(We even have a different word for them when they try to)
As human beings, it's natural for us to want to push ourselves to be the best we can be. We set goals, we strive for success, and we work hard to make improvements in our lives. Even when no one on Instagram is watching. However, all too often, our journey towards self-improvement is plagued by self-judgement and old nonsense about all the times we have got it wrong in the past. We often give ourselves such a hard time for not being good enough, for not making enough progress, and for not living up to our own expectations. It’s a work of should where no one is winning.
And you will be unsurprised to learn that this kind of self-judgement is not only unhelpful, it can actually be detrimental to our progress. When we judge ourselves harshly, we create an environment of stress, anxiety and a whole heap of pressure. This, in turn, affects our ability to think and learn, as well as our motivation to keep going.
So, how can we stop this cycle of self-judgement and get curious instead? The key is often to understand how the brain works, and how our thoughts and emotions impact our behaviour.
One of our brain’s automatic processes is commonly known as the "negativity bias.".
Essentially, the negativity bias is a mental mechanism that makes us pay more attention to negative experiences and emotions than positive ones. Whilst I am not a fan of the black and white good / bad binary, it’s this common-looking glass that our brain loves to filter things through. In fact, what it is really doing is filing things as safe or dangerous. This evolved as a way of keeping us safe, as it was more important to be aware of dangers in our environment than to bask in pleasures.
Which has definitely served us well to keep us alive this long, but the problem has grown that this negativity bias has become can be a major roadblock to growth. Our world has sped up way quicker than our brain's fear centre has developed, and your brain has no idea whether the thing being perceived as a threat is that attitude problem from Brian in the office or a sabre tooth tiger. It kicks into fear, and nothing else is getting a look in. When we experience thoughts and emotions, such as self-judgement, they are more likely to stick with us and affect our behaviour because our brains have learnt in the past that working out where the sabre tooth tigers live is VERY important to our survival.
And although it is not something you hear a lot (I hope), we have to work a little bit against evolution consciously. The key is our ability to learn new things and rewire our brains to align more with our values and less with our worries. And we do this by learning to manage our thoughts and emotions.
Now, you might think that sounds both too simple and impossible. Firstly, if you could control your thoughts, you'd be doing that already, but also, we all think our thoughts happen to us, and we have no control over them. Our thoughts DO happen to us (mixed with a massive bit of socialisation, experiences, genetics, programming, etc.), but we also can add new information and reroute the pathways. Think about the frustration you found when you got your last phone and had to learn how to do something differently, and the muscle memory kept doing the old shortcut, so you had to keep correcting things, or an app changed its interface, or heaven forbid, your local shop changes where it keeps the teabags. You change and adapt to what you want to be moving towards all the time by adding a new bit of information and course correcting.
And we can do this with everything, from how we think about our relationships to money, whether we are people pleasers or our body image. It is just a series of thoughts we've decided to be a factual narrative. And they all have the chance of change hidden within them.
Our abilities and intelligence are not fixed. And neither are our attitudes or approaches to life. When we approach challenges with a sense of curiosity and determination instead of fear and self-doubt, there is a little less defensiveness and a little more room for some extra thoughts to sneak in to nudge us back to more of who we want to be.
And that is what this whole game is about trying to assess the situation and keep bringing myself back to a kinder, more compassionate version of myself rather than one wrapped in fear and judgement.
When I allow myself the potential for what could be rather than what should be, the whole world opens up a fraction more.
My new course For The People Pleasers begins this week.
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