The voices in our heads can be real buzz-kills. “I’m not whatever enough.” I should be (doing) X, I should be (doing) Y, I should be (doing) Z.
Some call this voice “the gremlin” or saboteur. Others look at it is as a radio station that plays recurring tunes of self-limiting beliefs embedded into our subconscious minds. Whatever you call it, these voices have harmful effects. Positive psychologists sometimes suggest that it is our own, self-deprecating mind chatter which holds us in the bonds of ordinance. Our thoughts and belief systems can become our realities.
Limiting beliefs lead to procrastination and laziness, dampen and destroy dreams, and bring down morale. Successful people who exhibit high levels of grit have learned to combat these limiting beliefs by changing the hardwired thinking patterns – replacing them with more constructive and positive ones. This takes attention, intention, and will.
How Do People Stop The Voices in Their Heads?
1) Journaling. Students in seventh grade were asked to write about an important value—like being smart (or an unimportant value in the control group) for just 15-minutes several times throughout the year. The intervention improved the end-of-semester grades for the African American students and reduced the racial achievement gap by 40% in the experimental group, presumably by lowering the self-threat associated with confirming the negative “not good/smart enough” belief systems associated with stereotype vulnerability (see work by Claude Steele). Just this week, researchers noted that improvements continue through eighth grade. The students who benefited had nearly a half-point higher grade point average than struggling peers in the control group.
This middle-school intervention study was run by researchers Geoffrey Cohen (University of Colorado), Julio Garcia (Colorado), Valerie Purdie-Vaughns (Columbia University) and Nancy Apfel and Patricia Brzustoski (Yale) and focused on journaling.
2) Focusing on Mindset and Learned Optimism. Anther answer to stopping the voices is to actively focus on your growth mindset, as Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck would suggest (see Got Grit? Start with Mindset by Emiliya Zhivotovskaya and “Brainset” – Neuroscience Examines Carol Dweck’s Theory by Nicholas Hall). At an even more basic level, people can counter the voices by self-training themselves in learned optimism self-talk as founder of positive psychology and University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman would suggest (see Learning Optimism by Doug Turner and Is feeling better as easy as ABC? by Nicholas Hall).
3) Focusing on Positive Self Thoughts. Psychologists Shelley Taylor and David Sherman suggest in a paper last year that the processes surrounding self-enhancement and self-affirmation are the key to how psychological health is maintained, or restored, after a threat. It is also key in fueling the ability to set and maintain energy around goals.
4) Activating Hope. Believing that you have positive strengths and talents allows you to feel good about yourself, even through stressful times, because you can pull from a bank of resources that make you uniquely you. A heightened mindfulness of your general attributes may facilitate performance by boosting your sense of self-worth—what Diane McDermott and C.R. Snyder (1999) call mental willpower. This can start simply by making a list of accomplishments you have had in your life.
While you are probably way past middle school, some of your internal gremlins may have lingered in one form or another since then. Ready for them to be gone?
I work with clients all the time to change their belief systems. Just the other day I was speaking with a woman who says she wants to meet the man of her dreams. When I asked her if she thought it what possible, the silence was deafening. It all starts with the belief.
Saying “Could.” Another client of mine is going through career transition. He has all of these belief systems that tell him what he should be doing. One way to easy some of that “should” anxiety is, according to mainstream author Louise Hay, to make a list of them. For example, “I should be making over 6 figures, I should be working in finance, I should be wearing a suit and tie to work everyday.” Then, reread the list, but this time replace “should” with “could” and then ask yourself, “So why don’t I?” Usually, the responses are “because I don’t want to” and then viola! Some of the self-inflected stress is removed and space is cleared to proceed in creating the life you most want to live.
Reframing in the Moment. There’s also the work of Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatte (The Resilience Factor) on reframing using real-time resilience. Whenever you’re in a situation where you want to feel better, you can work through some mental calisthenics, like these (see The A.P.E. Method to Get Out of a Bad Mood by Senia Maymin):
“A more accurate way of seeing this is …” (Look for alternatives.)
“That’s not true because…” (Look at the evidence.)
“A more likely outcome is … and I can do … to deal with it.” (Consider the implications and perspective.)
Be bold and be daring as you experiment with your life—be open and willing to see what works best for you. And perhaps even ask your friends and coworkers for some help and accountability.
Carson, R. (2003). Taming Your Gremlin (Revised Edition): A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way. Collins Living; Rev Sub edition.
Cohen GL, Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, N., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive processes in self-affirmation: Intervening to close the minority achievement gap. Science, 324, 400-403.
Hay, Louise, L. (1999). You Can Heal Your Life (Gift Edition). Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.
McDermott, D. & Snyder, C.R. (1999). Making Hope Happen: A Workbook for Turning Possibilities into Reality. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.
Reivich, K, & Shattẻ, A. (2002). The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. New York: Broadway Books.
Steele, C. M. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape the intellectual identities and performance of women and African-Americans. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.
Taylor, S. & Sherman, D. (2008). Self enhancement and self-affirmation: The consequences of positive self thoughts for motivation and health. In Shah, J. & Gardner W. (Eds.) Handbook of Motivation Science (pp. 58-70). New York: Guilford.