Your brain has two sides, called hemispheres, and they function differently. Your left hemisphere, for example, deals with language. Your right hemisphere deals with emotions (I'm oversimplifying here so we can talk about a useful way to think about your own thoughts).
Research has shown if the left hemisphere of a man's brain is destroyed by a war injury or stroke, for example, he is unable to speak. He can feel. He knows what he wants to say, but he doesn't have the brain machinery to put it into words.
If his right hemisphere is destroyed, he is capable of putting things into words, but he speaks in a monotone: there is no feeling or emotional expression in what he says.
That is a basic understanding of the brain hemispheres. One side deals with language, reason and logic. The other side processes emotion (the brains of women are less compartmentalized than mens' but these basic divisions of hemispheric strengths still holds).
Now, if we can extrapolate, we come up with a helpful understanding. The right hemisphere contains emotions, including worries, fears, irrational depressions, and hurt feelings, and if you aren't talking to yourself, that's all there is: A dumb (mute) emotional person.
One of the things I've noticed many times is that when I feel afraid or depressed, my thoughts are a response to my feelings. I feel worried, so my thoughts, quite automatically, contain worried images and words. But when I deliberately take over my thoughts and think what I want to think — not at the effect of my feelings, but like a responsible adult talking to an hysterical child — I have noticed my thoughts can effect my feelings just as much as my feelings effect my thoughts.
So I might say to myself, "Hey wait a minute. It isn't that big of a deal. Even if it turns out badly, it's not a catastrophe. I can do this." This simple, rational self-talk usually calms me down. It makes me saner. More logical. More rational. And my feelings become less negative.
If you've never tried this, I'm sure it must sound too easy. An effective solution can't possibly be that simple. And in a way, that's true. There is a trick to it. Sometimes you have to be firm, as you might with a child throwing a fit. But it doesn't take practice and it isn't difficult. All you have to do is start talking sense to yourself.
A DIFFERENT WAY TO THINK
Before I got out of bed this morning, I decided to concentrate on self-coaching today. When I got up, Klassy was in a bad mood and she criticized me harshly for something I had done. I took it in stride. Later that day, she said, "I'm sorry I said that to you this morning. I was in a bad mood. I feel bad I was so mean."
But I said, "I've been meaning to thank you for doing that."
She looked surprised, "Thank me!?"
"Yes. I was practicing self-coaching today and you gave me a great opportunity to practice. One of the most upsetting things that ever happens to me is when you talk to me like that, so it was a good challenge for my ability to coach myself. It's like lifting heavy weights: It makes me stronger. So it was very helpful to me. Thank you."
She looked stunned.
Do you want to take potentially upsetting situations and rise above them? Would you like to calm your mind when you feel anxious? Think about it this way: you've got two brains. Your right brain is the source of vague worries and fears, which show up as images rather than words (imagery is more associated with the right hemisphere). Normally, your left brain picks up the emotional tone and starts adding words like a narrator of a documentary film. Your words embellish the feelings, heightening them and prolonging them. If you aren't paying attention, if you're just going along with it, you can sink into a lousy state in no time at all.
But just turn on your language and see what happens. Take your brain off automatic pilot and start thinking what you want to think — say to yourself what you want to have going through you mind. Say sane, reasonable, calm, effective things to yourself, and watch what happens. Your right brain calms down. You calm down.
Stop playing the narrator and start directing the film. Be a cause rather than an effect of your emotional state. When your feelings are negative, they will naturally alter what you're thinking. You'll automatically think negatively in response to the feelings. But you can turn it around. Think calming thoughts deliberately and your feelings will automatically change in response to your self-talk.
In the book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, you can read the fascinating true story of a whaling ship that was deliberately sunk by a whale. After the ship sunk, the men in the small boats were left adrift in the middle of the ocean. The three boats were eventually seperated, and one of the boats was captained by Owne Chase. He gave his men coaching in how to think about their circumstances. "I reasoned with them," Chase was later to say, "and told them that we would not die sooner by keeping our hopes." They had already seen one of their men, Richard Peterson, die, and they saw that the loss of hope is basically what killed him. Almost as soon as he gave up, he died. Owen Chase came up with all kinds of arguments and thoughts that would help them stay determined to keep trying and not give up, to keep them from sinking into hopelessness and despair. What he was doing was teaching them how to think about their circumstances — teaching them to think calmly and rationally about their circumstances so their negative feelings didn't take over their thoughts and send them to the bottom of the ocean. And it worked.
Find out what kind of thinking works best for you. I've tried many different ways of talking to myself. I've tried yelling at myself, pleading with myself, speaking to myself with enthusiasm. The way that works the best is speaking to myself calmly, without any doubt or force, almost like a friendly hypnotist.
Do not think of self-coaching as merely "self-talk." The point is not to keep up an endless stream of chatter. You're coaching toward a state of calm rationality. Aim your coaching to produce that end. If you don't know how, ask yourself, "What would make me feel calmer right now?"
Self-coaching consists of commands, reminders, and encouragement. Short sentences. Not a lot of talking. This is how to use self-coaching after you're already feeling a negative emotion. What about prevention?
BEFORE AN EVENT
You can also use self-coaching to prepare for an event. Michael Johnson, the fastest man in the world at the time I'm writing this, coaches himself before every race. He goes over the principles he will apply during his run: "Stay low. Ease up at the turn, etc." He tells himself the best way to run the race, or the particular things he's working on.
If you've ever wondered what's going through their heads when great athletes are getting ready for an event, now you know what one of them does. And you can use the same method. When you have an event coming up and you want to perform at your best, coach yourself right before it. Remind yourself what you want to remember to do, what kind of actions you want to take, and what kind of thoughts you want running through your head.
If everything seems easy and you don't need much self-coaching, you don't have enough challenge! Get a bigger purpose.
What thoughts put the fight in you? What thoughts make you want to try? What thoughts fire you up? When I started promoting my first book, I used to say to myself, The world needs this! It made me feel determined and motivated. Use whatever works.
Another good illustration from the book, In the Heart of the Sea, is about what happens when someone feels determined and motivated. At one point in their amazing journey in the whaleboats, they were totally laid out, down and out, they could hardly move. They were thirsty and hungry and starved. But someone sighted land and all of them at once came alive. They were up and moving and shouting. These are people who were almost dead a few moments ago. Why? Hopelessness and helplessness suck out the soul, leaving but the shales and husks of men. But the possibility of success creates energy and determination. But consider this: Whether you think something is possible or not is largely in your head, and since confidence in the possibility of success makes such an enormous difference, it is vitally crucial that you learn to think in a way that keeps your confidence alive, that keeps you determined and motivated.
Self-coaching is the thing to master. What electrified the men was the thought that they might make it. They weren't on land yet. There might not have been any water there. But moments before, most of them were harboring doubt that they would ever make it home alive. That thought is debilitating — maybe as debilitating as severe dehydration or starvation.
You've got to learn to coach yourself toward confidence and determination and motivation. And as you coach yourself, you'll develop mottos and slogans, pithy phrases that encapsulate a message. Use them. Repeat them often. They are very useful for turning your mind in the right direction.
Coach yourself in a way that gives you confidence. That does NOT mean saying to yourself, Be confident. It means saying what you would say to another to give em confidence: You're good! You know what you're doing. You're competent.
Confidence helps you be motivated. If you feel confident you can accomplish your goal, you can sustain your motivation easier.
I don't know about you, but when I first heard about using positive self-talk to improve my performance, it didn't strike me as particularly earthshaking. It seems like common sense, doesn't it? Obviously, if you talk to yourself in a confident, reassuring, positive way, you will probably perform most tasks better.
But it occurred to me that, as obvious as this seems, I didn't do it. I did not deliberately talk to myself in a confident, reassuring, positive way in order to improve my performance.
So I decided to try it on public speaking, a task I was learning to do at the time. Here's what I found: When I thought about an upcoming speech, I'd get a jolt of adrenaline, and that jolt triggered my mind to start thinking a stream of anxious thoughts: "I should have picked a better topic. They aren't going to like it. Maybe I can get out of it somehow." This was a stream of not only anxious thoughts, but anxiety-provoking thoughts — they made me feel more nervous.
And these thoughts were automatic. I didn't try to think these things. They just seemed to happen all by themselves.
I also found it very easy to take over my own thought-stream. I just interrupted and started talking: "Wait a minute, hold on one minute. It is a good subject to talk about, and at least some of the people in the audience will be interested. It's going to be okay. I'll do fine. I'll prepare well and when I get up there, I'll just relax and have a good time." This made me feel calmer.
It's easy to take over your thoughts and think whatever you want to think. It is like breathing — when people feel stressed, their breathing automatically becomes shallow and high in the chest, and this way of breathing makes them feel more stressed. But once they become aware of it, they can very easily take over their breathing and breathe any way they like.
Self-coaching works the same way. Yes, there may be an automatic thinking style your brain uses when you feel anxious, but you can very easily take over and do it the way you like any time you want. All you need is to be aware of the possibility.
This is good news. It works very well and it is easy to do.
When you want to improve your performance on some task, every time you think about the task, talk to yourself in a confident, reassuring, positive way — especially right before the task. You'll feel better and you'll do better.
And any time you are feeling a negative emotion, deliberately begin talking to yourself calmly, rationally, and logically and your feelings will change in response. Think of it as your left, verbal hemisphere talking to your more emotional right hemisphere.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.