One of my clients - we’ll call her Lisa - felt deep anxiety whenever she had a meeting with one particular person. Each time a meeting with Bob came nearer, she’d feel deep foreboding and dread for what was to come. As we dug deeper into the root causes for Lisa’s dread, one clarifying theme came out: the negative voices of doubt in her mind were louder than her expertise, her professional viewpoint, and all her other champions combined.
After acknowledging this, Lisa had one very big question, “How do I quiet all these terrible thoughts in my mind?” We’ve all been there - faced with a room full of people who we have to prove ourselves to. Or looking at a new initiative or responsibility outside our comfort zone. Or even in the darkness of night, when our brain won’t be quiet… These are the moments when the chorus of negative voices turns up to eleven and thinking clearly becomes impossible.
Quieting these negative voices is a personal journey that involves trying out different methods and seeing what works the best. For Lisa, she went through a trial-and-error process and finally landed on a few key tricks that brought forth her internal champion to get her through those meetings with Bob.
For the rest of us, here are some great places to start. As you read this list of 9 great strategies to quiet your chatter, consider which resonate with you the most and when you might try them. For some of them you’ll think “There’s no way I’m ever doing that.” which is completely fine! For the others that sound more intriguing, play with them. Try them out to see which deserves a spot in your personal toolbox of self-management skills.
1) Personify Your Negative Voice:
My friend Sharon has named hers “Gladys”. Gladys is an aging smoker who wears mu-mus and speaks in a shrill Long Island accent. (No shade, Long Islanders!) When Gladys starts to get loud with thoughts and opinions, Sharon has rewired her brain to communicate these thoughts in Gladys’ shrill, crackly voice so Sharon can retort. “Simmer down, Gladys!”. Or “Gladys, I hear you speaking your nonsense. Take that somewhere else!”. Given that Sharon is also from New York, I imagine that some of these interactions involve colorful four-letter words. And it works for her! The act of giving your negative voice(s) a specific name, tone, and visual identify helps to make it a character rather than a truth. What’s the name of yours?
2) Time Travel:
My client Steve finds that thinking of himself in the future, far beyond the current moment of anxiety and doubt. He picks a point in time in the future - it could be 6 months or it could be 2 years - and asks himself “How will I see this situation then?” Propelling himself forward allows for his brain to think objectively about the truths and realities of what he’s feeling in the now.
3) Using the Third Person:
In 2014, Ethan Kross ran a study at the University of Michigan about how speaking about yourself in the third person helps manage stressful situations and improves performance. He asked participants to discuss their feelings about an upcoming event - a public speaking assignment - using either first person (“I” or “me) or using third person pronouns (“she”, “he”, or “they”). In his results, he found that the participants who externalized in the third person consistently presented with more confidence than their counterparts. His conclusion is that the third person narrative “enhances people’s ability to regulate their thoughts, feelings and behavior under social stress… and leads them to appraise social-anxiety-provoking events in more challenging and less threatening terms.” It’s a great opportunity to visualize an upcoming situation, but do it using yourself in the third person. (“Heidi writes her blog with speed and efficacy…”)
Before each of his Board meetings, my client Scott, the COO of a technology company, takes time in the morning to ride his stationary bike for 60 minutes. “It clears my head.” He says, “And it gives me a sense of control and structure.” Engaging in these routines and rituals is a grounding process that helps us feel focused and ready. Whether you’re a tennis fan or not, watching tennis champion Rafa Nadal affix his two (always 2) water bottles is a lesson in rituality. Says Nadal, “I repeat the sequence, every time, before a match begins, and at every break between games, until a match is over. I sip from one bottle, and then from another. And then I put the two bottles down at my feet, in front of my chair to my left, one neatly behind the other, diagonally aimed at the court. Some call it superstition, but it’s not. If it were superstition, why would I keep doing the same thing over and over whether I win or lose? It’s a way of placing myself in a match, ordering my surroundings to match the order I seek in my head.” Thinking through how you place yourself in a match and ordering your surroundings is a worthwhile consideration.
5) Deep Breathing:
We’re used to being told to “take a deep breath” when we’re stressed, but no one ever really tells us why. The physiological response in our body when we engage in deep breathing is amazing. A deep breath through the nose fills our lower lungs and engages nerve receptors in our olfactory system and our diaphragm that tells the brain: “EVERYTHING IS OKAY”. Instant calm. Oxygen flows easier to our brain to help us think clearly and triggers our parasympathetic nervous system to counter any fight or flight. Those breaths also regulate our heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle relaxation, all of which help to lower the stress hormones coursing through our body. The practice of square breathing has been proven to reduce stress and improve thinking. To give this a go, inhale gently for the count of 4, at the top of the breath hold for a count of 4, gently exhale for a count of 4, and then pause at the bottom of the breath for 4. Repeat 3-4 times or for as long as you’d like.
6) Nature Break:
“Nature is Healing” has become a bit of a meme/joke - but the basis of it is real. Stepping outside provides a respite from the constant churn of information in our offices and on our screens. It allows the brain to relax and recharge, easing cognitive fatigue and information overload. Once I was on a phone call with a client who was going through a particularly difficult time at work and was feeling deeply overwhelmed. I asked her if she’d be willing to take me outside on a walk, and so she called me from the parklet outside her office. The conversation that followed was dramatically different from the one within the four walls of her office. She was able to think clearer, to replenish her mental resources, and to focus her eyes on something that was not her computer screen, her desk, or the people walking past her office.
7) Personal Mantra:
Finding a phrase or mantra that resonates with you in moments of negative thinking is a journey in and of itself. There are plenty of phrases out there - a quick google of “positive thinking mantra” yields endless blogs - and finding your right mantra takes playful experimentation. You could try a new one every week, using a sticky note affixed to your computer as a reminder. Or maybe you’re feeling adventurous enough to try a new one every day? Whatever your journey, once that mantra sticks it’s a useful way to rewire your brain to repeat it when the negative thoughts creep in. A colleague of mine who is a member of the Supreme Court Bar has the keep-things-in-perspective phrase “It’s not a kidney.” A former executive client finds great solace in Thich Nhat Hanh’s mantra “I Have Arrived, I Am Home”. My favorite reminder is “Be brave enough to be bad at something new.” The benefit of finding one that sticks is that it’s easy to remember and to play back in the times you need it.
8) What Would You Say To A Friend?
If this were one of your favorite friends sharing their negative self-talk, how would you respond to them? What words would you use and what advice would you give? Sometimes the act of stepping outside yourself and making it about a third person helps to clarify in your mind the right words for yourself. So whenever the negative thoughts creep in, your words for your friend can start to overwrite those thoughts.
9) Put It Away:
At times, those negative thoughts might be so overwhelming that they need to be put away to unpack at a later date. Visualize yourself taking that thought and putting it in a box (Or a jar. Or a treasure chest. Or in the pages of a book.). Then visualize the act of putting that object on a shelf somewhere. And know that it’s contained but accessible whenever you choose to get to it. Maybe with a therapist or a coach or a dear friend. The key to this is allowing yourself to let go of those thoughts for the time being, until you’re ready for them again.
This list is long, and some of these might resonate while others don’t. The truth is that we all have 2-3 that serve us well, maybe even in combination with each other. Choose your own adventure and practice, practice, practice.
You are your best self.