How I overcame negative self-talk to be more confident

Illustration: Ashley Siebels

Self-talk, the words we mutter in our minds, can have a strong influence over our performance.

I’ve found that the right attitude, coupled with the right internal dialogue, can make things happen in life. The wrong attitude, however, combined with self-doubting dialogue, can stop you in your tracks and make you want to run home and hide your head.

I can recall one professional experience when this was really clear to me.

During a board meeting for a Marine Corps nonprofit, the chairman asked us, “What are we not doing to help fund our organization’s mission? Can anyone think of anything that we haven’t considered?”

Well, I had an idea. Scanning the boardroom, it was clear to me that our board composition could be more diverse. I raised my hand and said to the chairman, “I think one of our challenges is the lack of diversity represented on our board. There’s more than enough data to support that diverse boards deliver stronger results — financial and otherwise. This is true in the corporate world, and I can’t imagine why it would be different in the nonprofit world.”

After sharing some facts and figures to support my perspective, I finished up and then sat up in my seat a little bit straighter, proud that I’d made my case so strongly.

Then I waited for a reply. And waited . . . and waited.

That was when my confident pride faded to insecurity. Oh dear God, I thought. What have I done?

You could hear crickets. Rarely did this board not have an opinion. I felt insecure over having raised the issue that silenced the room. I then felt embarrassed, like I had either offended someone or that maybe I had tarnished the reputation I had been carefully building.

When the meeting adjourned, I didn’t engage in polite chitchat with the other members but headed straight to the door, caught a cab, and hightailed it to the airport so I could go home and be alone with my self-destructive insecure thoughts.

While boarding the plane, I passed our board’s general counsel, a very famous attorney — John Dowd, who authored the Dowd Report that led to the suspension of Pete Rose from baseball for life.

He asked me to sit next to him, and while I didn’t want to, fearing a confrontation, I sat down out of respect. And immediately he jumped into the conversation with, “I’m glad you brought that point up about diversity. You’re right.”

He then shared that he was going to talk with the CEO about the diversity of our board because we might be missing out on some of its key benefits.

In those moments, John’s perspective shed some critical light on my self-talk. He made me realize how quickly I’d taken the others’ silence to mean that they were judging me when maybe they were just thinking and reflecting about something they’d never thought about before.

I was amazed by how automatically I’d conjured the worst-case scenario without even considering a best-case scenario. I realized that I needed to have more confidence in myself and write a new inner dialogue for when I’m feeling stressed or pressured because the current one wasn’t helping.

Had I not had this random encounter with John, I would have drowned myself in my own miserable self-talk for weeks.

John and I spent the next 30 to 40 minutes talking about our life experiences, diversity, families, and the Marine Corps. He ended up introducing me to General Joseph Dunford – then Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, the second-highest-ranking Marine in the organization.

After an initial meeting, General Dunford asked for my help in arranging a private luncheon with other Marines and the Commandant of the Marine Corps, who’s the CEO-equivalent in the organization, and his executive team. It was a lively, candid, and memorable discussion.

My relationship with General Dunford continued as he became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, with whom I’ve now shared my thoughts, ideas, and research on diversity to help promote a military in which everyone — from recruit to active-duty service member to Veteran— recognizes the benefits that diversity can bring to an organization.

When I look back on the string of events that allowed me to provide my perspectives on diversity to the highest levels of the military, there’s no doubt that confidence has been a part of every step.

This “Spark” quality, which I define in my recent book Spark, as your belief in your abilities and the feeling that you can rise to the occasion when the pressure is on, inspired me to speak my mind and share my point of view, even though I had mistakenly told myself that it had been received poorly. In fact, speaking up opened the door to greater opportunities.

What has sustained me as a Spark is the ability to manage my confidence by substituting positive self-appraisals for those harmful, negative ones. I’m not perfect at this — I’m still a work in progress — but I lean on this story about John Dowd and General Dunford for confidence-boosting all the time.

Angie Morgan is a former Captain in the U.S., Marine Corps, co-creator of Lead Star, and co-author of Leading from the Front and SPARK: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; January 2017).

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