Head games

“There is always an inner game being played in your mind no matter what outer game you are playing. How aware you are of this game can make the difference between success and failure in the outer game.” -Tim Gallwey

When we learn to pay attention to the conversation that we are constantly having with ourselves, we can change that conversation and create new outcomes. The challenge is that we have been having the same conversations for so long, we have long stopped listening.

I'll have the egg salad - no wait - the corned beef...or maybe....
I'll have a latte. Wait, I always have a latte. I'll have an espresso. No, wait, make that a latte.

One of the reasons for our success as a species is our big brain. Forget what you’ve heard that we only use 10% of our brain; we use all of our brain, we just don’t always use it to our advantage. Our brain is always working perfectly, humming along in the background, guiding us in our decisions based on past experience. It’s what helps keeps us safe, and that’s part of the problem.

Before we developed these big brains, we had a very basic setup whose primary function was to identify which things in our environment were of value and which were a threat. This is known as “fight or flight”. It’s still how our brain still works, except that we’ve got all these higher functions that allow us, through language and emotion, to evaluate things with much greater precision and depth.

From within this rich context of analysis, we make choices that we believe will be of greatest benefit to us, and allow us to avoid awkward or dangerous situations. The problem is that what was of benefit to us in the past, may no longer be of benefit. And those awkward situations we experienced before may have lost all relevance to our current situation.

I use the model of self-talk in many training and coaching-related situations. A common example is in public speaking programs. At some point in the past, a person will have expericienced something unpleasant when speaking in front of a group, or maybe saw it happen to somebody else. There may have been times growing up when someone was told by his or her parents that he or she was “talking nonsense” or was criticized for making a mistake. These kind of experiences teach a person to be careful, to clam up or to try and be perfect. So when an opportunity comes to speak before a group, the brain has evidence going back years to convince us that it’s a bad idea.

When it comes time to speak, most people feel nervous, which is the stress that comes from going against the brain’s better judgment: “Don’t screw this up or you’ll look like an idiot. Don’t blow this like you did last time or you’ll be laughed off the stage. No one’s really interested in what you have to say.” This nervousness manifests itself in shaky hands, dry throat, sweat, stammering and other cues that tells the audience “I am not confident.” We begin to notice the audience’s feedback; yawning, coughing, and silence, which reinforces our brain’s warning, “You don’t know what you’re doing!” In the end, we usually prove ourselves right.

We sabotage ourselves to protect ourselves. We’re afraid of situations that make us look bad. Our brain’s job is to keep us looking good, making choices for us that have proven to be successful in the past and avoiding unproven ones. And this is where we get stuck, unable to move beyond the patterns of the past because our brain is quietly stacking the deck against us. After all, change can be dangerous.

While self-talk is at the heart of our survival, it can be as much a vicious circle as a sweetening one. Fear creates defensiveness, a posture which elevates our fear to better defend ourselves. Confidence grows competence, which inspires greater confidence. There is no escape from self-talk, nor can we ignore the past. What we can do is ask ourselves what we want for the future. A strong enough desire for change can allow us to relate to ourselves from a new perspective and build new self-talk around it.

Think of any situation where you’re not getting desired results. It probably has some history to it, there’s good reason for why you run into this problem, very possibly, it has followed you through many jobs and relationships. This is your self-talk at work, giving you consistent results so that you can prove yourself right about “how the world is” and feel a little better about it, without having to take any significant risks to change things. It’s your self-talk saying, “See, I told you so.”

Ironically, even when we think we are doing things differently, we’re often being the same person we’ve been in the process. We wear a smart suit, create a snappy PowerPoint and rehearse some jokes, but our self-talk is reminding us the whole time that this is merely window dressing. Deep inside, that nagging sense of un-worthiness is still there.

They way I have learned to break out of this is to work backwards through the self-talk model. Since we can’t affect what happens in terms of what things we sense in our daily environment, or have experienced in the past, I start with self-image: how would I like to see myself? Then on to belief: what would this require in terms of my way of thinking? Next is results: what kind of results might help me to create this new way of thinking? Then behavior: what are some different ways of responding that would help me create these results? Next is emotion: what kinds of feelings would help me to take these kinds of actions? And finally judgment: in what other ways could I look at this situation that would help me create these feelings?

Notice that I never confine myself to one “correct” way of judging, feeling, acting or believing, as it gives me more freedom of choice to experiment. I can also count on my self-talk to fight me all the way on this, reminding me that I am just fooling myself; that all my past failures were telling me something for a reason and that to resist is futile. It all comes down to what do you really want?

My fish tale
I’ve become a successful speaker and trainer who got off to a very bad start in this area. One winter when I was in the 1st grade, my friend Stephen Hoffman and I were playing by an icy pond behind his house and I found a huge frozen carp, which at the time I felt would be an excellent subject for show & tell. So I lugged it home and convinced my mom to keep it in the freezer until the next Friday, at which time I dragged it through the snow to school and put it in my locker where it began to thaw. My presentation was supposed to be in the afternoon, but by late morning the custodian came knocking and asked us, “Who has something in their locker stinking up the hallway?” I said that it was probably the fish I brought for show & tell. He then told me to chuck it out, but I protested, saying it was important for my speech. As a compromise, the teacher told me to quicky bring it in.
When I did, it really stunk and everyone was holding their nose. When I told the class, “This is the fish I caught,” Stephen corrected me saying, “It was dead when you found it!” The teacher, Mrs. Stevens had had enough and told me to throw the fish out, well before I had reached the end of my story.
This embarrassment really stayed with me. I felt that the world was conspiring against me as a presenter, and so gave up for a long time. It wasn’t until the 8th grade, when I found out a pretty girl that I secretly admired was auditioning for the school play so I did as well and got a lead part. I got a lot of compliments from people on this performance and began to feel more confident about being on stage, to the point where I was doing Shakespeare in college and even joined the Maine Acting Company for a season.

NLP tells us:

“There is no failure, only feedback.”

“People work perfectly.”

“You can create all the resources you need to be successful.”

In other words, it’s all self-talk. The language we use to define things, makes those things occur in a certain way and leads to certain results. When we consciously choose those definitions, we take ownership for our emotions and behaviors, with much greater control over future results. When we are unaware of our self-talk, it chooses for us, and we repeat the past without fully understanding why.

We respond to our experience, not to reality itself, so what we are creating is based on how we define that experience. This is self-talk; our ever-present voice of reason. Change, however, requires being unreasonable, by defining ourselves in ways that contradict historical evidence. So which voice will win? Like the story of the two dogs fighting in our minds, ultimately, the stronger one is the one we feed the most.