In Part 1 of this two-part blog series, you met my former client, Amy, whose runaway brain just about drove her over a cliff. She came into coaching to learn to stop and reverse her negative self-talk.
Self-talk is your inner dialogue, the thoughts you think to yourself all day long. It’s a lot of chatter, and as I’ve said before, your inner chatter matters. Amy’s inner chatter was going downhill fast.
Amy was like the rest of us, a busy person, and in her case, a busy entrepreneur who enjoyed a lot of success both personally and professionally. But, after a seemingly innocent comment at work by a potential new customer, Amy found herself mentally spinning out of control. That one comment planted vicious seeds of self-doubt in her mind.
Of course, just one comment isn’t usually enough to derail a competent person like Amy, but in this case, her daily life was already burdened to the breaking point, and this last straw threatened to do her in.
Amy turned that comment over and over in her thoughts, ruminating on what it meant and whether it was true. Her ruminations turned into circular, looping thoughts of the worst-case scenario. Her self-talk became increasingly negative and her self-confidence took a nosedive.
Her busy, runaway brain kept her up at night and gave her very little peace during the day.
To avoid the uncomfortable stress, Amy did what many of us do when under fire: hide. One of Amy’s favorite hiding places was shopping at the mall or online. When that didn’t work, she headed for comfort food.
Amy’s story prompted me to write this blog series about how she learned to STEER her runaway brain. The STEER Method, you may recall, is one of several coaching tools I created to help my private clients manage their minds, emotions, and habits.
What is a Runaway Brain?
A runaway brain is a brain out of control. We’ve all experienced it at one time or another—a time when our thoughts won’t shut off, especially as we are trying to fall asleep at night. Ugh. That’s the worst.
In reality, a runaway brain is an untrained brain. It is the result of thought patterns that have been wired in unintentionally over time. The hallmark of the runaway brain is that it works against you. Left undirected, a runaway brain can sabotage not only your hopes and dreams but your daily life as well.
“A runaway brain is an untrained brain.”
See if you can relate to any of these types of runaway thoughts, otherwise known as cognitive distortions, which are just a few examples of stinking thinking.
- Circular thinking: Ceaseless worry or rumination about a particular situation or person. Imagining scary “what if” thoughts and worst-case scenarios is one form of circular thinking. Another is dwelling on regrets in the past, cycling through what went wrong, and obsessing over what might have been, “if only.” Circular thinking never leads to a satisfactory stopping point, leaving you emotionally exhausted as you go around and around in never-ending thought loops.
- All-or-nothing thinking: Rigid thinking that filters circumstances and people (including yourself) through a black or white lens. For example, you may have been eating healthily for days or even weeks, but when you slip and eat a bite of cake, your brain informs you that you’ve totally blown your diet. Might as well keep on eating now… you’ve ruined it. There’s no middle ground with all-or-nothing thinking. Things are either all good or all bad.
- Filtering: Magnifying the negative and filtering out any positive aspects of a situation. For example, three people can compliment you on a project or how you look, but if one person says something mildly critical, it sets you off. You can’t stop thinking about that one statement, and you completely discount the positive comments. This was part of Amy’s problem. Despite the hundreds of satisfied customers she had served in her million-dollar business, one tiny comment questioning her abilities sent her into an obsessive thinking pattern. Within weeks, not only was the new account in jeopardy, but Amy’s own mental, emotional, and physical health were at risk as well.
- Mind-reading: Arbitrarily deciding someone else is thinking negatively about you. An example is when a co-worker passes you in the hall and doesn’t smile. If you interpret that as the person not liking you or thinking ill of you, that’s mind-reading. This automatic thought pattern is devastating to relationships, fostering suspicion toward others and undermining your own self-confidence.
- “Shoulding:” Putting expectations on yourself or others to do things the way you want them to be done. This usually involves a set of ironclad rules or standards that do not allow for a learning curve, mistakes, or human nature. “I shouldn’t have taken so long.” “She shouldn’t have lost her temper.” “I shouldn’t have eaten that.” “He should be more self-disciplined.” Shoulding almost always leads to guilt, anger, or frustration.
- Controlling: Trying to control everything that happens to you or to those for whom you feel responsible. A hostess goes over the top for a casual party, overspending and over-doing to make sure everyone has a great time. A mother over-protects her children, attempting to make sure nothing bad happens to them. A boss micromanages her employees to keep all the plates spinning. This runaway brain pattern can unleash your inner control freak, as you try hard to keep the lid on everyone and everything, all the time.
- People-Pleasing: A faulty thought pattern that allows you to believe you can manipulate people into admiring you or treating you better. Recently I’ve seen this manifest as burnout in one client who can’t say no to anyone at work, and as workaholism in another client who spends way too much time trying to keep her boss happy. People-pleasing sometimes leads to lop-sided relationships as one person does all the giving. It involves a false notion that you are in control of other people’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.
Did you recognize yourself in one or more of the above? If so, there’s great news for you. Like Amy, you can un-learn these old thinking habits and learn to STEER your runaway brain.
You Are Not Your Brain
Dr. Jeffery M. Schwartz, a research psychiatrist and seminal thinker in the field of self-directed neuroplasticity, says that the cognitive distortions described above, plus any other negative thinking you do unintentionally, can be traced to deceptive thought messages.
In his classic book on the subject, You Are Not Your Brain, Schwartz defines deceptive thought messages as “any false or inaccurate thought or any unhelpful or distracting impulse, urge, or desire that takes you away from your true goals and intentions in life (i.e., your true self).”
Schwartz draws a big distinction between habitual thoughts that have been ingrained physically on your brain (which I explain in Part 1 of this post) and your true self.
Think About What You Are Thinking About
In coaching, Amy came to see that her true self was very different from her brain and the negative self-talk she was indulging in. She was and is a warm, bright, and capable person, despite the deceptive messages her brain was now automatically feeding her.
I challenged Amy to start thinking about what she was thinking about. Only when she became aware of the exact sentences floating automatically through her mind could she interrupt and replace them.
This is one of the biggest honors of being human, this ability to step outside of your thoughts, consider them, and change them. Thanks to the genius design of your human brain, your true self is able to think about what you are thinking about and decide whether your thought patterns are working for you or against you.
The Chain Reaction that Changes Everything
When you can’t control your thinking, it’s easy to feel out of control. But if you are able to identify the exact thoughts that need to change and then learn some new thinking skills, the likelihood is high that you can retrain your brain.
There is a simple chain reaction you need to be aware of, which I explained in greater detail in Part 1 of this blog series. The chain reaction is that: For every…
Situation, you have thoughts.
Thoughts create emotions;
Emotions lead to effort;
Effort leads to results; and
Results chart your course in life.
The acronym STEER suggests if you don’t like your results, you can chart a new course by steering your thoughts. How you feel on a moment-by-moment basis depends on the thoughts you are thinking. And how you are feeling has everything to do with what you do next in any given moment.
And let’s face it, whatever efforts you are making consistently (or not making, as the case may be), are going to determine your results. Your results chart your course in life. The question is, are you being intentional about where you are going?
Directed vs. Undirected Thinking
Your thoughts are either directed or undirected. Undirected thoughts are caused by automatic, deceptive brain messages that have been wired in over time. Directed thoughts have to be managed and thought on purpose.
Purposeful, directed thoughts create powerful, positive emotions. When you are feeling strong, capable, optimistic and confident, nothing can stop you from making the changes you want to make and getting the results you want to get. And this is true even when your situation involves difficult people and the worst of circumstances.
Amy wanted to win a large new account by creating a stellar bid. But when the prospective client questioned her company’s ability to handle a project of such magnitude, Amy hyper-focused on the comment, interpreting it as critical. Left undirected, Amy’s brain ran away with self-doubt that sabotaged her ability to create a winning proposal.
The same thing could happen to any of us. If you don’t direct your thoughts in a way that creates positive emotions, you undermine your ability to act the way you want to act, do the things you want to do, and sustain effort toward your goals and dreams.
Undirected Thoughts Create Unintended Results
Amy’s undirected thoughts were creating the unintentional path she was on, leaving her feeling out of control.
Here’s how Amy learned to apply The STEER Method to identify her negative thoughts and steer her self-talk in a healthier, more productive direction.
S – Situations Stir Up Thoughts
Amy’s situation was her new business opportunity.
When using The STEER Method, always state the situation in a neutral way, devoid of all opinion. Doing so underscores that it’s not other people or circumstances that cause you pain, it’s how you choose to think about them.
T – Thoughts Create Emotions
I asked Amy to identify her most troubling thought (the exact sentence in her head) about the situation, her new business opportunity. Amy identified her most upsetting thought as, “This client is too big for our company, and we might bomb if we get this contract.”
When using STEER, name just one thought at a time (or two tightly related ones). You can always come back and use the method on additional thoughts. Start with the most distressing thought.
E – Emotions Lead to Effort
I asked Amy to close her eyes and think her specific thought, then notice what emotions washed over her. After a few moments of silence, she said, “It makes me feel defeated and anxious. I can actually feel my heart starting to pound.”
OK then. Sheesh! With thoughts and feelings like this, it’s no wonder Amy had been having trouble getting off the dime. These scary emotions were bound to make it difficult to apply much effort toward writing a winning business proposal.
In this step, limit your list to the one or two most crippling emotions caused by the specific thought identified above.
E – Effort Leads to Results
Even though she was falling farther and farther behind, Amy found herself incapable of exerting effort on the proposal. Instead, she distracted herself with comfort food, shopping, and weekend travel. She avoided work and even took some sick days. When she was at work, she focused on projects that were less important but satisfying.
Identify as many action steps as you can think of, representing all the effort you make (or fail to make) when you feel the emotions identified.
R – Results Chart Your Course in Life
What outcomes could Amy expect if she continued the current, undirected course? Amy would either not finish the bid or turn in inferior work. The results might include not winning the new account, hurting morale among her employees, setting a poor example for her sales reps, gaining weight, wasting money on impulse purchases, and losing more self-confidence.
Identify all the possible outcomes, real or imagined, that might result from the actions taken and efforts made.
Directed Thoughts Create Desired Results
When using the STEER Method, what happens next is almost magical in its simplicity. But don’t let that fool you. Simple ideas can be very powerful. (And don’t confuse simple with easy. Rewiring your brain takes sustained effort. But when you’re ready, directing your thoughts can create amazing transformation.)
Amy was ready to interrupt and replace the old, undirected thought pattern and create different, more positive results.
S – Situations Stir Up Thoughts
Amy’s situation is still her business opportunity.
The situation does not change. It is exactly the same. Again, the problem is not in the situation, but in how you think about it.
T – Thoughts Create Emotions
Now Amy needed to identify a new thought—one she could genuinely believe—to replace her old, automatic thought. Amy took time to craft her replacement thought. It needed to represent something that Amy knew in her gut to be true. Her new thought was, “I have always grown my business by taking on big challenges, and I have always figured it out.”
You need to find a thought that is true for you right now, one you can authentically believe in at this moment. Choosing a thought you don’t believe creates cognitive dissonance. You’ll just end up rejecting the new thought and falling back into the comfortable old thought.
E – Emotions Lead to Effort
When she closed her eyes and thought the new thought, the emotions that washed over her were far more positive. “OK, that’s better,” she said. “This thought makes me feel more competent and confident.”
Close your eyes and pay attention to the emotions that the new thought brings up. List the strongest two or three emotions the new thought creates.
E – Effort Leads to Results
What kind of effort—and what action steps—could Amy make if she felt more competent and confident? Amy made a long list: “I can ask the team for help. We can brainstorm how to divide up the work and how to find additional resources if we need them. I can finally write the proposal.” She also thought she would be able to stop her destructive coping mechanisms of over-spending and comfort eating.
List the likely efforts you’ll make now that you are feeling more positive emotions. List as many action steps or behaviors as you can think of. Which activities you will start and which will you stop?
R – Results Chart Your Course in Life
Amy then identified her expected results. She would be inspired by her work and have more creative energy again. She would gain valuable insight and engagement from her team by including them in the process. She would gain experience she could immediately share with her sales staff. She would stop gaining weight and stop overspending. And if it wasn’t too late, they might even get the new business.
List all the possible outcomes when you are consistently directing your thoughts and feeling empowered to apply effort to the situation.
After completing The STEER Method, Amy felt optimistic for the first time in weeks. Of course, just thinking the new thought a few times wasn’t enough.
From Runaway Brain to Trained Brain
It takes perseverance, practice, and intentionality to retrain your brain. Amy practiced her new thought day after day and, in time, replaced the old negative thinking. Despite weeks of prior procrastination, Amy focused her team and herself to meet the deadline for the business proposal.
Unfortunately, there simply wasn’t enough time to produce the quality work she was capable of. Amy’s company did not get the new account. Though disappointed, Amy refused to give in to negative thinking again.
Using The STEER Method, Amy directed her thoughts about losing the business opportunity. Instead of beating herself up, she focused on what she had learned and how she could propel herself and her team forward.
Amy beefed up her own leadership skills and challenged her sales staff. Together, they are actively pursuing new, larger clients. Amy continues to do the hard inner work of STEERing her thoughts and has taught her team to do the same.
Next Steps for Your Own Runaway Brain
I have created a free template you can download to practice The STEER Method yourself. Feel free to make copies and use it until you’ve got it down pat. It won’t be long before you can work it from memory on scrap paper or cocktail napkins when you need to.
If you’d like more help when it comes to clearing out negative thinking, managing your emotions, and creating better results, I’m starting a six-week beta group to help me develop a new online course. As part of the beta group, you’ll get a much-reduced rate and my never-ending gratitude for helping me refine the course content. It will never be this cheap again, and space is limited. To get more information, email me here, and let me know you are interested in the beta group.
Or, if like Amy, you want immediate, individual support, consider private coaching. Contact me to answer any questions. I’ll be happy to help you determine if coaching is a good fit for you.