I’ve been coaching a woman I’ll call Fran. Fran is a budding entrepreneur and is desperately trying to build traction in her online coaching business. Her overly critical mother exposed her to some pretty harsh beliefs early in childhood that she has adopted as her own. Her mother frequently told that her that she wasn’t enough: smart enough, pretty enough, skinny enough, etc. Even in those rare times when she felt good about herself, like the day she came home prouder than a peacock with a B+ in science, her mother said, “Don’t be so full of yourself.” No matter what Fran did or didn’t do, she was chastised.
Fast-forward 30 years. Fran is married with kids, and although her mother is no longer alive, Fran still hears that critical voice in her head telling her that she’s too dumb, too talentless, and too fat to amount to anything. She is just as hard on herself as her mother was—maybe even harder. Not only are these messages chipping away at her confidence and self-esteem, they’re creeping into and taking hold in her business, like a slow intravenous drip of a toxic drug that has slowly lulled Fran into a terrifying and depressing distortion of reality.
We all share Fran’s feelings of inadequacy and “not enoughness.” It’s part of the human experience. But our inner critics can chip away at our very essence, compromising our ability to enjoy a meaningful and purposeful career and life.
I could spend the rest of this article telling you about the ancient part of our brain called the amygdala and how it’s responsible for these lack-and-attack fears, but I don’t think understanding the science of it is as important as how to handle that inner critic when it rears its ugly little head.
Here are some things to consider:
All problems start in the mind (with the exception of a factual external loss, like losing a loved one, finding out you can’t have children, or your house burning down).
If you don’t like how you’re feeling, observe your thoughts.
If you don’t like how you’re behaving, challenge the validity of your thoughts.
If you don’t like the results you’re getting in your life, change your thoughts.
Here’s the truth: thoughts are only real if you believe them. Sometimes when I tell clients this, I get pushback. Because they have proof their thoughts are real! That “proof” goes something like this:
My mother told me I was stupid.
My partner said I’m too old to go back to school.
The college counselor told me to lower my expectations.
My brother told me no one would love me because I’m too fat.
Here’s another truth: just because someone else said so doesn’t make your thoughts any more factual or true.
What would happen, do you think, if you treated your negative feeling thoughts like the ads that show up during your favorite TV show, or like those obnoxious pop-ups that get in the way when you’re shopping online?
Can you fast-forward through those ads that are just trying to sell you something you don’t need or want? Would you be willing to ignore those pop-up ads? After all, they’re doing nothing but interrupting your shopping. Why give them your attention?
The real question isn’t “are your thoughts real,” but rather, “are they helpful?” When those thoughts are painful and stopping you in your tracks, the answer is: not so much.
So the next time you say anything remotely close to the following:
- I’m not smart enough to (make money doing what I love or learn a new language)
- I’m too old to (change jobs or wear “that” color)
- I’m too fat to (meet a man or wear a bikini)
- I don’t have enough time (to take a nap or read a book)
- I’m too busy to (go on a walk or take a yoga class)
- I can’t handle it (if my boss criticizes my work or partner disagrees with me)
- I’m too anxious to (travel or tell someone the truth)
Stop looking for evidence why it’s true and instead ask yourself:
- Is this thought helpful?
- Does this thought empower me or disempower me?
- Does this thought inspire me or keep me stuck?
In other words, stop arguing with your thoughts and start critically examining them, like a curious scientist, instead.
What we give energy to expands. And where your attention goes, your power goes with it. So would you rather give your energy and power to a crappy thought like “I’m not good enough,” or a thought that moves you forward, like “I think I’ll give it a try and see what happens”?
A thought isn’t a fact, no matter how many times you think it or how many other people express it. A thought doesn’t become your reality unless you allow it to.
Give your thoughts a second think. You just might discover that all it takes to change your life is to change your mind.