You know that voice. The voice you hear just as you're starting to go for it — taking the risk, being bold, showing a side of you too often keep hidden. There you are all fired up because you’re making the Extreme move that others don't really get and then suddenly, out of nowhere you hear the voice of “Negative Nelly” telling you: Stoooop! Don’t do it. You’re not qualified. There are 800 things that are going to go wrong. The person that gave you a strange look in that meeting today knows you’re off your rocker and this plan isn’t going to work!
And so on and so on and so on…
Most people who meet me and even some who know me well would be shocked at how much negative self-talk I deal with because my outside words are so super positive. (Yes, I clearly missed my calling as a cheerleader!) Through the research and writing of my book, it was a welcomed discovery to find that I am not alone. Angela Duckworth, psychologist at University of Pennsylvania and world expert on “grit,” told me when I interviewed her about persistence: “I don't think people who persist in things are invulnerable to insecurities. I have a lot of them!” And trust me, Angela is a total badass, so if even she feels insecurities, then I know it can’t be unusual.
I remember one of the very early meetings we had with a potential media partner for Extreme You. It was a couple of months since I'd quit my job, and I was really hoping to build some momentum for this new project. I got to the meeting so fired up, but it was clear from the first thirty seconds that this guy I'd been thinking of as a perfect partner had zero interest. He barely knew who I was and even seemed irritated to be giving his time for a meeting he'd agreed to take!
Total train wreck of a meeting.
I was gutted.
On the way home that night, my mind raced in all directions — worried that my big idea was not so big after all, that giving notice at my job had been a terrible choice, that my lack of income was going to leave me to downsize and move home to New Zealand after my career blew up in my face, that everyone was going to laugh at what an ass I had made of myself by taking this big risk. I could go on and on about the branches of the negativity tree that I climbed that night. And of course I did not sleep well. At all.
I have learned that the voice in my head is one that I need to step outside from to recognize how irrational she is being.
The next morning I told myself: Stop. Breathe. Think for a second. You know “Negative Nelly” all too well, and it’s up to you to get her to SHUT UP! I don’t know if it’s simply age that has helped me, but as the years have gone by, I have learned that the voice in my head is one that I need to step outside from to recognize how irrational she is being. When I manage to do that and I take control of the conversation with her, that’s when I am able to calm myself back down.
On the morning after that sleepless night, I set off on my usual morning run thinking about what was real and useful in those thoughts that had kept me awake. I went through them one by one, asking myself if there was any proof that my ideas were no good or that I was bound to fail. Once I filtered out all the unhelpful voices, I started imagining the possibilities: what if Extreme You really takes off? Now I was getting creative and having fun. I threw in a bit of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” for good measure and by the time I got back from my run, I was punching the air feeling super pumped about the path in front of me. I’d broken up with the negative voice in my head. I was back!
In fact, some of the most successful people in the world struggled with these same sort of voices on the long path to their triumphs.
So, just because you’re feeling that insecurity and hearing that negative self-talk, it doesn’t mean you should listen to it and it certainly doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. In fact, some of the most successful people in the world struggled with these same sort of voices on the long path to their triumphs. Bode Miller, the greatest American alpine skier of all time, and one of my all-time favorite athletes, is someone who moves with extraordinary confidence wherever he goes. I loved when I got to interview him hearing his amazing experience of overcoming negative self-talk:
I broke up with that voice in my head when I was really young. In tennis, my first sport, I was dealing with that voice all the time, constantly nagging at me and telling me shit until I realized that that voice was not me. I was a different part or entity – and that separation really helped me. So whether it was voices in my head or people telling me their opinions about me, I would listen to what they said, filter out what was useful, and beyond that I would categorize it as minutiae – just voices. That took a lot of the emotion away, and it saved me a lot of time and energy.
People spend half their day listening to the same stupid song in their head, listening to it every time. Haven’t you heard that one enough? Stop listening to it, try thinking of something else! There are problems you could solve if you would just stop listening to that song.
Hearing Bode’s story made me realize that I wish I learned a lot sooner in my life that “Negative Nelly” was someone I could break up with. So if you want to know how to break up with the negative voice in your own head, here are my top tips:
Ask yourself: what is the voice saying? You’re going to need the balls to listen — not to push away, not to fight, just to hear it, including the panicky blaming confused parts.
Sort through it and identify the parts. Make a list of what you hear. It might be just a lot of emotion — sometimes all I hear is worry and accusation. Some parts may be practical, thoughts that could be useful in helping you move forward. Note those on your list. That’s what Bode would call the useful bits. And the rest? That’s just worry, what Bode would call that minutiae. A whole lot of energy and movement to no purpose. Take the time to really honestly assess the stuff that is scaring you the most and look at it with realistic glasses. Is it REALLY going to happen and even if it does, is it REALLY going to be that bad?
Harvest your energy and put it toward something purposeful. If you’re worried, angry, upset, fine. Don’t fight it — redirect it into practical effort. Take that energy and do something with it that advances your goals. On the night of the presidential election, when the worry was making me crazy, I started working through my emails. I worked on this blog. I channeled that awful nervous energy back into reaching my Extreme goals.
If you liked this article, pre-order my book Extreme You: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat. for more on success, breaking expectations, and developing and combining your diverse traits — flaws and all — to tap into your potential.