“I can’t help it, I feel like a fat, lazy cow,” Amy told me as we began our first coaching session. “No matter how determined I am to be more disciplined, I keep blowing it.”
Despite the fact that she runs her own million-dollar business with devoted employees and has successfully raised a child and sent him off to college, Amy had fallen prey to negative self-talk and a “runaway brain.” Now, she felt increasingly powerless to make changes and stick to them.
Amy came into coaching to stop a downward cycle that began when she was asked to bid on an important new contract. Unfortunately, early in the negotiations, her potential new client questioned Amy’s abilities to take on the scope of the project. This planted some vicious seeds of doubt in Amy’s mind.
Instead of digging in and putting together a killer proposal, something she’d been able to do in the past, Amy focused on the client’s concerns. After all, she’d never handled an account this big before.
What if the client is right? What if my company is too small. What if I get started and can’t deliver? What if I fail? What if I humiliate myself and my team? Who do I think I am bidding on this thing?
These questions, left unchallenged in Amy’s mind, sent her brain into overdrive as it attempted to provide convincing answers. That’s how our brains work. Give them a little bit of negativity to work with and off they go, speeding ahead without permission.
Your Brain Confirms Your Bias
When you ask yourself questions, your brain collects “evidence” from stored memories and current observations to provide answers. If you ask negative questions, like Why am I so stupid?, you get negative answers.
Known as confirmation bias, our brains help us confirm our assumptions—whether positive or negative—by embracing and gathering evidence for those assumptions, while at the same time ignoring (or rejecting) opposing evidence that our beliefs may not be true. Over time, negative thoughts get hard-wired in as limiting beliefs and become self-fulfilling prophecies.
And that’s what was happening to Amy. Whenever she sat down to work on the proposal, her brain began a stealth mission to find evidence for why her negative thoughts were true, dragging up memories of her mistakes and failures while ignoring all the many successes she’d accomplished.
This barrage of inner, mental criticism made her feel edgy and inept.
Negative Coping Skills
Amy found comfort in food, distractions like shopping, and even spending a weekend out of town with friends instead of putting in the hours needed to win the new account. She began gaining weight and taking sick days from work, something she’d never done in the past.
Amy’s runaway brain saw this procrastination as new evidence that she wasn’t capable of handling the new contract. Amy’s thoughts focused on this as “fact,” leaving Amy feeling out of control and a little panicky. She beat herself up about everything now, including her weight, her lack of self-control, and her low energy level.
Feeling like an undisciplined, “fat, lazy cow,” she called me to set up a series of coaching appointments.
Amy expected me to put her on a diet and help her set business goals; instead, we focused on her thoughts, her brain, and her self-talk.
Inner Chatter Matters
Many self-help gurus urge you to “take massive action,” to solve performance problems. Their idea is to jump-start your momentum so you feel motivated to keep going. And while that might help temporarily, it rarely provides long-term success.
You can’t “white knuckle” your way into self-control over the long haul.
Every diet you’ve ever started and failed tells you this. You can’t “white knuckle” your way into self-control over the long haul. Only changing your thought patterns and self-talk will do that.
Why? Because how you talk to yourself matters, and in fact, it matters so much that you can change just about anything you want to change about yourself when you learn to tame your brain and manage your thoughts properly.
Inner Change Creates Outer Change
In his classic best-seller, Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life, Brian Tracy says the most important principle he has discovered is that your outer world is a reflection of your inner world and that you become what you think about most of the time.
If you believe yourself to be self-controlled, organized, and disciplined, those qualities get reflected in your outer world. And the opposite is also true.
Until she was able to identify and correct negative self-talk, Amy would continue to give free rein to her self-doubt, giving it increasing power to derail her success.
And while this sounds simplistic, it’s based on some rather compelling brain science. Let’s talk about why you should learn to steer your runaway brain.
How Beliefs are Born
Search the internet, and you’ll find estimates of the number of thoughts we think each day to be in the tens of thousands. That’s a lot of inner chatter.
If you listen to anyone speak that many words to you all day long, day in and day out, they are bound to have an influence. And indeed, your own thinking patterns have a profound impact on you, whether you realize it or not.
Beliefs are opinions to which you’ve developed loyalty.
Repeated thoughts become beliefs. And as one author puts it, beliefs are opinions to which you’ve developed loyalty. It doesn’t mean they are true; it just means you are devoted, perhaps unconsciously, to believing them to be true. There’s a biological reason for this.
Thoughts are Things
Neurologically speaking, thoughts are physical things. When you think a thought, you express proteins and other neurochemicals that create a neural pathway, which is a physical structure in the brain. Your thought has literally changed the geography of your brain. With each repetition of that same thought, you reinforce and strengthen the neural pathway.
The more you think the thought, the more automatic it becomes.
When you choose to take action on the thought, that action-decision also lays down a pathway, and these thoughts and actions become connected. Keep it up, and you create whole systems of neural connections, based around your thoughts, that trigger and reinforce one another.
Without intentional direction, these automatic, runaway thoughts can run your life.
Amy was thinking negative thoughts that revved up her brain and triggered negative coping activities such as escaping to comfort food or the mall. These neural connections were getting stronger and stronger, wiring in habit patterns and making it more difficult to change.
And on top of all that, there’s another important chain reaction to be aware of.
The Chain Reaction That Drives Results
The chain reaction works like this: Thoughts lead to emotions. Emotions lead to actions. And actions, taken consistently, create results.
The first step in the chain, thoughts lead to emotions, is particularly sneaky. To us, it feels as if emotions hit us out of the blue—especially negative emotions. It feels like they happen to us, not that we cause them ourselves.
For example, have you ever accidentally come across a photo of an old boyfriend or girlfriend? Suddenly, the memory of that old flame, someone you haven’t thought about in ages, brings with it deep emotion. The thoughts make you feel sad, regret, guilty, angry, or whatever.
The point is, two seconds before you found the picture, you felt fine. Now that you’re thinking about that old relationship, you’re feeling something else. Again, thoughts lead to emotions.
Once you understand that your emotions are not in control of you, but that your own thoughts control your emotions, you can begin to self-manage unwanted emotions more successfully.
I’m not saying it’s easy. Some emotions are very powerful and hard to manage because the thoughts behind them are so deeply ingrained. But the starting place is with managing your thoughts.
Emotions Lead to Action
Next up in the chain reaction is that emotions lead to actions. How you feel has a lot to do with how you respond and behave.
There’s a reason football players hype themselves up right before a game. They huddle up, jump up and down as a group, shouting “win, win, win” and patting each other on the butt. They know that if they feel like winners, they’ll act like winners on the field.
The same idea applies to public speakers and other professionals. One speaker I know asks her husband to give her a “shower of compliments” right before she does her live online presentations. She knows that how she thinks about herself impacts how she’s going to show up to her audience.
When you feel good, you do good. When you feel like crap, it’s easier to take the path of least resistance and do what makes you feel better in the moment.
For Amy, thoughts like, “I don’t really know what I’m doing. I suck at this,” while working on her proposal made her feel inadequate and anxious. (Thoughts lead to emotions.) That anxiety led to escaping the discomfort by shopping, stress eating, and otherwise distracting herself. (Thoughts lead to actions.)
As she continued the chain reaction of thoughts, emotions, and actions, Amy was creating results that she didn’t like. That’s the final step in the chain reaction. Actions taken consistently lead to results.
Amy’s results were that the proposal remained incomplete, her deadline was looming, and both her physical and emotional health were suffering.
The STEER Method
An old adage says, “If you talked to your friends the way you talk to yourself, you wouldn’t have any friends.”
So, how do you stop negative self-talk and your runaway brain? How do you develop the type of inner chatter that supports you in doing or becoming anything you set your mind to?
I’ve created a scientifically based tool called The STEER Method that helps you identify negative thinking and steer your self-talk in a healthier, more productive direction. The STEER Method is part of a suite of coaching tools I use to help clients clear out negative thinking, manage their emotions, and get better results.
If you don’t like how you are feeling or how you are acting, you have to change something. The STEER Method shows you how. I’ll describe the process in my next blog post.
While you’re waiting, you can learn more about The STEER Method by downloading my Guide to Better Self-Management, a free, four-part eBook.