YOUR BRAIN HAS TWO SIDES, called hemispheres,
and they function differently. Your left hemisphere, for example,
deals with language. Your right hemisphere deals with emotions
(I'm oversimplifying here so we can talk about a useful way to
think about your own thoughts).
Research has shown if the left hemisphere
of a man's brain is destroyed by a war injury or stroke, for
example, he is unable to speak. He can feel. He knows what he
wants to say, but he doesn't have the brain machinery to put
it into words.
If his right hemisphere is destroyed, he
is capable of putting things into words, but he speaks in a monotone:
there is no feeling or emotional expression in what he says.
That is a basic understanding of the brain
hemispheres. One side deals with language, reason and logic.
The other side processes emotion (the brains of women are less
compartmentalized than mens' but these basic divisions of hemispheric
strengths still holds).
Now, if we can extrapolate, we come up
with a helpful understanding. The right hemisphere contains emotions,
including worries, fears, irrational depressions, and hurt feelings,
and if you aren't talking to yourself, that's all there is:
A dumb (mute) emotional person.
One of the things I've noticed many times
is that when I feel afraid or depressed, my thoughts are a response
to my feelings. I feel worried, so my thoughts, quite
automatically, contain worried images and words. But when I deliberately
take over my thoughts and think what I want to think
not at the effect of my feelings, but like a responsible
adult talking to an hysterical child I have noticed my
thoughts can effect my feelings just as much as my feelings effect
So I might say to myself, "Hey wait
a minute. It isn't that big of a deal. Even if it turns out badly,
it's not a catastrophe. I can do this." This simple, rational
self-talk usually calms me down. It makes me saner. More logical.
More rational. And my feelings become less negative.
If you've never tried this, I'm sure it
must sound too easy. An effective solution can't possibly be
that simple. And in a way, that's true. There is a trick to it.
Sometimes you have to be firm, as you might with a child throwing
a fit. But it doesn't take practice and it isn't difficult. All
you have to do is start talking sense to yourself.
A DIFFERENT WAY TO THINK
Before I got out of bed this morning, I
decided to concentrate on self-coaching today. When I got up,
Klassy was in a bad mood and she criticized me harshly for something
I had done. I took it in stride. Later that day, she said, "I'm
sorry I said that to you this morning. I was in a bad mood. I
feel bad I was so mean."
But I said, "I've been meaning to
thank you for doing that."
She looked surprised, "Thank
"Yes. I was practicing self-coaching
today and you gave me a great opportunity to practice. One of
the most upsetting things that ever happens to me is when you
talk to me like that, so it was a good challenge for my ability
to coach myself. It's like lifting heavy weights: It makes me
stronger. So it was very helpful to me. Thank you."
She looked stunned.
Do you want to take potentially upsetting
situations and rise above them? Would you like to calm your mind
when you feel anxious? Think about it this way: you've got two
brains. Your right brain is the source of vague worries and fears,
which show up as images rather than words (imagery is more associated
with the right hemisphere). Normally, your left brain picks up
the emotional tone and starts adding words like a narrator of
a documentary film. Your words embellish the feelings, heightening
them and prolonging them. If you aren't paying attention, if
you're just going along with it, you can sink into a lousy state
in no time at all.
But just turn on your language and see
what happens. Take your brain off automatic pilot and start thinking
what you want to think say to yourself what you want
to have going through you mind. Say sane, reasonable, calm, effective
things to yourself, and watch what happens. Your right brain
calms down. You calm down.
Stop playing the narrator and start directing
the film. Be a cause rather than an effect of your
emotional state. When your feelings are negative, they will naturally
alter what you're thinking. You'll automatically think negatively
in response to the feelings. But you can turn it around. Think
calming thoughts deliberately and your feelings will automatically
change in response to your self-talk.
In the book, In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship
Essex, you can read the fascinating true story of a whaling
ship that was deliberately sunk by a whale. After the ship sunk,
the men in the small boats were left adrift in the middle of
the ocean. The three boats were eventually seperated, and one
of the boats was captained by Owne Chase. He gave his men coaching
in how to think about their circumstances. "I reasoned
with them," Chase was later to say, "and told them
that we would not die sooner by keeping our hopes." They
had already seen one of their men, Richard Peterson, die, and
they saw that the loss of hope is basically what killed him.
Almost as soon as he gave up, he died. Owen Chase came up with
all kinds of arguments and thoughts that would help them stay
determined to keep trying and not give up, to keep them from
sinking into hopelessness and despair. What he was doing was
teaching them how to think about their circumstances
teaching them to think calmly and rationally about their circumstances
so their negative feelings didn't take over their thoughts and
send them to the bottom of the ocean. And it worked.
Find out what kind of thinking works best
for you. I've tried many different ways of talking to myself.
I've tried yelling at myself, pleading with myself, speaking
to myself with enthusiasm. The way that works the best is speaking
to myself calmly, without any doubt or force, almost like a friendly
Do not think of self-coaching as merely
"self-talk." The point is not to keep up an endless
stream of chatter. You're coaching toward a state of calm rationality.
Aim your coaching to produce that end. If you don't know how,
ask yourself, "What would make me feel calmer right now?"
Self-coaching consists of commands, reminders,
and encouragement. Short sentences. Not a lot of talking. This
is how to use self-coaching after you're already feeling a negative
emotion. What about prevention?
BEFORE AN EVENT
You can also use self-coaching to prepare
for an event. Michael Johnson, the fastest man in the world at
the time I'm writing this, coaches himself before every race.
He goes over the principles he will apply during his run: "Stay
low. Ease up at the turn, etc." He tells himself the best
way to run the race, or the particular things he's working on.
If you've ever wondered what's going through
their heads when great athletes are getting ready for an event,
now you know what one of them does. And you can use the same
method. When you have an event coming up and you want to perform
at your best, coach yourself right before it. Remind yourself
what you want to remember to do, what kind of actions you want
to take, and what kind of thoughts you want running through your
If everything seems easy and you don't
need much self-coaching, you don't have enough challenge! Get
a bigger purpose.
What thoughts put the fight in you? What
thoughts make you want to try? What thoughts fire you up? When
I started promoting my first book, I used to say to myself, The
world needs this! It made me feel determined and motivated.
Use whatever works.
Another good illustration from the book,
In the Heart of the Sea, is about what happens
when someone feels determined and motivated. At one point in
their amazing journey in the whaleboats, they were totally laid
out, down and out, they could hardly move. They were thirsty
and hungry and starved. But someone sighted land and all of them
at once came alive. They were up and moving and shouting. These
are people who were almost dead a few moments ago. Why? Hopelessness
and helplessness suck out the soul, leaving but the shales and
husks of men. But the possibility of success creates energy and
determination. But consider this: Whether you think something
is possible or not is largely in your head, and since
confidence in the possibility of success makes such an enormous
difference, it is vitally crucial that you learn to think
in a way that keeps your confidence alive, that keeps you determined
Self-coaching is the thing to master. What
electrified the men was the thought that they might make it.
They weren't on land yet. There might not have been any water
there. But moments before, most of them were harboring doubt
that they would ever make it home alive. That thought is debilitating
maybe as debilitating as severe dehydration or starvation.
You've got to learn to coach yourself toward
confidence and determination and motivation. And as you coach
yourself, you'll develop mottos and slogans, pithy phrases that
encapsulate a message. Use them. Repeat them often. They are
very useful for turning your mind in the right direction.
Coach yourself in a way that gives you
confidence. That does NOT mean saying to yourself, Be confident.
It means saying what you would say to another to give em confidence:
You're good! You know what you're doing. You're competent.
Confidence helps you be motivated. If you
feel confident you can accomplish your goal, you can sustain
your motivation easier.
I don't know about you, but when I first
heard about using positive self-talk to improve my performance,
it didn't strike me as particularly earthshaking. It seems like
common sense, doesn't it? Obviously, if you talk to yourself
in a confident, reassuring, positive way, you will probably perform
most tasks better.
But it occurred to me that, as obvious
as this seems, I didn't do it. I did not deliberately
talk to myself in a confident, reassuring, positive way in order
to improve my performance.
So I decided to try it on public speaking,
a task I was learning to do at the time. Here's what I found:
When I thought about an upcoming speech, I'd get a jolt of adrenaline,
and that jolt triggered my mind to start thinking a stream of
anxious thoughts: "I should have picked a better topic.
They aren't going to like it. Maybe I can get out of it somehow."
This was a stream of not only anxious thoughts, but anxiety-provoking
thoughts they made me feel more nervous.
And these thoughts were automatic.
I didn't try to think these things. They just seemed to
happen all by themselves.
I also found it very easy to take over
my own thought-stream. I just interrupted and started talking:
"Wait a minute, hold on one minute. It is a good
subject to talk about, and at least some of the people in the
audience will be interested. It's going to be okay. I'll
do fine. I'll prepare well and when I get up there, I'll just
relax and have a good time." This made me feel calmer.
It's easy to take over your thoughts and
think whatever you want to think. It is like breathing
when people feel stressed, their breathing automatically becomes
shallow and high in the chest, and this way of breathing makes
them feel more stressed. But once they become aware of it, they
can very easily take over their breathing and breathe any way
Self-coaching works the same way. Yes,
there may be an automatic thinking style your brain uses
when you feel anxious, but you can very easily take over and
do it the way you like any time you want. All you need is to
be aware of the possibility.
This is good news. It works very well and
it is easy to do.
When you want to improve your performance
on some task, every time you think about the task, talk to yourself
in a confident, reassuring, positive way especially right
before the task. You'll feel better and you'll do better.
And any time you are feeling a negative
emotion, deliberately begin talking to yourself calmly, rationally,
and logically and your feelings will change in response. Think
of it as your left, verbal hemisphere talking to your
more emotional right hemisphere.
Use your left hemisphere to
calm your right hemisphere.
Deliberately take over your thought-stream and talk sense to
yourself when you're upset.