In the second part of her feature on how to work with an inner voice that feeds you negative thoughts, Cathy Ferguson sets a quiz to reveal how self-limiting you are.
Since part one of this two-part feature, our mailbox has been pinging with questions about how to shut down a negative voice once it has become a habit – including that relentless ‘middle-of-the-night’ version.
In part one we talked about how it helps to take a kinder, softer tone and to stay gently curious about what’s going on in your head. Engage with yourself in the way you would engage with a child who is struggling. With compassion. After all, it’s often your ‘inner child’ that’s at the source of the negative talk.
All habits are hard to break, including allowing our unhelpful thoughts to circle. What we know about habits is that constantly doing battle with them just isn’t sustainable. The best way to make change happen is to start doing something different. Something good and helpful. When you feed this new habit you will find that the old one withers on the vine all by itself.
One habit that shrinks a negative or unhelpful inner voice is to start telling better stories about your own life. Change the narrative by telling a story in which you are empowered to act. A version of reality where you hold the pen and you can write what happens next. Because all reality is subjective. It can be experienced only in relation to our own beliefs and values. We emphasise certain points more than others, leave some things out, and put our own particular spin on things.
The fear is real
Stories work to bring about change because our brains respond in a similar way, whether we are just thinking it or actually doing it. If we have fearful thoughts, the body reacts as if the fear is real. If you are watching sport, the neurons in your motor cortex are activated, as if you were hitting the ball yourself. If someone in a movie has a painful emotional experience, your own emotional network lights up. It’s not just psychology, it’s biology.
The way we narrate our lives – the stories we tell about ourselves, our situation, our options – shapes what we become. The thing is, the way we narrate it is driven by our underlying beliefs. Sometimes those underlying beliefs actually get in the way – but they don’t have to, we can change our beliefs anytime we choose.
As our Planet Mindful Editor, Holly, wrote, “change is within our grasp and the only thing holding us back is our self-limiting beliefs”. She’s right. Take our quick quiz below for some instant insight into unhelpful stories you might have bought into.
Put a number on it
Take the quiz for a snapshot of how often you find yourself in a self limiting thoughtscape.
The maximum that it’s possible to score is 130. If you are veering close to that it might be worth getting some support from a GP or therapist – sometimes there is a deeper underlying issue that needs disentangling with a professional.
If you scored less than 50, you are probably managing your inner dialogue pretty well, and wondering what on earth everyone is going on about in this feature!
No one scores zero – if we’re honest, all of us get drawn into limiting beliefs sometimes. Especially
when we’re tired or overwhelmed. The overall score is less important than the specific questions on which you scored highly. Look at the questions where you scored yourself 6 or above.
How can you reframe your thinking and beliefs about that? How can you write a better story there?
Reframing the story
Why do otherwise smart people buy into rubbish stories based on unhelpful beliefs? Because a familiar
story, even if it’s unhelpful, limiting or damaging, can feel comforting. It’s psychologically reassuring to know the script so that we can tell the story effortlessly. We are drawn to what we recognise, but not necessarily what’s good for us.
However, humans have this amazing capacity for reframing and choosing a different path. The following simple exercise will help you to reframe your own self-limiting beliefs. (Write down your answers, it works better that way.)
Think of a real situation in which you have found yourself feeling stuck in a negative story. Describe what happened in the situation in a way that reflects how and why you felt stuck, why it felt impossible for you to influence things. Invite us to collude with you and sympathise with why you were not at fault. Poor you! That
must have been so awful! It was all out of your hands! Try phrases like “I couldn’t…the problem is… they made me… they said they would… someone should have… it’s not fair because…” That sort of vibe.
Now describe exactly the same situation again. Don’t change the facts, but do come at it from a different set of beliefs. Be honest about the role you played in this story – include the things that you did (or didn’t do, but could have done) that influenced how things turned out. No criticism or blame, just a different, but fair version of the story. Put the other side of the story as other characters involved might tell it. Try phrases like “the reality is… I believed… I wanted… my choices were… on balance… I could have…” A more optimistic and grown-up vibe.
The tone and language you will probably have used in version one keeps you stuck in a victim mindset. In version two, by being a bit more accountable and taking ownership, you might find yourself feeling more empowered to do something differently to bring about the changes that you want. Our capacity for reframing is a phenomenal gift. Use that superpower for good!
Chimp versus human
The middle-of-the-night version of the negative inner voice is something of a different beast – literally, accordingly to author and psychiatrist Steve Peters. He describes our having an inner ‘chimp’ that lives alongside our inner ‘human’. While the ‘human’ thinks rationally and can reframe to rewrite the story, the ‘chimp’ doesn’t even know how to hold a pen! The chimp is emotional, reactive, and great at catastrophising.
It’s a great metaphor – because chimps are strong! Not much to be gained by starting to wrestle with it. Guess who stays awake in the night, while the ‘human’ gets in some kip? That’s why those night-time thoughts feel so overwhelming and unstoppable. The only solution is… never engage. A nocturnal chimp is never listening.
I’ve noticed that reciting poetry has a soporific effect – my nocturnal chimp mistakes Daffodils by William Wordsworth for a lullaby if I silently recite that. I learnt it at primary school, so there’s probably something deeper going on – but if it works, it works. Other people swear by meditation before going to sleep. Spiritual leader Eckhart Tolle wisely suggests that to get “out of our heads” (and a pointless conversation with the chimp), we should just direct our attention to the body instead. When the inner chimp kicks off, take a conscious breath and in a gentle, relaxed way just notice the simple ‘aliveness’ in your own body.
For example, what lets us know that our hands are there without touching them or looking at them? There’s a sort of energy, a silent ‘hum’ you can feel if you bring your attention to it. You can’t be listening to the chimp and listening to the buzz of aliveness in your physical body at the same time. It’s a sort of passive reframing, which is really helpful for the middle-of-the night blah blahs.
Psychotherapist and holocaust survivor Victor Frankl wrote an astonishing and life-affirming book called, Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he shared some serious reframing. Imagine the reframe and refocus needed to stay alive in the horror of a Nazi concentration camp?
One piece of advice from that astonishing book has never left me: “Live as if you were living already for the second time – and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now”. Where there is life, there is the capacity to reframe and to write a better story.
Self limiting quiz
How often do you find yourself thinking or feeling the following.
If you answer ‘Never’ give yourself a 0, for ‘Now and then’ give yourself 4, ‘Too often’ give yourself 7 and for ‘Virtually always’ give yourself a score of 10.
- I feel sort of ‘held captive’ by my circumstances, like I’m stuck.
- I tend to forget about looking after my own health and wellbeing.
- I mull over how someone took advantage or let me down, reliving how it felt.
- I tend to procrastinate on confronting the toughest issues I face.
- I feel anxious that what I have to offer is somehow not going to be enough.
- My thinking is drawn more to what I can’t do than what I can do.
- I tend to talk a lot about other people’s weaknesses and mistakes.
- I might complain to myself, but I don’t speak up and tell others what I really feel.
- It feels like it’s beyond me to influence things that matter to me.
- I believe my needs can wait and other people’s needs should take priority.
- I repeatedly come back to and ruminate on my frustrations or anxieties.
- My sense of confusion feels like a reason not to take action.
- I tend to be my own harshest critic.
Add up your score and see what it adds up to out of 130 points.