By Deirdre Murray, Managing Consultant/Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with PEOPLE RESOURCES
“As a man thinketh in his heart, so he is.” James Allen
What is the quality of your thinking? Below I take a look at the neuroscience behind the nature of our self-talk and identify 4 positive steps you can take to maximise your success.
We are thinking all the time. Every day 50,000 thoughts are running around in our heads and we wonder sometimes why we get so overwhelmed! The problem is not with thinking , per se, it is the negative nature of our thinking that can sabotage our success. In my work with Executives, the two biggest issues that I come across are negative self-talk and self-doubt.
I love this quote by Jim Rohn, “Beware the thief in your mind!” We control our thoughts, they are not real – they are simply thoughts. Why, then, do we give out thoughts so much power to control our bodily feelings and emotions? Dr. James Doty, Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford University, advises that if we are continually hypercritical of ourselves, this can also lead to a judgmental and critical approach towards others. We are all connected and our mood can have an immediate impact on the people around us. If you go in to meet someone who holds themselves very stiffly, is scowling and disgruntled, our autonomic nervous system kicks into flight or fight mode before we even realise it. Our heart rate increases, our blood pressure rises and we feel their agitation.
We pay so little attention to the quality of our thinking. It is only when we become aware that we are aware, that things can change. Even when we take time out to meditate, our thoughts can drift in and out. The key aspect is to simply acknowledge them, and imagine these thoughts are simply that, just thoughts, like fluffy clouds passing overhead and always return to the breath.
We are biologically wired for survival to ward us off from danger. However, these negative thoughts, whilst they can provide a useful alert in times of danger, are not very helpful in our everyday lives. It needs balance. A little scepticism in life is useful but not when it rules our thought process. Studies by Dr. Barbara Fredrickson show, that in order to remain in a positive mindset, we need to sustain a ratio of 3:1 positive to negative thoughts. In order to fully flourish and trust that things will work out for you, we need a higher ratio of 5:1, five positive thoughts for every negative one.
I witnessed this greatly when people where going through the last recession. They had no warning of the downturn, and in many instances their comfortable, secure life was imploding in front of their eyes, either through redundancy, financial stress or overwhelm due to increased workloads. It was a terrible time for people and many were struggling to cope. The key is to focus on what you can control, rather than what you can’t. The first place to start, therefore, are with your thoughts.
Taking Positive Steps to Change the Quality of our Thinking
1 Reframe negative thoughts:
I once worked with an Executive in my coaching practice, who lambasted himself with negative self-talk for the entire hour-long journey whilst driving to work, and then proceeded to do the same thing on the way home! No wonder he was having difficulty in moving on with his life. He was paralysed in a trap of negative self-talk that was sabotaging his success. It was only when he became aware of the damage he was doing to his brain, that he began to focus on changing this negative pattern to more powerful questions that would allow him to move forward. You can also reflect on these questions to reframe negative thoughts as they occur and move away from what Dr. Chris Johnstone aptly terms, “The CR!P channel.”
POWERFUL QUESTIONS TO PROMOTE POSITIVE SELF-TALK:
“What is my positive outcome for today”
“What two things do I want to accomplish from this meeting?”
“What do I want to achieve from this interaction or meeting today?”
“What have I learned from today?”
“What would I do differently?”
“What does this difficult situation teach me about myself?”
“What one positive step could I take that would help this situation?”
“Who could I reach out to: a colleague, coach or mentor, that might provide a positive suggestion that might help me in this situation?”
Studies show that 80% of what we worry about today, we worried about yesterday as well, but have done nothing about it. We have just allowed the thoughts to ruminate in our heads in a negative loop, like a little white hamster stuck on a treadmill. We are out thoughts. Our thoughts impact our feelings and our feelings, in turn, impact our thoughts.
2.Develop a growth mindset: Say to yourself, “I just haven’t got there YET.”
In order to activate the motivational circuits in the brain, we need to reflect, as Carol Dweck’s research indicates, on whether we have a “fixed” or a “growth mindset.” With a fixed mindset, we tell ourselves that “this is it.” We have no power to change as this is the situation; we are stuck with it, whether it is our ability, our level of intelligence, our behaviour, our life circumstances, our destiny. Why bother trying to change anything?
However, as studies by Dweck show, students with a “growth mindset,” the key is progress. They track their efforts along their journey. They said to themselves, “I haven’t got there yet.” They keep persisting. It’s like learning a new language, you struggle and struggle with the grammar and fluency but as you continue with deliberate practice and stay focused on learning, you will get there and you will start to think in the new language.
I once worked with a client, who was carrying a bad mood around for over three days because he didn’t reach the time target for a recent marathon. However, he neglected to acknowledge that he had achieved a Personal Best at the same time! He realised that he had been in such bad form that it was affecting his work and ultimately the mood of his team, and as we all know, emotions are contagious.
3.Practise mindfulness and concentrate on your breath.
Meditation allows the thought process to take a pause. A very useful way to do this is to stop for 3 mins and practice the 3-4-5 technique of breathing. Breathe in through your nose for 3 counts, then hold for 4 counts and then breathe out for 5 counts through your mouth. If you are stressed, it is also useful to pretend you are blowing out through a straw to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The important thing is to create what neuroscientist Dr. Alan Watkins calls heart rate variability or coherence in your breathing pattern; the key aspect is to keep a consistent pattern of 3 breaths in and 5 out, or 5 in and 5 out, as this calms the heart rate and lowers blood pressure. A longer out-breath also reduces cortisol. Leading neuroscientists advise that we only need 12 mins mindfulness practice per day to calm the fear centre of the brain, which is the amygdala.
4. Practice journaling
Studies in neuroscience have shown that writing your thoughts down in a personal journal helps to reduce the impact of negative thoughts and encourages us to ‘brain dump.’ Julia Cameron, author of “The Artist’s Way,” recommends writing 3 pages each day, either in the morning or evening, whichever suits you best. Just keep your pen on the page and keep writing. She recommends writing for 30 days and for the first seven days, she advises us not to even look at it, as it’s often full of negativity!
Once you become aware of the negative impact destructive thoughts can have on your whole physiology and performance, you can practice these techniques to maximise your success and bring back a sense of control into your life.
About the author
Deirdre Murray, Founder and Director of PEOPLE RESOURCES, partners as an Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with leading multinationals and public sector bodies across all sectors.
Deirdre is co-author of “Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – A Leadership Imperative!” Her second book in the management briefs series, “Communicate with Impact! Communicate & Influence Successfully,” is out now at www.peopleresources.ie. She is a regular motivational speaker at conferences, seminars and on radio broadcasts and provides journal entries for leading business magazines.