One of the most common issues I come across in my coaching practice is the prevalence of negative self-talk. That voice in your head that is constantly working to convince you that you don’t have a chance at whatever the heck it is you might aspire to be/do/have. It’s like waking up each morning thinking you chose the “Happy” Pharrell station on iHeart radio, only to get stuck listening to a continuous play of hopeless Alanis Morissette sob songs. Isn’t it ironic?
The frustrating thing is that it doesn’t seem to matter what your upbringing was, how successful you are, what your professional status is, or how much love surrounds you. When that critical inner voice has the mic, that’s what you hear… what you often believe, and what is likely running your experience of life.
It sure does sound convincing.
This “voice in our head” (*notice, it’s never referred to as the voice in your heart) is an outstanding salesperson. Its pitch is impassioned, detailed and so compelling that it is nearly impossible to argue its merits. We listen to this prosecution and quickly concede, “Your right, I’m a total failure.” And even once we concede, the voice tends to carry on, delighting in weakness and regaling us through sleepless nights with more stories of our shortcomings. Sound familiar?
What is its purpose?
Believe it or not, I believe the intention of this inner dialogue is to do good. By keeping us close to what is familiar and known (aka safe), the mind is “protecting” us from change (aka danger), even though it is less than what we truly aspire to be. Our mind can have a tricky time distinguishing between a great big exciting idea and a threat to our well-being. And so, it argues for what is known, comfortable and safe in the most effective way possible, terrorizing our thoughts and “saving” us from moving on to something more.
So what is the antidote?
Unfortunately, coming to terms with this internal critic can sometimes exacerbate the problem as we become critical of the fact that we have allowed ourselves to be run by this critical mind. You can see how this can perpetuate an ongoing cycle of more of the same as we play back and forth with critic-shame-critic-shame…
Oh, and simply trying to arm wrestle the negative voice with your happy thoughts often may not be successful either. The inner critic laughs at your affirmations. It knows all too well your weak spots and how to quickly engage you in lengthy, unproductive inner dialogue about “Why?” Why me? Why not me? Why can’t I succeed? Why won’t I ever have…? These mental acrobatics can easily consume your time as well as mental and emotional resources that could have been utilized to envision life-enhancing “What” and “Where” questions like: What is possible? What do I choose now? Where can I give?
The good news is that there is hope! Awareness of the pattern of self-criticism – especially in real time – is key. Being able to stand outside of yourself and say “Wow, there I go again.” is a big step. The next step is being able to interrupt the dialogue with a message of “No thank you, I don’t choose to entertain those thoughts.” As simple as it sounds, the act of interrupting and redirecting your thinking can make a profound shift in establishing a new pattern.
Here are helpful guidelines I have seen make a big difference for my clients:
- Be Patient – If this has been a pattern of thinking for a while, it will likely continue to pop up regularly. Try to notice it from an outsider’s perspective, “Oh look, I’m doing it again.”
- Be consistent and clear as you interrupt the dialogue that you no longer choose to entertain these thoughts, “No thanks, you (critic) are not useful, needed or welcome here.”
- Be light-hearted in your observation – this will take some practice (remember, be patient). When you catch yourself listening to or bantering with the inner critic, don’t beat yourself up. Instead try to chuckle, “Oh there I go again. Wow, that was fast, I just caught myself 10 minutes ago.” Know that the more you observe and stop the thinking, the closer you are to establishing change.
- Start a new practice of empowering questions. What I am excited about? What can I celebrate? How much fun can I have today while moving toward my goals?
My beloved aunt recently put it this way, “Life moves in one direction…forward”.
The thoughts you think today will likely dictate your feelings. Those feelings will influence the choices you make which ultimately create the results of your life. Choose a mental soundtrack that supports what you want to feel and where you want to go.