Have you ever eavesdropped on the conversations that go on in your head?
They can be pretty brutal.
According to a widely referenced article published by the National Science Foundation, the average person has somewhere between 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, and 80% of them are negative.
Read that again.
80% of our thoughts are negative.
That’s a lot of trash talking.
No wonder so many dreams and goals go unrealized.
No surprise that we come nowhere close to tapping into our full potential.
In my last post, I wrote about dealing with the people around us who try to crush our dreams (Believing in Yourself and Your Dream When No One Else Does – Part 1: Protecting Yourself from the Dream Crushers).
Today, I want to talk about the most insidious Dream Crusher of all: the one that lives inside our own mind.
As I was researching this article, I was a little more tuned in to the chatter inside my own brain than usual, and I was shocked by what I found. I think of myself as a fairly positive person with a very optimistic view of what is possible (according to the guy who analyzed my handwriting recently, I’m in the top 1% of positive thinkers!).
Apparently my positivity applies mostly to other people, because it sure wasn’t reflected in what I was saying to myself. One example: when I looked at a to-do list of projects and the deadline I had set for myself, some of the thoughts that came up were: “It’s impossible. There’s no way I can get through all that in a week. This is a nightmare. I’m screwed. Crap. I hate this. I just can’t do it.”
Immediately, my energy and motivation plummeted. My automatic reaction was to waste time scrolling through Facebook, or taking a nap, or watching Netflix, because… why bother to put in the effort when the outcome I wanted wasn’t even possible?
That last sentence really captures the damage of negative self-talk. No matter what your specific brand of negativity is, whether it’s based on a world-view where possibilities are limited, or feelings of inadequacy (the “not good enough” syndrome), or fears about everything that could possibly go wrong, those negative internal conversations cause us to shut down. Our words can demotivate us and keep us from taking action (or we put in a half-hearted effort), or they can keep us from seeing creative solutions to our problems.
Plain and simple – negative self-talk stops us from tapping in to our full potential and keeps us from living our best life.
What’s more, negative self-talk is the ultimate Dream Crusher because it’s with us 24/7/365.
Start Tuning in to the Chatter in Your Head
Most of the time, our thoughts run in the background, and we’re not even aware of what we’re saying to ourselves.
It’s estimated that 90% of our thoughts are repetitive – we essentially think the same thoughts day in and day out. That means most of our thoughts are nothing more than habits, and like most habits, we don’t pay any attention to them. They slip under our radar.
But they play on, and they’re powerful. They can set us up for success – or they can set us up for failure.
The first step is simply to become more aware of what messages that inner voice is repeating. Pretend you’re listening in on a conversation at the next table in a restaurant. Approach it with a spirit of curiosity, rather than judgment.
You just want to get an idea of what you’re saying, and whether it’s helpful or disempowering. Don’t fall into the trap of beating yourself up when you catch yourself saying something negative: calling yourself an idiot for calling yourself an idiot just sets up an even bigger self-destructive loop.
At this point, all you want to do is to uncover what’s really going on inside your head, Imagine you’re a journalist digging up the background for an article or a detective investigating a case. Just the facts, ma’am!
Once you have a better idea of the specific disempowering messages you’re telling yourself, you’re ready to try out different strategies to deal with this internal dream-crushing gremlin. Here are a few of my favorites:
Strategy #1: Channel Your Inner Courtroom Lawyer
Have you ever watched one of those legal dramas on television? If so, you’ve seen how the lawyer for one side can absolutely tear apart the other side’s case.
That’s what I want you to do the next time your inner critic starts yakking.
You see, that inner voice is depending on you meekly accepting everything it says as if it were gospel. But it’s not. Every case has holes in it, you just have to find them. And that’s what you’re going to start doing.
First, assemble any and all evidence that refutes what that voice is saying. Let’s say you just made a mistake on a project at work, maybe even a big one. You’re inner critic is trying to make a case about how stupid and incompetent you are, and how you’ll never be able to get the promotion you were working toward. As the lawyer for the other side, your job is to come up with every single example you can that shows how competent you are: all your accomplishments on the job, all the times you’ve done something well, all the times your boss, co-workers, or clients have given you positive feedback.
Now, bombard that voice with your counter-evidence. Show it just how wrong it is. Don’t hold back – go all out and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that whatever that voice is trying to say, it’s case is full of holes and you have plenty of evidence to prove it. Reduce the calamity down to the blip it really is.
Second, cross-examine that inner voice that’s telling you what you can’t do, what you’re not capable of, or what you “should” or “must” do. When your internal Dream Crusher starts filling your head with disempowering lies, put on your best lawyer voice and grill it until it crumbles: According to who? Who made this “rule”? Who exactly is making this judgment about my abilities or goals? What are their credentials? Do they have any expertise in this area? What are their motives? What kind of results are they getting in their own life?
You get the idea – shred the arguments of that inner critic to pieces. Have fun with it. Most of the time, your inner critic’s case can’t withstand the spotlight of a good solid counter-argument.
Strategy #2: Make Fun of Your Internal Dream Crusher
That inner critic is really just a big bully, and like all bullies, it’s counting on you allowing yourself to be bullied. It relies on you seeing it as big and strong and intimidating. But like most bullies, it’s also full of hot air, and once you show it that you’re not scared of it, that you see through the façade, it loses its power.
Give you inner a funny name, like Nancy the Nag, or Wilbur the Crank, or Polly Perfectionist. Then, whenever your voice starts acting up, call it out: “Oh, there goes Nancy again, she’s extra crabby today. Nancy, are you getting enough fiber? Why don’t you go mix up some Metamucil and let me get back to work.” Or, “Well, looks like Wilbur woke up on the wrong side of the bed today. Wilbur, go back to bed and try it again. And if that doesn’t work, I’m going to have to put you in the time-out chair.”
Stand up to your bully and watch him/her shrivel up like the Wicked Witch of the West after Dorothy dumped a bucket of water on her.
Strategy #3: What Would You Say to Your Best Friend?
Would you ever say the things you say to yourself to your best friend?
I suspect you wouldn’t.
So the next time you catch yourself beating yourself up because you dropped the ball at work, or lost your temper with the kids, or went on a Ben and Jerry’s binge, take a step back and imagine your best friend has just called you, upset, because they did the very same thing.
What would you say to them?
I tried out this role-playing technique for the first time several months ago, when I caught myself in another “why bother, it’s not really possible for ME to achieve that goal” loop. As a coach, one of my core beliefs is that anything is possible, it’s just a matter of determining the steps between where you are and where you want to be, and then walking them out. I have no problem visualizing my clients achieving the most ambitious of goals, no matter where they’re starting. I know there’s a path from where they are to where they want to go.
But when I thought about my own goals, this limiting belief about possibility kept shutting me down and keeping me from taking consistent action.
So I asked myself how I would react if a client just like me came in with the exact same goal. I realized I’d have no problem believing they could do it, if they were willing to put in the work. I would help them figure out the first steps on the path, supporting and encouraging them with every step forward, knowing that the future steps would reveal themselves as they moved down the path, and trusting that they would have developed the resources to handle the challenges by the time they appeared.
The light bulb went on! I needed to coach myself in the exact same way! I changed up the conversation in my head, focused on the first steps, and got down to work.
So when you notice you’re ranting at yourself, become your own best friend or coach, and turn that conversation around. Pretend you’re talking with someone you really care about.
Strategy #4: Edit the Script
or screenplay is the process of revision. This is where the real magic happens. The ideas that come out in the first draft are rough and ragged, and quite frequently, there are things that don’t belong. During the editing phase, the writer identifies the parts that don’t work for the story, deletes them, and writes something new and better in their place.
You can do the same thing with your mental script.
When you catch yourself in the act of saying something negative or disempowering to yourself, simply hit the “Delete” key (try saying “Delete” or “Cancel” out loud for extra power). Next, overwrite that thought with a new, more empowering thought, like “I AM competent… I AM able to… I AM deserving… I AM strong… It IS possible to…”
Make your new script something that feels right and fits you. Repeat it over and over until it begins to sink in.
If you’re thinking these statements sound a lot like “affirmations”, you’re right. And if you’ve had bad experiences with “affirmations” before, you may want to dismiss this idea – but hold your horses.
Affirmations have gotten a bad rap because some “teachers” hand out ‘one-size-fits-all’ platitudes, or promise that simply repeating a positive statement will magically attract millions of dollars, unicorns, and rainbows.
But at their essence, affirmations are simply positive statements that act as tools to help us reprogram our brains and empower us to see new possibilities, create a new image of ourselves, and take new actions. They need to be tailored to you and your specific situation, style, and way of speaking. They need to feel “truthful” to you, and sometimes this means aiming for a neutral statement rather than an over-the-top positive one. Aim for small, incremental improvements in the way you talk to yourself.
Does Positive Self-Talk Make a Difference?
Now, I realize this is very unscientific, with a sample size of 1, but when I noticed what I was saying to myself about that lengthy project list and my deadline that was only a week away, I decided to do a little experiment. I tried out a few of the techniques I’ve outlined in this article.
First, I challenged the idea that completing the list by my deadline was impossible. I estimated the number of hours each project would take, and it came to 25-30 hours. Less than a full work-week. Since these were work-related projects which I could do during working hours, the “evidence” showed that this goal was entirely possible. I just needed to stay focused and use my time wisely.
Next, I went to battle with Whiney Wilma, who kept jabbering on about how much she didn’t want to do these projects, and how she wanted to do things that were more fun. I sat her in a mental corner with a glass of wine and a good book, and got back to work. I redirected my focus to all of the benefits of getting these projects completed on time, which included the time and space for more fun things (like writing bog posts!).
Finally, I edited the part of my mental script that kept repeating that I couldn’t do it. Every time that thought popped into my head, I gave myself a pep talk, telling myself “I CAN do it. It IS possible to clear this list. I AM going to complete every single project by deadline.”
The end result? I completed all but one of the projects by my deadline, and that last project just took a few hours to wrap up the next day. This is huge, because I had been trying to accomplish this goal of “To-Do List Zero” for at least three years, and had failed over and over again. By shifting how I spoke to myself, I accomplished what for me had been an “impossible” goal.
Maybe just as important was the way I felt all week. Instead of dragging through the week feeling defeated and drained, anticipating falling short of my goal, I felt energized and super-charged. The obstacles that cropped up fired me up even more – computer glitches and project delays could try and stop me, but they would not succeed! I felt like an Olympic athlete going for the gold!
Again, it’s only one experiment, but it made me think that maybe all the success gurus and super-achievers who talk about the power of positive thinking are onto something…
I’ll definitely be trying it again, and I challenge you to give some of these techniques a try the next time your inner critic starts acting up.
These are some of my favorite tricks to deal with the internal Dream-Crushers, but I’d love to learn from you too – what strategies have you tried and found effective? Please share your tips in the comments below!
And stay tuned for Part 3 in this series, “Believing in Yourself and Your Dream When No One Else Does: Building Your Confidence”.