Rebecca is thirty and has a good job working for a global logistics company. She is in a stable relationship with a loving partner. Together they could be described as aspirational. They don’t want children yet and maybe not at all. But they do want a great house in a desirable location and all of the social benefits that accompany such a great lifestyle, so are saving hard to move out of their apartment.
But when she leaves the house and heads to work each day, her thoughts turn dark. The same old negative, self-defeating dialogue is repeated in her head. By the time she arrives at work she is miserable. The same vivacious young woman who was relaxing with friends, enjoying champagne in the sunshine on the Sunday is almost unrecognisable by Monday morning.
Unfortunately, what is happening inside Rebecca’s head is also happening to so many others. What is actually going on here?
Rebecca has fallen victim to the negative self-talk, or misleading brain messages that she receives. She has lost the capacity to interpret and self-regulate the negative messages that her brain sends. We all get these negative thoughts, but a healthy functioning individual has the ability to see these thoughts for what they are – just deceptive nonsense, and quickly dismiss them and move on.
Let’s look at an example. You are driving in traffic and somebody changes lanes unexpectedly, cutting you off and forcing you to hit the brakes. We’ve all had this happen. Our fight/flight auto response system kicks in and helps us to instantly take evasive action and avoid a crash. That’s a good thing. It wasn’t something we even thought about, we just did it. Then maybe, we get mad. Negative thoughts of handing out retribution may flash through our minds. Importantly, most people then take a breath, collect their thoughts and get on with their day. A few however, allow the misleading brain messages to take over. This is how most road rage incidents begin.
So what is it about Rebecca’s situation that has trapped her in this constant negative state?
Rebecca values status very highly. She was previously close to her Manager, who recognised her achievements and gave her regular feedback and positive re-inforcement. But that Manager left and she feels no connection with the new Manager. Worse still, he seems to play favourites, particularly with those in her team who are a little older than her. He goes out of his way to accommodate requests from the mothers in the group, who ask for adjusted start and finish times or part time work because of their children. Every other day, somebody can’t make it in and she has to carry an extra load, unrecognised and unappreciated.
Worse still, one of her colleagues who was due to return from Maternity Leave, was given a pay rise and better hours to ensure the company retained her services. That same week Rebecca asked her Manager for some financial support or time off to support her tertiary studies. He blankly rejected the request, saying that he didn’t see the benefit for the company.
Rebecca has developed a strong negative dialogue, when she thinks about her job. She plays out in her mind a range of potential scenarios that might occur out in the day ahead and catastrophises each one.
In my work on leadership and culture, whether it be with individuals, leaders or teams, there are always elements of this occurring. In our typical corporate culture, the behaviours of avoidance and conformance dominate, so many CEO’s, executives through to front line staff, silently play these negative dialogues in their heads, building resentment towards those around them, until something triggers an explosion or an implosion.
You can take control of the negative self-talk. Re-framing your thoughts is critical. Separating the thought from the considered response is critical. It requires practise. Coaching does help. If practiced for long enough, re-framing and working toward more positive self-dialogue becomes a habit, just like any other habit. Once the new habit is formed, it becomes part of your auto-response mechanism, which is re-assuring. It often requires behavioural or lifestyle change on several fronts to assist in forming positive, disciplined habits, which co-contribute to positive brain messaging.
Rebecca is now practising re-framing and positive self-talk. She is working on ways of having conversations with her Manager that do not trigger threat signals from her brain each time she sees or hears something that she does not like or agree with. It remains a work in progress, but accepting that things had to change and committing to do something about it was half the battle.