When I was a kid, my parents never really made a big deal about grades. In fact, I can’t recall a single time when they complained, threatened or said anything negative about my performance at school.
I did get good grades, but when I came home with A’s their response was pretty low key. My Mother’s comment was typically something like, “that’s nice, but don’t show the other children because they might feel bad.” And I can still hear my Dad’s voice saying, “I’m very proud of you, but all we ever want is that you do your best.”
But despite my parents encouraging, tolerant attitude, the Voice inside my own head was often harsh. I remember tossing in bed when I was quite small, telling myself that if I didn’t work harder I would fail my math tests.
When I was a teenager, that internal Voice regularly prompted me to keep studying (and moderate my social life). “You’ll flunk!” was a frequent refrain. And that same message echoed in my head through college, grad school and law school. The truth was that if my Voice grew quiet I would find a way to hype it up – I had become dependent on motivating myself with a threatening commentary.
In the working world, for a long time, the messages in my head didn’t change much. Then came a time when I just couldn’t work much harder. I was engaged in a big project, and was traveling from state to state, testifying before commissions and legislatures about the value of small-scale power generation.
Things were moving so quickly that I was never well prepared, and I couldn’t do much about it. In order to offer effective testimony, I needed to sleep well and manage the stress, but my Voice was unrelenting, often keeping me awake.
I finally I realized that I had helped to program the Voice, and it had often been useful, helping me stay at my desk when I’d rather be partying. But while they once had utility, the endless negative messages were undercutting my ability to perform.
So I decided to re-program my internal dialogue. I learned to be alert to the start of the nagging Voice, and to silence the negative messages by repeating mantras along the lines of: “I’m strong, confident and relaxed.”
Now, as a coach, I often notice that clients seem to be tormented by nagging internal messages that once were useful, but now are counter-productive. Are the threats that kept your nose to the grindstone in college still be echoing in your head, even though those negative messages are no longer useful? Once you start to notice your own nagging self-talk, it can be surprisingly easy to change it.