Rob, a client of mine (though not his real name), recently took a one-week vacation from work, a much-needed break from a highly stressful, fast-paced corporate environment. Upon his return, one of his colleagues welcomed him back and noted that Rob’s team had worked hard and been very productive during his absence. Rob’s first reaction, as he relayed the story to me, was: “I knew it, they’re going to find out they don’t need me here – I might get fired.”
Now, all evidence would point to the contrary. Rob has recently been promoted to a high-profile position, his boss has openly praised his performance and charged him with increasing responsibility, and Rob is being invited to exclusive company events by the executive management. In all likelihood, the colleague was complimenting Rob on his excellent work in managing and training his team to be autonomous and perform so well even when he is out of the office.
So why did Rob have such a different take?
The Constant Critic
Moments like this occur to all of us throughout the day; something happens and we quickly jump to an interpretation. It doesn’t take much to spur the mind into action and, drawing from an extensive repertoire of personal references and biases, it will readily produce a stream of “self-talk” – commentary, critique and analysis – that may or may not accurately reflect reality. For many of us, conditioned by high expectations and a competitive society, this self-centered thinking often defaults to the critical or negative: “Why can’t I ever do things right?” “That was a stupid thing to say.” “I look old/fat/ugly.”
Moreover, as you’ve probably noticed, the mind is rarely satisfied to produce a thought once and leave it at that. Oh no, once it latches onto a notion, the mind likes to hammer the point home, repeating and reiterating and bringing it up every chance it gets. (Researchers have found that familiar ideas and impulses, in fact, forge physical pathways in the brain along which obsessive thoughts travel – your habitual thought patterns are literally creating ruts in your brain!)
You Are Not Your Thoughts
Notice, however, that I am referring to your thoughts as separate from you, the human being sitting there reading these words. You are not your thoughts. Rather, your mind is like a bubble machine, relentlessly churning out thoughts that create a stream of stress, anxiety or dissatisfaction – until you realize they are as ephemeral as soap bubbles.
Henpecked By Your Own Mind
Here are some tactics you can try:
- Get some distance. First, have a seat at the back of your head and take a few deep breaths. See if you can pinpoint where in your body you feel the anxiety or stress – is there a tightness in your chest, or a gnawing in your gut? Then, try to watch your mind. It may take some careful attention to decipher specific thoughts from the swirling undercurrent but if you wait patiently, they will start to crystallize.
- Put out the welcome mat. There’s no need to resist or judge yourself for the obsessive whirl of thoughts. In fact, Zen scholar Hubert Benoit suggests doing the opposite and welcoming them in. He says to his image-making mind: “Do what you please, but I am going to watch you doing it.” As soon as he starts to think of this and that, he says to his imagination: “So you want to talk to me about that. Go ahead, I’m listening.”
- Pay attention to the story. Now that you’ve welcomed it in, what does your mind have to say – what kind of stories does it spin in explaining the situations and events of your life?
- Does it create “all or nothing” scenarios, extrapolating dire consequences from a single misstep? “If I mess up this presentation, I’ll be fired…it’s a tough job market out there, I won’t be able to find a job where I earn this much, I won’t be able to make my mortgage payments, I’ll lose my apartment and be a bag lady at the age of 45…”)
- Does it make things personal? “It’s my fault, I always screw up.” “What’s the matter with me!”
- Does it engage in defensive pessimism? Your mind may downplay the positive aspects of a situation to limit expectations and feel less pressured – reviewing, for example, all the times you’ve been stood up as you’re heading out to meet a blind date.
- Get the facts. Once you’ve heard all the imaginative stories your mind has to tell, try distilling the facts of the situation. Ask yourself, “Okay, what really happened here?” There any number of reasons someone might yawn during your sales presentation or recital performance: it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not interested in making a deal or think your playing is boring. Perhaps because you didn’t spend as much time preparing as you would have liked, you’re anticipating and interpreting their reactions as if they had been privy to your inner anxiety. But the only thing you know for sure is, they yawned! Sticking to the facts helps you not get mired in the negative emotions that can derail your performance or trigger you to over-react.
- Try a little kindness. Finally, when you find your critical voice racing at full throttle – “I’m such a loser!” “I hate my thighs!” “My playing sucks!” – ask yourself, “Would I speak this way to a dear friend? To a young child?” Presumably, the answer is no, and you realize that for the same reasons you wouldn’t speak so harshly to someone you cared about, you shouldn’t be so harsh with yourself.
For one thing, non-constructive criticism rarely works. I remember playing tennis one day, my first time that season, and feeling very uncoordinated – not hitting the ball solidly, not getting into position. Every time the ball went in the net or out of bounds, I said disgustedly to myself, “Come on, what’s wrong with you, just get it in the court.”
After about 30 minutes of mounting frustration with my lame performance, something clicked and I decided to pretend I was my own coach. I started talking to myself in the third person, giving gentle advice and encouragement, and saying things like: “Okay, remember to keep your eye on the ball.” “Good, now make sure to bend your knees.” Once I made it less personal, I started to relax and play better.
Of course, adopting these habits will take practice – your inner critic has had years of conditioning! But if you can learn to view its voice more as that of a batty old uncle babbling away than that of absolute truth, it won’t have the same power to derail your emotional equilibrium and you’ll be better able to stay connected to the present moment.