Do you ever find yourself arriving to work and immediately feeling irritated by the first person you talk to or overwhelmed by the the first problem that comes up? Do you feel like these interactions are out of your control AND they end up setting the tone for your day?
When we start to open ourselves to the idea – to the dream – that life could be more fulfilling, that you could finally find a balance that allow you to do what you really want to do, it can be especially disheartening to encounter situations like this.
It’s my hope that today’s post will give you the tools you need to start to see change here.
Your work is deeply entangled in human relationships. Whether you work with a team or you spend your days guiding others, your ability to connect with people in a positive way can make or break your own sense of well-being.
The research I’ve done into human connection and performance has brought me to a surprising conclusion: you need to talk to yourself more.
But Alisa, I already talk to myself constantly! I feel like a crazy person!
I know! That’s what makes this step so easy. We talk to ourselves all. the. time. There’s a pretty large deviation between estimates of how many words we say to ourselves per day (I’ve seen estimates ranging from 12K to 50K) but suffice it to say it’s always happening. See, it’s not just you.
You cannot possibly account for every word you say to yourself. However, knowing that this is happening and steadily increasing your awareness of your default self-talk can increase your capability during interactions with other people throughout the day.
What kinds of things do we want to know about your self-talk?
- What are the oft-repeated scripts you say/think about yourself?
- What is your view of time?
- How do you rate your priorities?
- What’s your reaction to obstacles?
- What stories do you tell yourself about your co-workers or the people you serve?
Our thoughts are capable of putting us into a stressed state – and that can end up cutting us off from the parts of our brain that help us accurately view + interpret the world around us. All throughout the day your brain is relying on pre-established habits. You’re on autopilot. And that includes what you say to yourself and the pictures your paint of people.
Without realizing it, you could be getting frustrated with a co-worker who is asking questions during a meeting because your brain is going off of the memory. Like when your talkative brother made you late for school. Your brain has trained your body to get anxious + feisty when something outside of your control takes more time than you were expecting.
The actual origin of the habit isn’t important. What IS important is recognizing the brain’s ability to induce stress by superimposing an alternate reality without our realizing it.
We live our lives through mental models.
Our survival-focused brain builds these models as we go through life to strengthen its cause-effect analysis and thus increase the likelihood of survival. In our modern world, our stress response tends to get initiated unnecessarily. Take the above example of being late for school. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have established habits of being in certain places on time because losing track of the tribe could mean death. Isolation was not a good thing. So the brain adapted a system in which it releases neurochemicals like serotonin and oxytocin to motivate us to behave appropriately and maintain our relationships.
We establish these habits as children – like all mammals, we are pretty helpless on our own when we first start out. And humans take the longest to develop to full maturity (like 3 decades, people!).
My own kids regularly voice their fears of me forgetting them or leaving them behind when we are preparing to leave the house. That is their survival brain urging them to stay close to me because being alone equals vulnerability. That is their current mental model. I even have my own here – an anxiety about turning all the lights off when my husband isn’t home. I don’t want to be in the dark – or even go to sleep – when he is away. My brain has a notion that being by myself is unsafe.
Developing the capability to recognize these mental models allows us to modify them as time goes on and we have more information or greater skill. I would expect my children, right now at 2 + 4 years old, to have anxiety about going to bed without me home but as they get older I would try to help them start to process through their fears so they can actively modify their mental models. This intentional practice allows them to alter their brain’s reaction to being alone under certain circumstances. And to start to distinguish between the kind of “alone” that is safe versus an unnecessary vulnerability.
Getting in the habit of actively telling yourself stories can help you to do the same. You can begin to rewrite or expand your mental models of the world around you and thus avoid relationship-degrading behaviors. Like snapping at your husband for taking the last chicken nugget because you grew up with a big brother who always ate all the food. Just a hypothetical situation, of course.
Why will this help your relationships? Because the active building of your mental models will help you stay more present in your day, intaking data that is relevant to THIS moment rather than reacting based on data that was relevant last week – or 10 years ago. You are a different person with new understandings of the world and ever-expanding capability. Your models should grow with you.
Finally, this storytelling does another thing – it opens you up for empathy.
For example, when a person yawns, we are not simply mimicking their behavior when we yawn too. The stimulus travels through our mirror neurons down to the limbic + brain stem regions of the brain. We simulate emotionally + physiologically what that other person is feeling. We yawn. As the message travels back up to our prefrontal cortex, we are able to anticipate the needs of this other person and act accordingly. We know how they feel. We can relate. That is empathy.
If you’re lost in your own world of passive reactions, you miss the opportunity to connect with the people around you. Empathy meets the needs we all have to be known and to interact socially. You’re increasing your own sense of fulfillment simply because you’re tackling life alongside other people, cooperatively.
It’s time to take action.
I want you to comment below with one of the areas of self-talk that you are going to start observing. Then, I want you to take out a piece of paper or open a doc on your computer and take some notes on what you already know about your self-talk. Or what situations you continue to see yourself overreact in or experience degrading relationships. What assumptions do you see yourself making?
Then, set an alarm on your phone for a few times throughout the day as a prompt to tune back into the stories you are telling yourself.