This is what we know: The top layer of 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 it briefly).
Research has shown if the left hemisphere of a man’s brain is destroyed by a war injury or stroke, 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, on the other hand, but his left hemisphere is still intact, he is capable of putting things into words, but he speaks in a monotone: He has no feeling or emotional expression when he speaks.
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 hold).
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.
When things are going well, that’s great. Emotional feelings of love and happiness are the height of life. But when things are going badly, when you feel negative emotion, it is unpleasant and sometimes difficult to act in your own best interests.
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 influence my feelings just as much as my feelings influence 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.
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. This is where slotras can come in and save the day. You’ve practiced them already (when you didn’t need them), and now that you could really use some sane thoughts, you have them ready made.
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 separated, and one of the boats was captained by Owen 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.
Another good illustration from the book 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 and feeling hopeless.
But someone sighted land and all of them at once came alive! They were up and moving and shouting. These were 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.
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. It is crucial that you think in a way that keeps you determined and motivated.
Your mental habits are the things to master. What electrified the men was the thought that they might make it. But think about it: They weren’t on land yet. There might not have been any fresh 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 coach yourself using slotras — pithy phrases that encapsulate a message.
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 then it occurred to me in mid-scoff 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. In fact I tried not to think them.
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.
I eventually created a slotra that worked better than anything: “I will make them get how important this is.”
It’s easy to take over your thoughts and think whatever you want to think. You might not do it naturally, but it is easy.
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 (or any other negative emotion), 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.
If it is a situation that repeats itself, you can create and practice good slotras just for those situations.
Your state of mind when doing some things is very important. Before sending their salespeople out to cold canvass, sales managers often talk to their people, pumping them up — trying to get them in the right frame of mind before they start.
Canvassing, or cold calling, is going out to sell someone something without an appointment. Starting cold. Just walking in, or knocking on their door uninvited, and trying to sell them. You know how much you dislike being on the receiving end, so you can imagine how difficult the job is and how high the rejection level might be. Sometimes it is worse than rejection. Sometimes it is hostility.
The sales manager doesn’t do anything astonishing to get her salespeople in the right frame of mind. She reminds them of some basic fundamentals: Rejection is part of the process, this is a numbers game, our product is the best they can get at the best price, your job is to turn them on to something good, persistence is the key, and if you are successful, the rewards are high.
By reminding salespeople of these fundamentals right before they go do it, their chances of doing well are greater.
Your frame of mind — what is going through your mind — when you do something, and especially when you begin something, has a large influence on how successfully you do it.
With some deliberate effort, you can get yourself in the right frame of mind before doing something, and slotras can help tremendously.
Read the next chapter: Repetition Sucks
This article was excerpted from the book, Slotralogy: How to Change Your Habits of Thought.