The human brain is the most powerful machine in existence. With more computational power than even the most advanced supercomputer, the human brain can process a billion billion calculations per second! Engineers are constantly trying to develop machines that mirror its strength and efficiency, but can’t come close to the magnificence that is the human brain. Amazing, right?
Our brain’s operating system has evolved over thousands of years. Originally designed to keep our cavewoman ancestors safe from being eaten by saber toothed tigers, the brain developed an Operating System called “Something is About to Go Horribly Wrong”. Wired to protect us, our brain’s programming keeps us at the ready to jump into fight, flight or freeze at any moment in response to any perceived threat.
Designed to optimize for safety, comfort and efficiency, we still share this part of the lower brain with our ancestors. And it hasn’t evolved much since pre-historic times. It is constantly scanning the environment for things it finds threatening, looking for signals that you would be safer to stay in the cave – or on the couch watching Netflix – rather than pursue new and challenging goals and experiences. And while helpful for fleeing predatory beasts, this is decidedly less useful when faced with the terrifying prospect of receiving performance feedback from your boss, or taking the lead on a new work project.
Your brain is so intent on keeping you safe, it likely bombards you with thousands of messages a day in the form of negative thoughts. You know the ones – they might sound like, “Don’t share that idea in this meeting, they will think you are stupid.” Or “That new position sounds great, but you are entirely unqualified for that promotion. Better not throw your hat in the ring or they will find out you don’t know what you are doing.” When these thoughts get repeated over and over on a loop, it creates a negative self-talk track that prevents you from ever daring to step outside of your comfort zone, keeping you stuck right where you are. Add to this the patriarchal messages women receive in Western society tell us our voices aren’t truly valued, it’s a wonder any of us even manage to get out of bed in the morning!
Now your brain is not trying to go all “mean girl” on you. It is genuinely intending to be helpful. However, when you are aiming to push outside of your comfort zone, these thoughts are anything but. If the brain’s operating system is “Something is About to Go Horribly Wrong” your negative self-talk is the software program it will run. Unchecked, the unmanaged mind can run amuck, stealing all of your self-confidence and sabotaging your results.
The good news is you can use your evolved upper human brain to overcome your lower brain and rewrite this program with a script that actually serves you. Our brain has a property called “neuroplasticity” which basically means that we can form new patterns and pathways with practice and literally change our brain’s wiring. So while your current talk track is well ingrained based on years of repetition, with deliberate and regular practice, you can create new neural highways that lead well beyond your comfort zone.
Here are the five steps to re-writing your talk track.
Step 1: Observe your Self-Talk
It is important to first identify what you are telling yourself about yourself. When faced with new experiences, planning a stretch goal, or other stressful situations, what are the thoughts that repeatedly run through your mind? Over the next week, pay careful attention to the thoughts that creep in – those that tell you that you aren’t smart enough, capable enough, or just… enough! Write them down on paper. Do not skip this step, it’s critical to get these thoughts out of your head and see them for what they are. There’s likely some nasty stuff in there, no wonder you feel bad! But be curious about these thoughts, try not to judge them. Judging your thoughts isn’t helpful – it just adds another layer of negativity on an already yucky situation. And note, having negative thoughts doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you. It means you have a human brain that is functioning exactly the way it is designed to! It’s trying to keep you safe.
Step 2: Name the Feelings Produced by Your Talk Track
Notice when you think these thoughts, how do you feel? What are the physical sensations that emerge in your body? Where specifically do you feel them? Are they hot or cold? Fast or slow? What is this feeling? Give it a name. It may be tempting to skip this step, but don’t. We resist feeling our feelings and often do whatever we can to avoid them. (Vending machine raid, anyone?) But feelings are simply electric impulses in your body – they cannot hurt you. And recognizing the feeling for what it is and putting a label on it has scientifically proven to immediately lessen its negative impact.
Step 3: Connect Your Talk Track to Your Current Results
Now, notice when you feel this way, what are the actions you take from this place? How do these actions translate into your current results? Do you like the results you are getting? Why or why not? It’s important to recognize that negative feelings do not produce positive results. If you do not like the results you are getting, it is time to examine what you are thinking and how that is informing your actions.
Step 4: Redefine Your Self-Talk Track
In addition to suboptimal results, your current talk track is likely contributing to an unhealthy relationship with yourself. When you are continually bombarding yourself with unkind judgements, you are not being supportive of you. What would it be like to have your own back instead? Take a few minutes to identify how you would like to be thinking and feeling about yourself in these critical moments. What are some new thoughts that are more empowering than your current talk track? A useful approach is to think about what you would say to a friend in these situations. Write these thoughts down and pick 2-3 that feel good when you say them to yourself.
Step 5: Practice.
Like anything else, your brain needs repetition to create a new habit. In order to rewire your brain with a new self-talk track, you are going to have to practice. Make it a daily habit to spend a few minutes several times per day practicing your new thoughts. Over time, they will come more naturally to you. Don’t expect to rewrite your talk-track over night. Awareness is incredibly helpful, but it is only a first step. You’ve likely had many years playing your old, tired talk track and its grooves are well-worn in your brain. You are still going to experience self-limiting thoughts in challenging moments That’s ok. Simply acknowledge this as your brain’s default mode, say thank you for keeping me safe, and change the channel.
The next time you find yourself stuck in a holding pattern or negative spiral repeat this process. What is the talk track you are playing? How can you rewrite it to better serve you? Commit to and actively engage in this practice and you will be blown away with the results you can create for yourself.