In this episode we look at ways to retrain our own worst critic - the automatic limiting thoughts that enter our minds when we are faced with challenges, and that hold us back from opportunities.
Hello and welcome to episode 31 of the Leadership Today Podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we are looking at ways to retrain our own worst critic - the automatic limiting thoughts that enter our minds when we are faced with challenges, and that hold us back from opportunities.
Have you ever had someone in your life that was continually negative and critical? Always chipping away, complaining, pointing out faults, highlighting risks? Did they hold you back from thinking more positively, from trying new things, from taking action? If you did have someone in your life like that, you probably either pointed out those tendencies to them, or simply spent more time with positive people.
For many people, the most negative and critical voice in their life is the one inside their head - those automatic limiting thoughts that enter our conscious mind when we’re faced with a challenge or hit with a set back. The thoughts are automatic because they arrive without any conscious effort. And they are limiting because they hold us back from the potential positives of taking a different course of action.
The human brain works really hard to join dots - to discover patterns and meaning behind the wealth of information constantly rushing in from outside and from within ourselves. The thoughts that enter our conscious mind are ideas providing one possible explanation for what we’re interpreting. As we saw in the self-fulfilling prophecy episode, these thoughts and beliefs can be so powerful that they actually shape events and people around us. If we think someone doesn’t like us, we can act in a way that will lead that person to like us less. And so the limiting thought is reinforced and strengthened.
The human brain is also a risk management machine - we’re wired to notice threats. While you hear this sentence, your brain is scanning the environment for threats multiple times. This feature of our brain can also exaggerate the risk of taking action, leading us to magnify the risks and minimise the potential rewards. That’s why most people will work much harder to avoid losing a dollar than to gain an extra dollar. We are often working out of a mindset of risk and potential loss.
I was recently coaching a person who was very nervous about public presentations. In fact they said “If I have to give a presentation to the rest of the team, I will die”. Now, on one level, “I will die” was just a turn of phrase. But, on another level, it was actually how they physically responded to upcoming presentations. They thought, felt and acted like there was an imminent threat to their life which, of course, there wasn’t. I worked with them to challenge and then change their interpretation of presentations. First we started by challenging the automatic thought. How did the team respond to other presentations in the past? It turns out they were usually quite supportive. Then we considered some alternative explanations. Perhaps they felt physically worked up about the presentation because they wanted to do a good job and it mattered to them. Then we simply changed the script - choosing an alternate thought that they were excited about the presentation. When you’re excited your heart rate might increase, you might get a little sweaty, you might even stumble over some words. But excitement is much more positive than nervousness. It’s the same physiology, but a very different mindset. Having your heart race made sense as an indicator of excitement - they didn’t need to interpret it as a warning sign. In fact, presentations could actually be a great opportunity to practice and improve their public speaking. So the presentation to the team became an exciting opportunity, instead of a life threatening risk.
Retraining your own worst critic initially takes conscious effort, but over time we can create new and more positive automatic thoughts. The only way to get more comfortable and confident with public speaking is to do lots of public speaking. The new mindset, that presentations are an exciting opportunity to get better at presenting, encouraged them to do more presentations.
Here are some ways to tackle our limiting thoughts, and retrain our inner critic:
Notice your automatic thoughts. Write them down in a journal or using a notes app on your phone. That will give you a sense of what you’re telling yourself through the day.
See thoughts as opinions, not facts. Assess whether each automatic thought is rational, true and helpful. Incorporate other information. Craft other potential explanations. Try to identify the most likely explanation.
Avoid catastrophic language - “I’ll just die”, “this always happens to me”, “I’ll never get any better at this”. This just escalates the impact of the negative thought.
Play the scenario out - realise that, even if the worst case comes true, you’ll still be okay.
Rewrite the script - just like I did with the person I was coaching, changing “nervous” to “excited”. We can change the interpretation we place on our automatic thoughts and the cues from our body.
By applying these approaches we can retrain our own worst critic to become much more focused on positive opportunities than paralysed by risks.