We all talk to each other when we’re alone. When we’re walking down the street, when we’re sitting in front of the computer, when we’re waiting for our car to come out of the car wash.
And when we talk to each other, there is a narrator with a particular bent. Sometimes our narrator is inspiring, but sometimes our narrator confirms our deepest fears for us. Of course it’s always we tell our own story.
So where does this narrator come from? Our Core Beliefs: All of the ingrained positive and negative thoughts that influence how we think and feel about ourselves and the world around us. Unless uncovered and diminished, negative core beliefs tend to solidify and resist change.
Here is a list of some common negative core beliefs:
- I always get the short end of the stick
- I have to be perfect at all times
- i can never change
- I only have to take care of myself because no one else will
- I am not a social person
- I’m never listened to or respected
- I must strictly adhere to my plans
To make matters worse, our core beliefs begin to lag with our cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are beliefs that reinforce something wrong, and they usually reinforce something negative.
So you can start with the core belief: “It always happens to me” and end with the cognitive distortion: “It will always happen to me”. (Overgeneralization)
Another example would be to start with the core belief, “I’m never listened to or respected” which is then cemented in the brain – with the cognitive distortion, “I must be boring and insignificant”. (emotional reasoning)
Do it enough and you’ll build a world around you that reflects your inner negativity, adds to your stress, reinforces your negative self-talk, and so on. The loop must stop somewhere.
How Negative Core Beliefs Affect a Leader’s Ability to Lead
If you take the core belief “I must be perfect at all times” as an example, it’s easy to see how this will create anticipatory anxiety: you won’t be perfect at some point in the future.
This anticipatory anxiety becomes a daily stress – either in the foreground or in the constant background. The reaction to this daily stress is to mount even more anxiety and tense behaviors to prevent the fear from materializing.
Then, if we find ourselves imperfect at some point (which of course we will), we don’t have the cognitive energy required to deal with the stress because the anxiety of anticipation has already burned it.
As another example, a leader with negative core beliefs might react to news of declining sales by thinking, “This always happens to me.” Or in anticipation, “this will happen to me”.
Again, this answer lacks the resilience required to think about how to change course. He has already viewed the present reality as permanent and incorrigible.
When we bombard ourselves with negative self-talk, our anxiety rises. As our anxiety mounts, our stress builds up and becomes contagious to everything around us.
You might have an MBA from Wharton and a law degree from Harvard, but if you’re a stressful case, your peers and colleagues won’t notice your credentials; they will only notice your stressed behavior.
A stressed leader will contaminate the emotional well-being of those around him. Frantic people make others frantic.
How to Manage Our Negative Core Beliefs
Become aware. Listen to your inner voice. How does it speak to you? Would you accept a friend talking to you the same way? Pay close attention to your exact words and write them down. You will begin to see how the voice in your head contributes to stress.
Challenge negative thinking. Ask yourself these questions:
- What is my negative thought?
- What evidence proves that this thought is true?
- What evidence proves that this thought is wrong?
- What unhealthy feelings and behaviors does this thought cause?
- What will possibly happen if I continue to think like this?
- What advice would I give to a friend who feels this?
- What conditions should I accept now? What won’t change?
- What can I do to make my thinking more positive?
- What words will express my new healthy thinking?
How to Ultimately Overcome Negative Self-Talk
We don’t need to become pollyannas to change our self-talk. Simply by maintaining a healthy dose of realism, we can improve our psychological health and, ultimately, our leadership skills. It’s learned optimism.
- Get a coach or therapist. A coach or therapist can help break the spell. It’s a sign of strength to admit you need help and to allow an outside perspective.
- Engage in your life. Get fit physically, socially and professionally. The more you act to realize your potential, the less time you will spend listening to negative self-talk; the more, the less he will talk to you in the first place.
- Perceive control over situations. You can choose how you react to a stressor and thus exercise some control over it. It takes practice, but you have to start. Don’t worry if you haven’t mastered the art of perceiving control over situations at first. You have to create new neural pathways in your brain, which requires repeated trials.
- View stressful events as problems or opportunities. Those who are successful in coping with stress tend to look at silver linings as well as clouds. Also, once the event happens, you have to react to it in some way. You might as well do it the way you will benefit from it.
- Give yourself space. If you find yourself being eaten up by negative self-talk and cognitive distortions, you may need to clear your head by taking a vacation or some time off. I recognize that this may not be possible given your situation, but see if you can carve out some personal time to reboot your brain.
Although it may seem like you don’t have control over your thoughts, the opposite is actually true: you do. And every moment you hear negativity in your head, you have the opportunity to stop it and move on to something that makes you feel good.
There is no doubt that life throws unfair curve balls at us. You don’t have to like them, but you don’t have to dwell on them either.
We all write scripts for ourselves on how we will react in certain situations. Rather than writing yourself as the character who gets killed in the first act, write yourself as the hero who thinks outside the box and keeps negative self-talk at bay. The choice is yours.