [during the pre-season] to stop working with a psychologist. I realized that nobody other than me would help.” 

She credits hard work and taking control of her negative thoughts as helping her level up her tennis game and win not only one Australian Open, but now two in a row.

Imagine what we might be able to accomplish if we’re able to apply the strategies above consistently to help us be kinder to ourselves. These strategies may help us elevate our ambitions, inspire us to achieve what we aspire to, and be happier in the process. We may not be winning Australian Opens anytime soon, but we may just surprise ourselves by all that we can achieve.

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