Have you ever found yourself saying things like ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘What’s the point in trying – I’ll fail anyway’? Or have you ever thought ‘People like me don’t achieve things like that’, or ‘What will people think of me?’
You have? Welcome to the club. Most of us at some point engage some sort of disempowering self-talk. What psychologists call the inner critic. You know the kind of thing – where you can hear a sabotaging voice inside your head saying ‘Who are you to do that?’ and wagging a pointy finger at you? It knows you so well. And it’s great at pushing your buttons. It responds to you at lightning speed too, so you often don’t even know it’s happening.
I’m going to let you into my secret.
It’s something that I’ve never shared with anyone before. Not even my closest family. So, really sensibly, I’m sharing it with you right here – on the internet of all places – where it might leave a digital footprint forever.
Why? Because I’d got so sick of my inner critic, I wanted to silence her for good. I may not have muted her forever, but I’ve certainly been able to show her who’s boss.
And, I now have better and more empowering conversations with her. Taming my inner critic has given me the courage and confidence to believe in myself. And that self-belief is propelling me forward to achieve things I never thought were previously possible.
It’s taken a lot of self-help books, online programs and the support of a coach to get to where I am now: a much more confident and harmonious place.
So I wanted share my story with you. And some of the techniques that I’ve discovered and used along the way, in the hope that you find them useful too. All of it has helped me to build my confidence and improve the way I feel about myself.
My story. Here goes then…. (gulp)
For a lot of my life, despite being a high achiever in my career, receiving praise from bosses and colleagues, holding several academic and other professional qualifications, I struggled with feeling like a fraud.
I’d catch myself thinking ‘When am I going to get found out?’ or ‘I’ve been so lucky, but things are bound to come crashing down any minute’.
This fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’ plagued me. Sometimes to the point of extreme anxiety. My heart would race and I would struggle to catch my breath. I didn’t sleep well at night.
But I kept it as my little secret. Not daring to tell anyone. I was so afraid of failing or being ‘found out’ that I continued to push myself. Harder and harder. To prove to myself – and to others – that I was good enough or smart enough to succeed. Be worthy of success – whatever that meant.
I raced round and round the hamster’s wheel. Creating a Super Woman persona. Over-preparing for meetings. Trying to be perfect. It was exhausting!
The bottom line was I struggled with my confidence.
I’ve since found I was suffering from something called impostor syndrome. A pattern of thinking and rules that often high-achieving people, who struggle with their confidence, follow.
Just knowing this was helpful in itself. But quite frankly it really bugged me! I started to resign myself to the fact that I was just ‘wired this way’ and I’d have to put up with it.
Then I came across the latest neuroscience research in the area of neuroplasticity. And it’s been the most powerful discovery I’ve ever made. It’s also helped me to change my life.
Now just so you know, I’m not a brain scientist so apologies if I over simplify here. But neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is the ability for the brain to change throughout life.
It’s how the brain wires up and how the neural connections in the brain change over time as a result of our environment, thinking, behaviour and emotions. It’s the process by which permanent learning takes place.
Whilst it was once thought that an adult brain had become hard-wired after adolescence, thanks to technological developments such as functional MRI scanning, scientists have discovered brain plasticity happens throughout our whole life. The brain is much more flexible than scientists once believed.
So, what does that mean? Well, this kind of debunks the ‘old dog/new tricks’ myth. We don’t have to believe the way we are is the way we have to stay. We can change the thinking and mental programming that may be holding us hostage. But how?
It seems that one way is to create new and empowering thoughts – ones that motivate us and push us forward. If we practice these thoughts enough, over time we can change our ‘wiring’ and create new mental programs that become our new thinking, beliefs and reality.
Here are four things that really helped me to reprogram my thinking and beliefs. They enabled me to overcome anxiety and a fear of failure, and that in turn boosted my confidence.
1. Ask yourself better questions. One of my favourite gurus is best-selling author (and founder of NeuroGym) John Assaraf. He says that one of the ways we create fear is by asking ourselves really bad questions. And we do it without thinking. It happens at the subconscious level of the brain.
If you want to feel bad, Assaraf says, all you have to do is ask yourself really bad questions. Here’s an easy and quick technique I learned from him, which helps you to ask yourself better questions instead. When you find yourself saying ‘what happens if I fail?’, flip this around and ask yourself instead ‘what happens if I succeed?’
This puts you in a much more motivating state of mind and interrupts the negative thought pattern. And from this more empowering state of mind, you are able to access positive ways of moving forward.
2. Declarations. You may also know them as affirmations but I prefer to use the term declarations. Create a list of positive declarations that you can repeat to yourself in your head or out loud. Write them down, run your fingers over the words or even say them to yourself in the mirror out loud. Repeat these declarations every day, day after day, week after week, month after month. Make it a habit. Oversimplifying? Yes. But it’s known to work because it’s based on repetition. And your brain really likes repetition. Really likes repetition. I mean, really really likes rep….well, you get the picture. It’s one of the ways it learns, and can help to create a new neural pathway which becomes a default for your thinking, beliefs and reality.
My favourite personal declaration is this:
“I have all the power, courage and confidence within me to succeed. Failure is just a lesson and I accept it as such.” Obviously, you can choose your own!
3. Calm breathing. Whenever I feel anxious, I take deep breaths in through my nose and out through my mouth. As I do so I repeat to myself in my head: ‘I breathe in courage and confidence, as I breathe out anxiety.’ This is said to help because calm breathing calms the amygdala – the part of your brain often associated with fear and anxiety and which creates a chemical reaction designed to help to keep you safe so that you can react in potentially life-threatening situations.
The amygdala prepares you for the fight, flight or freeze response, pumping out stress hormones around the body in the process. It happens at lightning speed. The trouble is the amygdala isn’t great at distinguishing between ‘real’ fear (an out-of-control car hurtling towards you) and ‘imagined’ fear (what if I fail here?) so it responds in pretty much the same way.
To totally, totally oversimplify, the calm breaths help to interrupt this fear reaction, enabling you to return to a calm state. And from a state of calmness, you are able to regain control and put the rational part of your brain back in control.
4. Mindfulness. Being aware of your thoughts, feelings and body without judgement is a powerful way of controlling your inner critic. Whenever I’m having anxious thoughts I take calming breaths, acknowledge the thought I’m having, name it and in my mind watch it float away in a fluffy cloud. I love to say to myself: ‘You have thoughts. You are not your thoughts.’
Recent research has shown that practising mindfulness can help you to stop ruminating over the things that cause stress, and help you to stop dwelling on negative thoughts.
Sound good? If you would like help to tame your inner critic, overcome the fears that hold you back and be the confident person you deserve to be, <get in touch with me> about how my <confidence coaching> can help. I’d love to talk to you.