It’s 9:00 A.M. and I’m sitting in front of a computer, beginning to write this blog. After a few minutes of staring mindlessly at the screen, I’m jostled back to consciousness. Wait. What was I just thinking? Was I really telling myself that I don’t have any good ideas? That nobody cares what I have to say? That I’m nothing but an impostor?
All it took was a few moments of writer’s block and I had convinced myself that I’m a useless hack! How did that happen?
We all have those occasional self-critical voices in our head. Except they’re not occasional, they’re frequent. Our minds are rarely quiet, we’re almost always talking to ourselves and what we’re saying is often self-defeating and unrealistic. In fact, we spend many of our waking hours either obsessing about the past or worrying about the future. So, where do these voices come from? And why do we have them? Could they serve any purpose, other than to verify our insecurities?
These thoughts exist for a reason, but their usefulness is outdated – by about 100,000 years or so. Early humans lived in a constant state of threat – from animal predators, poisonous food, a broken bone, you name it. They had to be fully attentive to the hostility of their world, otherwise they might not survive.
The primitive part of the brain, the part that regulates basic functions like breathing and heart rate, is what helped early humans survive threats. In particular, a tiny structure called the amygdala would shoot out stress hormones whenever a person was threatened. This resulted in the fight/flight/fright response, and it prepared people to survive the danger.
While this response was perfectly suited for helping early humans survive, it doesn’t help us too much anymore since we aren’t in constant physical danger. Instead, the amygdala tells us that other things are endangering us, like a looming deadline or that snide comment from Jerry in procurement.
Over time, this near-constant low-level state of anxiety led to the negativity bias, a condition that causes humans to seek out negative information and disregard positive events and opportunities. We allow this bias to influence our moods and behavior for hours at a time. A single negative interaction or event can ruin an entire day that was otherwise filled with positive things.
And this is what gives rise to those voices in our heads, voices that serve no good purpose and hold us back from being resilient, optimistic and creative. So, what do we do about it?
A powerful technique to manage the inner critic comes from the field of cognitive behavior therapy, a strategy that’s been found to be at least as effective as medication in treating depression and anxiety.[i] The first step is to recognize the automatic thoughts as they happen in real-time, just as I caught myself questioning my talents as I began writing this blog. Many people, in response to events at work, automatically think of the worst possible outcome. If there’s a reorganization, “I’ll lose my job!” If quarterly revenue doesn’t meet expectations, “my team is going to pay for this, somehow!” Other people might automatically overemphasize the negative, even in the face of evidence that things are good: “Everyone said I did well on that presentation, but I was awful!”
There are various types of automatic thoughts and recognizing them as they occur is an important first step because it forces people to become aware of the pervasiveness of these negative, intrusive thoughts and the impact they’re having on behavior and mood, not to mention personal effectiveness. Most people are shocked at how frequently these thoughts are happening, and the pointless negativity of them. To recognize these thoughts, simply pause when you find yourself reacting to events – slow down, take a breath and pay attention to what you’re saying to yourself.
The second step is to actively challenge these thoughts and replace them with more accurate and helpful beliefs. Turn on your inner Sherlock Holmes, be an objective detective and ask questions: “What’s the evidence for this belief? Does it help me? Is this belief accurate? What are alternative explanations?” Most of the time, the answers to these questions will direct people towards more reasonable and useful beliefs, which leads to greater optimism and productive behavior. Instead of convincing yourself that speaking in public is going to result in an early death, you might reframe it as an opportunity to showcase your knowledge.
The goal of this strategy is not to be an unrealistically positive person, thinking that everything will always work out fine no matter what. Rather, the goal is to calm the emotional brain, the part that intrudes on thinking and affects mood and behavior. The key is to stay aware of the inner voice and challenge what it’s saying. This helps enhance resilience and achieve goals – like finishing this blog
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[i] DeRubins, R.J., Siegle, G.J. & Hollon, S.D. (2008). Cognitive therapy versus medication for depression: treatment outcomes and neural mechanisms. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 9, 788‑796.
Hollon, S.D., Stewart, M.O., Strunk, D. (2006). Enduring effects for cognitive behavior therapy in the treatment of depression and anxiety. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 285-315.