This is the first part of a self-care series by organizational development professional and author Anne Grady.
I have the opportunity to meet incredible people all over the world. Some people are upbeat, happy and positive while others are frustrated, fearful and full of regret. I’ve tried to pay attention and look for patterns.
I’ve come to realize that yes, some people are genetically blessed . Their happiness set point is higher, according to The Happiness Advantage: The Seven principles of Positive Psychology the Fuel Success and Performance at Work.
However, much of our experience comes from how we’ve been conditioned to think.
Self-limiting beliefs—part of the inner critic—can stem from small or large conversations or experiences we’ve had throughout our lives. From a young age, we are taught to believe what our parents, caregivers and teachers tell us.
We can all probably recall a childhood experience that had a big impact on us. For me, it was my eighth grade algebra teacher Mrs. Wilson who definitely didn’t help in my development or self-esteem. I had a really hard time with math. I was a perfectionist even back then, and I was afraid to fail.
The combination of the two led me to ask a lot of questions. After a little time went by, it was obvious that Mrs. Wilson was not happy with my questions.
She glared at me with a look I can still see to this day, and then she asked the class to respond with, “Nooooooo Annnnneeee” every time I asked another question. I practically had to get therapy to get through the rest of math in high school and college.
While hopefully [your childhood memories are] not that traumatizing, memories of hurtful comments, interactions, or even looks are something we all have experienced. These memoires can have a profound effect on our self-image. They can combine to empower the inner critic.
And while the people around us certainly help shape our perceptions, much of our current reality is shaped by what we tell ourselves. The people who seem naturally “happier,” also send themselves different messages.
This is easy to understand theoretically, but when we’re in it, or when we’re down, sad, and hopeless, it’s really hard to do.
Doing Battle with “What If”
The two words that kill courage: what if? “What if I can’t do it?” “What if I’m not smart enough?” “What if I don’t have what it takes?” “What if … ”
And if you’re so inclined, I would also suggest dropping should, can’t, and impossible, but the two words that you must avoid—the biggest courage destroyers—are what if.
So many times, when we have an idea of something we want to do or try, we immediately go to “yeah, but what if … ” We have created the habit of second guessing ourselves before we ever get started. Negative self-talk and doubt are the enemy of excellence.
I get caught in “what ifs” all the time. “What if Evan will have to struggle like this his entire life?” “What if I get sick again?” “What if….”
I’ve learned to challenge this voice and so can you. These are the times when you need to muster all the courage you can to quiet your own negative chatter so you can bring yourself back and focus on what you can control—right now.
[Can you identify any people or situations that cause you to doubt yourself? Who or what are they?]
How Do You Talk to Yourself About Yourself?
Shifting your thinking doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice. Would you talk to your best friend the way you talk to yourself? If your friend came to you, sharing the challenges you are facing, what advice would you give?
Although simple in concept, shifting our thoughts can be extraordinarily difficult. We have conditioned ourselves to think the way we do, to think in a way that supports the inner critic.
If we want to behave differently, we have to think differently. We have to retrain our brains and form new habits. Thinking and behaving differently than we have in the past requires courage. It requires us to be thankful for what we have, to appreciate the little things and to step outside of our comfort zone to look for the right things.
When we talk to ourselves, it’s easy to go back to what we have habitually said. It takes practice to send ourselves new, more productive messages.
Send the Right Messages to Tame the Inner Critic
It might be unrealistic to jump from one extreme to the other; however, moving to a more realistic statement can be very powerful in your journey to find your courage.
For example, I used to think to myself, “This sucks. Why me? It’s not fair!” As true as these statements might have been, they certainly weren’t serving me.
It wasn’t realistic for me to think, “I am the luckiest mom in the world! I love having a child with mental illness!” or “I’m super excited about facial paralysis!” but I was able to shift away from those thoughts.
I began to use three little sayings regularly:
I’ve got this.
All I can do is all I can do.
It is what it is. And it will become what I make it.
Here are some additional phrases and affirmations that help me:
I have handled everything that has come my way so far. I will handle this, too.
I believe in myself and my abilities.
I choose to see the good in things.
I am grateful for the blessings in my life.
I eliminate obstacles and negativity around me.
I embrace opportunities with an open heart and open mind.
I feel better when I help others.
I take risks and get out of my comfort zone.
[Try taking a negative thought and making it positive. It can be helpful to write these thoughts down or have a few positive affirmations near you so you can look at them when thoughts become challenging.
For example, if you find yourself saying things like, “I’m too busy” or “I could never do that” think about how you could take those thoughts and replace them with positivity. You could tell youself, “I’ve never done that, but I’m willing to give it a try” or “I make time for what’s important to me.”]
Take out a piece of paper, and, write down some of your current, negative thoughts and replace them with realistic or positive thoughts. (Label one column “Current thought” and another column “More positive, realistic thought.)
Zero In On the Good Stuff
We have the ability to filter out counterproductive stimuli, making it easier to zero in on the good stuff and keep our point of view on a positive course, but it takes practice.
For example, if you are looking for notes on your desk, you may remember that you wrote them in red ink, or that there is an orange sticky note on the page. While you flip through your piles of paper, your brain is searching for the red ink or orange sticky note. It lets everything else slip through because it’s only looking for something specific.
If I asked you to find the notes written in green, you would have to flip through the papers again because you weren’t looking for that the first time. When we are caught in a negative thought cycle, it’s easy to look for (and find) all of the things that are not fair. It’s easy to slip further into sadness, loneliness, and grief. The opposite is also true.
When we find even the smallest things for which to be grateful (the parking spot up front, making a green light, a sale on the apples we like, etc.), it’s amazing how our minds open and start to zero in on these things.
For a long time, I lived in fear. Sometimes physical fear, but often fear of what might happen down the road with Evan, my career, my family, my health, and on and on. When I decided to live courageously, my mind shifted almost immediately. Instead of my thought, “What will I do if Evan can never live on his own?” I started to think, “I’ve made it this far. I can handle anything.” Something as simple as shifting your thoughts can transform fear into courage.
Be Guided by Vulnerability
I’m a big Brené Brown fan. She has done some great research around shame, vulnerability, and courage. She explains that we can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Brown asserts that vulnerability is the greatest measure of courage.
When I speak, I share the nitty-gritty aspects of my life. People often ask how I can be so open, so vulnerable.
I’ll be honest, part of it is cathartic.
It needs to come out somehow, and I’ve found this to be a productive outlet. But mostly, it’s because people tell me how much it means to them, and how much it helps them.
Vulnerability can be scary. We crave certainty, and courage requires us to get comfortable with ambiguity and the unknown. It means that you are willing to risk being hurt, willing to forge ahead into the unknown because ahead is the only way to go. It means you don’t have all of the answers, but you keep looking. Vulnerability is the true measure of courage.
Anne Grady is an internationally recognized speaker and author. Grady shares humor, humility, honesty and practical strategies to help people triumph over adversity and master change. This article was excerpted by permission from her new book, Strong Enough: Choosing Courage, Resilience, and Triumph. She is also the author of 52 Strategies for Life, Love & Work.