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March 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 6

Managing Your Mind: What Are You Telling Yourself?

The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.—John Milton
Ann and Jennifer, two teachers employed by Above and Beyond Middle School, were having lunch together on a recent Saturday afternoon. While they were waiting for their sandwiches to arrive, Ann said, "Jennifer, I just read a fascinating article reporting that basketball players who imagined making free throws before a game, made more foul shots than players who did not mentally rehearse their shots."
"I just read something similar," Jennifer replied. "If these techniques of self-talk and mental imagery help athletes improve their performance, I wonder if they would help me as an educator?"
Teachers and administrators can draw on a plethora of techniques to enhance their performance at work. One often overlooked strategy, however, is self-management of their thought processes. As a leading psychologist writes, "One of the most significant findings in psychology in the last 20 years is that individuals can choose the way they think" (Seligman 1991). This has important implications for educators, who typically work in challenging environments where there is a constant potential for interpersonal conflict.

Opportunity or Obstacle?

The theory of inner leadership stresses the importance of an employee's ability to establish and maintain constructive thought patterns (Neck and Manz 1992, Manz and Neck 1991, Neck and Milliman 1994). Just as we develop both functional and dysfunctional behavioral habits, we also develop functional and dysfunctional patterns of thinking. These mind-sets influence our perceptions, the way we process information, and the choices we make in an almost automatic way.
Two such contrasting patterns of thinking are opportunity thinking and obstacle thinking (Manz 1992). A person who engages in opportunity thinking focuses on constructive ways of dealing with challenging situations. By contrast, a person who engages in obstacle thinking focuses on reasons to give up and retreat from problems. Research has shown that the opportunity thinker will try harder (Seligman 1991, Neck and Manz 1992).
A principal asks two teachers to work on a challenging project that is of particular concern to the school's site-based council. A final report on this project will be submitted to the council. One of these teachers (an opportunity thinker) views this assignment as a chance to make a significant contribution to her school. The other (an obstacle thinker) perceives it as a chance to fail in full view of the principal and site-based council.

Diagnosing Dysfunctional Thinking

  • All-or-nothing thinking. One sees situations in black-and-white terms (for example, if results aren't perfect, the person perceives complete failure).
  • Overgeneralization. One generalizes a specific failure or bad result as an endless pattern.
  • Mental filtering. One dwells on a single negative detail, thus distorting all other aspects of reality.
  • Disqualifying the positive. One writes off rewarding experiences.
  • Jumping to conclusions. One draws negative conclusions about certain situations even when there's not enough evidence to do so.
  • Magnifying and minimizing. One exaggerates the importance of negative factors and minimizes the importance of positive factors.
  • Emotional reasoning. One interprets reality through the lens of negative emotions.
  • "Should" statements. One talks to oneself using terms like should, shouldn't, ought, and must in order to coerce or manipulate oneself into taking actions.
  • Labeling and mislabeling. One automatically uses negative labels to describe oneself, others, or an event ("I'm a failure," "he's a cheat," "it will be a worthless training session").
  • Personalization. One blames oneself for negative events or outcomes that have other causes.

What's on Your Mind?

  • internal dialogue (self-talk),
  • mental images (visualization), and
  • beliefs and assumptions.
Research has shown that by controlling these three factors, one can carry out a variety of tasks and activities—physical and mental—more successfully. In a clinical trial, for example, self-talk was one treatment component that helped smokers smoke fewer cigarettes each day (Steffy et al. 1970). In a study of handicapped children, self-talk training improved the children's academic performance and communication skills (Swanson and Kozleski 1985).
A study of aspiring school counselors demonstrated that the use of mental imagery improved decision making, strategy formulation, and other complex skills (Baker et al. 1985). In sports psychology, many studies have confirmed the efficacy of purposefully managing one's own thinking, especially by using mental imagery. A recent meta-analysis of 60 different studies revealed that when athletes mentally practice a task, their performance of that task consistently improves, particularly for tasks that are most influenced by athletes' psychological outlook (Felz and Landers 1983).
Finally, numerous researchers, include David Burns (1980) and Albert Ellis (1977), have emphasized the potential of managing one's beliefs and assumptions to deal with destructive habits, phobias, depression, and a range of other dysfunctions.

Talking Sense to Yourself

In Talking to Yourself, Pamela Butler (1981) suggests that we engage in "an ever-constant dialogue" with ourselves in order to influence our behavior, feelings, self-esteem, and even stress level. Educators who bring their self-defeating self-talk to a level of awareness, and who rethink and reverbalize these inner dialogues, stand a good chance of improving their performance.
A new teacher is angry and confused when he learns that a parent wants to move one of his students to another teacher's classroom. The new teacher knows that the child has a behavior problem that the teacher has tried hard to resolve. He has in fact devoted his own lunch hour to giving the child extra attention, as well as spending time with him before and after school. Still, the teacher tells himself, "I'm a lousy teacher. I'll never be able to attend to my student's needs and at the same time make his parents happy."
This is a classic example of all-or-nothing thinking. A common dysfunctional belief has been activated by a potentially troubling or disturbing situation. To alter this destructive belief and become more rational, the teacher must first identify the dysfunction and then change the thoughts that follow. He could challenge his belief that he is a failure, reversing his thoughts by telling himself something like I probably just need to communicate more effectively with these parents to make them aware of the special attention I'm giving their child. But if this doesn't work and they still want to move their child out of my class, I mustn't take it personally. The fact is, other parents have given me very positive feedback on my teaching ability this year.
The teacher also needs to pay attention to what he is telling himself. Instead of saying, "Hey, these parents sound hostile and irate! There is no way I'll be able to communicate with them," he might tell himself out loud, I'm going to do everything in my power to have these parents working with me to help the child. I've done my homework. By concentrating on what I know, I'm certain I can alleviate these parents' concerns.
After attempting this self-talk a number of times, the teacher would be likely to internalize it, so that he could use it effectively in similar situations.
Alternatively, this teacher could use mental imagery (or visualization) before meeting the parents. In that case, he would picture himself listening to the parents' concerns, providing information, being supportive, and generating ideas and solutions. He might further imagine the parents leaving the meeting with the feeling that their child is in very good hands. Of course, the teacher could use the same technique negatively, picturing himself as failing to communicate. The resulting lack of confidence could well lead to the very failure he imagines.

Five Steps to Inner Leadership

  1. Observe and record your existing beliefs and assumptions, your self-talk, and your mental imagery patterns.
  2. Analyze how functional and constructive these thoughts are.
  3. Identify and develop more functional and constructive thoughts, to substitute for any dysfunctional ones, perhaps writing these down as well.
  4. Try substituting the more functional thinking when faced with a difficult situation that comes up often.
  5. Continue monitoring your beliefs, self-talk, and mental images; and maintain the new, more functional ones you've adopted.
In an educational setting, this strategy might work as follows.
Jill has an important meeting with a parent who has a reputation for being rude and irate with teachers. Jill knows that the major weakness preventing her from reaching her teaching potential is her lack of confidence in dealing with intimidating parents.
To prepare for the meeting, she begins by observing the assumptions, self-talk, and mental images she uses in different situations. She writes down some of these thoughts for a few particularly difficult challenges she encountered the first day of class.
With the insight gained, Jill designs mental strategies that seem appropriate for her current problem. Over the next few days, she uses constructive self-talk to bolster her confidence in her ability to conduct a successful meeting with this parent. She repeats phrases to herself such as, "I shall succeed." "I can communicate so as to reduce his hostility." She also repeatedly imagines the meeting and sees herself reducing the parent's hostility and anger.
When the meeting ultimately takes place, the parent does become hostile. In the course of their conversation, however, Jill realizes that his hostility arises from his perception that his child is not being treated fairly in class. After Jill assures him that his child is indeed receiving fair treatment, the parent calms down and provides Jill with valuable information to help her better connect with his child.
Successful educating requires preparation and persistence. But research has shown that effective self-management of the mental skills discussed here can give educators the extra tools they need for optimal performance. In a recent field study, researchers compared two groups of employees: one that participated in inner leadership training and another that did not. Results revealed that the performance, confidence, and mood of training participants had improved, whereas those of nonparticipants remained the same.
Formal training is not necessary, however. Simply practice and use these tools on your own. You should begin to see positive results.

Baker, S. B., E. Johnson, M. Kopala, and N. J. Strout. (September 1985). "Test Interpretation Competence: A Comparison of Microskills and Mental Practice Training." Counselor Education and Supervision 25: 31-43.

Burns, D. (1980). Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy. New York: William Morrow.

Butler, P. (1981). Talking to Yourself. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Ellis, A. (1977). The Basic Clinical Theory of Rational-Emotive Therapy. New York: Springer.

Feltz, D. L., and D. M. Landers. (1983). "The Effects of Mental Practice on Motor Skill Learning and Performance: A Meta-Analysis." Journal of Sport Psychology 5, 1: 25-57.

Manz, C. C. (1992). Mastering Self-Leadership. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall.

Manz, C. C., and C. P. Neck. (1991). "Inner Leadership: Creating Positive Thought Patterns." The Academy of Management Executive 5, 3: 87-95.

Neck, C. P., and C. C. Manz. (In press). "Thought Self-Leadership: The Impact of Mental Strategies Training on Employee Cognition, Behavior, and Affect." Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Neck, C. P., and C. C. Manz. (1992). "Thought Self-Leadership: The Influence of Self-Talk and Mental Imagery on Performance." Journal of Organizational Behavior 13, 7: 681-699.

Neck, C. P., and J. Milliman. (1994). "Thought Self-Leadership: Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Organizational Life." Journal of Managerial Psychology 9, 6: 9-16.

Seligman, M. (1991). Learned Optimism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Steffy, R. A., D. Meichenbaum, and J. A. Best. (1970). "Aversive and Cognitive Factors in the Modification of Smoking Behavior." Behavioral Research and Therapy 8: 115-125.

Swanson, H. L., and E. B. Kozleski. (July 1985). "Self-Talk and Handicapped Children's Academic Needs: Applications of Cognitive Behavior Modification." Techniques: A Journal For Remedial Education and Counseling 1: 367-379, 115-125.

Christopher P. Neck has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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