Healthy Self-Talk: How Students Motivate Themselves Matters
At a recent presentation I delivered on test anxiety, a parent approached me to speak about her daughter, a high school junior who manages to attain very high grades, but lives in a perpetual state of anxiety about her academic performance. The daughter is achieving her desired outcome – a great GPA – but her inner world is not looking so great. Unfortunately, this is an all-to-familiar story for those of us who work with students today. There are things we can do to coach students toward a healthier approach to academic achievement.
Many students achieve their desired outcomes — a great GPA, a completed project, admission to a university, an internship or job – and students can use a variety of motivational strategies to help them attain their desired goals. Some students only know one way – and that path to performance is fear. Fear of failure, fear of falling behind, fear of being “found out” as wanting. Fear is a powerful driver of behavior: it can get you to your desired outcome, but at a significant personal cost.
The high school junior mentioned above was achieving the grades she desired, but her interior monologue was overwhelmingly negative and fear-based: this diminished her peace of mind, her joy, her satisfaction with her achievements. Too many students share this. We want success. But we also want happiness. And these are not mutually incompatible. One of the inner dynamics to drive performance involves the use of fear and anxiety and self-criticism to motivate. We all have an inner critic that can loom large in our internal monologue.
The path to healthy self-motivation starts with noticing and improving our inner monologue, our self-talk. The great 20th century psychologist, Carl Jung, proposed the idea that we can understand the self as a collection of inner components/actors/archetypes that have distinct properties. From this perspective, we can understand the different voices at play in our internal monologue and understand the negative voice – the Inner Critic – and our positive voice – the Wise Adult – as discrete entities. In this frame, The Critic has one agenda, the Wise Adult another. Helping increase students’ awareness that they have some say in the thoughts that populate their inner landscape is an important intervention.
When your student has a set-back, what does the student tell himself or herself? The Wise Adult, the nurturing, healthy, internalized parent, might say “It’s going to be okay – you can learn from this.” The Critic might say “You’re such an idiot, how could you do that?” For some students, the inner critic runs rampant, and Wise Adult rarely makes an appearance. Students with a powerful critic may desperately try to avoid mistakes and berate his or her self relentlessly when mistakes take place. This student could achieve performance, but at a tremendous cost. Additionally, this student may be afraid to take risks or tackle bigger challenges in life – playing it safe to achieve a version of “success” without attempting to discover what can really be achieved when fear and self criticism are not in the way.
This high school junior who has a perfect 4.0 GPA but is fraught with anxiety and fear is most likely caught in this dynamic. Her mom confirmed that her daughter is super self-critical, hyper-vigilant, and always worried about failing in spite of her many successes: she uses this fear to motivate her to keep working and stay one step ahead of failure.
The voice of the Wise Adult can help us achieve our goals, and attain our best performance without the misery. Our students can achieve great things through a self-motivation system that emphasizes support, nurturing, healthy boundaries, and balance. When things don’t go as planned, the Wise Adult can be supportive and encouraging, rather than critical and shaming. It’s a different system entirely. It can achieve the same outcomes, but without the psychological cost.
The Wise Adult is something of an idealized inner parent. I imagine how an idealized inner parent would respond to a kid who falls and scrapes a knee: with empathy and support. “I know it hurts. You’re going to be okay.” Developing this inner voice empowers our students to tackle new challenges, to experience the setbacks that are necessary for real growth and learning, and to come out ready for even greater challenges the next time. The Wise Adult also helps students to develop good boundaries. “Hey- it’s getting late- let’s put this down and come back to it in the morning.” Or, “This is hard, maybe we need some support here?” The Wise Adult is not a slave driver like the critic. And the Wise Adult knows that a setback is something we can learn from.
It takes some time to move from a critical inner landscape to a more nurturing and healthy one. I personally used a healthy dose of inner criticism and perfectionism in my adolescence to drive my performance and achievements. I found success, but at a cost. These days I’m much less likely to berate, shame or criticize myself when I make a mistake or when things don’t work out how I’d hoped they would. The more we can encourage our students to work on making this shift, the better. There are many paths forward towards success in life. If students can learn to attend to their self-talk and shift it from criticism and fear towards support and trust, they can achieve their goals and have a lot more fun and satisfaction along the way.