Overcoming Negative Self-Talk to Make Meaningful Connections

Because ‘meaning’ is so important and so big and inherent to who gifted and 2e people are, the fear of failure affects the ability to initiate actions that might help us connect.
network connections concept on white background

My Mother tells the story of how she met my Dad; she didn’t want to go to a party and her mother said, “You never know who you’ll meet, you should go.” She went and of course, the rest is history. Wouldn’t you know, the same thing happened to me. I was tired from work and was going to blow off a potluck dinner invitation when my Mom said to me, “Go, you never know who you’ll meet.” I met my husband at that dinner. This story ran through my head as I was preparing for an adult client the other day, not because she is looking for a meaningful intimate relationship, but because she experiences difficulty in initiating tasks and seeks meaning in her life. Things get in her way; negative self-talk, the feeling that she isn’t good enough or that it won’t matter. But the truth is, you really never know what will happen if you try something or go somewhere that your brain is resisting. Focusing on what you think should happen and the likelihood of that happening is the wrong focus. Concentrating on the process instead, not always thinking about what should happen or what could happen, may result in a very different goal, a goal that is better than the one initially envisioned.

My client is a gifted woman identified with ADHD. She loves to read and write, hike and travel. But she sorely misses meaning in her work and in her life in general. As I reviewed notes from our first session, I discovered a relationship between her negative self-talk and task initiation. The juxtaposition of a need for meaning and the ADHD executive functioning challenges, left her immobilized. Whatever the task is that is difficult to start; social interaction, writing, beginning a large project, this profile needs an extra push to get over the hump of resistance.

As adults we can’t always identify why we feel so strongly about doing or not doing something. It’s hard to give the reasons for why something is so existentially important to us – that’s the essence of existentialism. Because ‘meaning’ is so important and so big and inherent to who gifted and 2e people are, the fear of failure affects the ability to initiate actions that might help us connect. Work becomes routine; it can feel like trading money for time which seems so shallow to deeply committed adults.  The connection between our unease and disillusionment isn’t always apparent. We just know we feel bad. For a gifted or 2e child, schoolwork is often rote. The child won’t necessarily understanding the organic level of frustration and demoralization he feels from repetitive and meaningless tasks. He just knows he’s sad and anxious.

There is this vortex of wanting meaning, not sure how to find it, thinking of ways to make a difference but then experiencing a deep fear that efforts will go unanswered and feelings worsen in the end. Those who struggle with initiation think to themselves, “I don’t have time,” “It’s not worth it because it won’t lead to anything,” “I can’t make a change,” “I won’t fit in,” “No one will talk to me,” “I won’t like anyone there,” “I’m just one person and I don’t have the right training,” and on and on.

Positive self-talk is essential, and I practice it with many clients. Statements like “I am okay. Everything will work out,” “I must face my fears to overcome them,” and “I cannot allow anxiety to influence my behavior” are all typical positive self-talk suggestions for people who suffer from anxiety. The first step in breaking the cycle of resistance and participating in something meaningful, is to find internal motivation. We can’t always rely on someone else to give us a pep talk, and since overthinking often comes with a 2e mind, I’ve structured some simple reframes and sentence starters to get over the hump of the “why bother” attitude many 2e folks develop after trying and failing to find meaning in their lives.

Whether it’s to connect with others, start a daunting project, or do something that feeds your soul like taking the trip of a lifetime or joining a club, here are “Five Things to Tell Yourself”:

  1. It is worse not to try and regret, then to try and see what happens.

If there was just one mantra for life, I think it should be “No Regrets.” Can you imagine? Never regretting something you said. Never regretting something you did. In this case, never regretting something you didn’t do. This reframe give you a chance to step outside the fear of failure and into the realm of possibility.

  1. The process may lead to something great, even if it doesn’t lead to the specific goal I have in mind.

Focusing on the process and realizing that something great may come along the way – something you haven’t even envisioned, allows for a broadened perspective of how controlling your journey is only about taking the first step. It’s this first step that sets you on a course that can make life worth living.

  1. If I try and fail, I will surely learn something.

Michael Jordan says he succeeded because he failed so often. All great discoveries, inventions, and disrupters happen because, not in spite of, mistakes made along the way. Trial and error lead to success. Not trying certainly can avoid error, but also promises for very little growth.

  1. If I try and fail, it could be a great story to share or write about.

Some of the funniest moments are from mistakes made. Everyone loves outtakes at the end of movies. It’s all about the slip and falls, the misread line, the physical humor of tripping, falling and crashing. It’s not that you failed at something, it’s how you handle that failure. Mistakes and mishaps afford an excellent opportunity to show one’s character.

  1. If I try and fail, no one will die.

This last one, of course, precludes us from performing surgery on a whim, but I don’t think we have to worry about that. So often that daunting task is blown out of proportion in our heads. For instance, some 2e folks struggle with making friends. It’s hard to find common ground or it’s frustrating when the person we are with doesn’t have deep thoughts or is focused on something we see as superficial. My suggestion is to find something you love (as an adult or child) – whether it is hiking, biking, writing, board games, D&D, photography, music, nature, travel – and join a club based on that theme. You will immediately have something in common. Think of two or three questions to ask – make them about what you are doing. “Have you ever done this before?” If they answer yes, ask where, when, and what was it like? If the answer is no, ask how they found out about it. If they ask you a question, ask them the same question back. Many people love to talk about themselves. If you don’t, you can keep the focus on them by asking questions about their experiences, their feelings or their opinion.

Lastly, once you’ve given yourself encouragement and thought ahead of time about how you can start a conversation, use some Cognitive Thinking Strategies to give yourself the extra umph to do the thing you are thinking about doing. These are ways to intentionally face and transform the barrier that’s keeping you from initiating.

Let’s say the effort is to join a Club that does meaningful service work coupled with something you love like being outdoors. First, identify the thought that is getting in your way. Ask yourself, “What am I thinking about.” Maybe the thought is “This is meaningless I’ve tried things like this before and they never turn out.” Okay, that’s your thought and you’ve just identified it. Next, challenge the thought. “Is it true that everything I’ve tried before has failed? Have I really tried this specific thing?” Then, modify the thought. “This type of thing makes me uncomfortable, but I know I really want to do it and I’ve prepared specific things to ask or say to start a conversation.” Lastly, replace the thought. For example, “This is worth the try.”

Gifted and 2e people, young and old(er), seek meaningful engagement at work, in connecting and in learning. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies standing in our way because we’ve experienced discomfort before, we have a hard time finding interest peers, or we feel we could do the thing better than the organizer. We’ve all been there. But if we stop trying, we cut ourselves off at the knees and we perfect not trying rather than putting ourselves in situations that could possibly lead to meaningful experiences. Know that you are armed with strategies to help with the discomfort and go forth. The bottom line is every failure brings you closer to success – connections don’t happen in a vacuum and you never know who you will meet, or who will introduce you to something or someone that could change your life. That one good move will cause all the past “failures” to melt away and be worth it.

Julie Skolnick
Author: Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-esteem in their students and clients.

Picture of Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick

Julie Skolnick, M.A., J.D., is the Founder of With Understanding Comes Calm, LLC, through which she passionately guides parents of gifted and distractible children, mentors 2e adults, and collaborates with and advises educators and professionals on bringing out the best and raising self-esteem in their students and clients.

7 Responses

  1. Excellent article! I especially liked the strategies and cognitive ways to overcome barriers with ADHD/negative self-talk, I can definitely relate. I have a passionate interest in learning more about Adult ADHD/ Mental Health not being addressed in the workplace. I would love to share more information/articles on this topic and educate/inform others via social media (LinkedIn) – My biggest barrier is the stigma and fear of what other business professionals would think of me by posting such material.

    1. Thank you for your comments! My guess is that many of the folks you are concerned about will be thankful that you posted. Perfectionism, negative self talk, imposter syndrome…these are all common afflictions of successful gifted and 2e people.

    2. I can empathize with the concern about stigma. Mental health is still so stigmatized, and often intellectual exceptionalities are viewed as mental health issues.
      ADHD is associated with time management issues, organizational issues, and distraction or inattention or sloth. All of those things can hinder productivity and success if unchecked. Who wants to appear as though they won’t be productive, meet quota, make sales goals?

      Undiagnosed and unchecked with ADHD and sensory processing issues (hello, hypersensitivity/overexcitabilites, to say the least), I’ve had all of those “flaws” in business and in education, and I have been very embarrassed when my performance, especially on tedious but easy tasks, was subpar. I look back at those moments and the disappointment expressed by leadership, and wish I could go back with the understanding that I needed some scaffolds. Fortunately, being gifted and a (too hard of a) hard worker, most of what I considered mediocre results actually turned out better than my neurotypical classmates, coworkers, or associates. I just could not see it.

      Back in education, I am more comfortable asking for accommodations and awareness, and because of behavioral therapy and the magic of extended-release ADHD meds, I can better discern when I have erred because of a misunderstanding and when I’m too stimulated, distracted, or “gone rogue” (those days when I walked right out the door without my ADHD meds!). My work family has gone out of their way to find a hidey-hole workspace when I need less stimuli. But that just makes sense in education.

      Hopefully as the business world becomes more aware of the strengths and gifts of neurodiversity, asking for scaffolds and accommodations won’t be as daunting or stigmatizing as they are now. (And here’s a little tip for in the meantime- “ADA” can be a powerful acronym to have up your sleeve. Only you are ASA, American with Super Abilities!)

  2. I love this! I saw a little bit of myself in there when you mentioned the connection between your client’s negative self-talk and her difficulty to initiate tasks. I love your suggestions for things to say to yourself when you are trying something new and I already wrote them down so I can incorporate them into my own life. I currently am in the job search, so the idea of doing something new is constantly weighing on my mind. These will be great responses to those intimidating thoughts!

    1. I am so glad! Sometimes I suggest that clients make 3×5 cards to carry around with positive self-talk messaging. Easy to review over a cup of coffee or breakfast and to start the day. Good luck with your job search!

  3. Really helpful article. I’m sharing with my daughter who just yesterday was feeling like a failure when a new ice cream recipe didn’t go well!

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