Those who know me well that for much of my working life I have been plagued by self doubt, over thinking and worry - even anxiety. It impacted my work, my experience of work, and often left me feeling depleted. About 15 years ago I decided it was time to change. This led me on a journey of discovery of the best approaches to managing negative thinking and low confidence.
In this workshop I share with you what I have learnt and introduce practical and easy to use strategies which you can start applying today!
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The Happiness Trap Book
The Happiness Trap Course
Hi everyone. And welcome to my podcast. In this podcast. I'm trying to make sense of work. And one of the areas that I'm trying to make sense of is how I could learn to live better with the negative thinking or worry or anxiety that shows up in my working life. And I know shows up for a lot of people. Often one small work event or something that triggers us into a thought can send us off into a constant state of rumination or worry or self doubt. It's something that comes up with coaching clients a lot. They're often talk to me maybe about how they were triggered by an email or overheard somebody talking about them and are now off and really worrying about something. Going as far, sometimes as to describe what they're feeling as anxiety, it can be that we're worried about whether we're good enough at our job, or it can simply be that we're worried about our relationships with our colleagues. I recently asked a group of executives on a workshop, how often they doubted themselves. And everyone in the group said it was at least once a day, but for more than 50% of that group, they were doubting themselves many times a day. And what happens is that something might happen, and this will be very familiar to you. You may say something in a meeting and then think afterwards, oh, why did I say that? Or why did I do that? Or you send an email, you regret, maybe you make a mistake on a report and that's triggered. Often a flight of thoughts, things like, am I good enough to do that? Still? They like me, what's my boss going to say, am I worthy enough to do this job? That's a big one. And what if they find out that of course is the classic imposter syndrome. So as I've already alluded to this type of thinking is happening to most. Some of the time and for some of us a lot more of the time, it happens to both men and women, and it happens across all cultures. We all experience it at some point in our lives in and our working lives. So today I want to explain a bit about why this is happening to us, what the impact is and what we can do about it. Let's start then with the cause. To put it simply our brains evolved as a problem solving machine. So when something triggers us, it goes into problem solving mode. We start looking everywhere for what happened and what we can do about it. Unfortunately for us, it often also looks for the negative. What did we do wrong? What did we say wrong? As I've been saying, it tends to focus on the negative. And there is a good evolutionary reason for this. When were evolving as humans, we had three key tasks, number one, to stay safe and alive. Number two, to learn lessons from what happened to keep us safe and alive. Number three, to remain a part of the group so that we could stay safe and alive. What you're hearing of course now is that there aren't in fact, three main purposes, there's one it's really to stay safe. So let me give you a little bit more depth on each of those areas. Let's start with the problem solving in order for us to stay safe. We are programmed to constantly look out for things to look out for danger, to stay on the alert. And when we do that, we tend to. Predict the worst so that we can avoid things that will hurt us or make us unsafe. The problem is that when we were evolving, those dangers were not happening so often, but in our modern world, dangerous presented to us all of the time as our mind perceives it. Not really in reality, but our mind is constantly saying. Oh, watch out there via the news, fast social media buy things that are happening at work. And because of that, because it's constantly looking for this, what could go wrong? We can end up feeling anxious or worried because this is going on. So no. Alongside this. We also needed to learn from things that happened so that we could remain safe. So for example, when a bear attacked, we survived and our mind needed to work out what it was that kept us safe. What did we do that stopped? For being eaten by the bear, it looked for the lessons learnt. In our modern world we don't seem to stop doing that. We ruminate and ruminate over what we could or should have done, could or should have said whatever it was. If you, for example, say something and a meeting, we can go oh, over and over and over again, looking for what it was. The initial intent of our brain was to learn from. What happens now is that often we just end up in rumination with that inner critic telling us you shouldn't have done that. Alongside this. We also needed to live in small groups in order to be safe. In fact, anthropologists think that we had a maximum number of 150 people in our group, but in reality, this was really much smaller than this. And our job was to be happy and liked and welcomed by this group. Because if we weren't, we would be unsafe. We might be expelled from the group and then we would be out on our own. And there was safety of numbers that. Today, this is a really big problem for us. Our groups just keep getting bigger. We have our family group, our work groups, our friendship groups, social media, church, or temple and so on. And we are expending a huge amount of energy worrying about all of these groups and our minds. Unconsciously to us worrying about being expelled from the group being unsafe. So we're thinking, am I fitting in? Am I good enough leader? Will they reject me? Am I good enough colleague, am I good enough friend? And so we worry about being judged and I would argue in defense. We often then judge. So we're ultimately scared about not fitting in because our mind is telling us that not fitting in is dangerous. So all of these things served us when we were evolving, but then mostly not serving us. Now, of course, they're serving us. If we're in a genuinely. Dangerous situation where our lives or the lives of the people around us or the safety of the people around us are at risk. But whether or not somebody talks to me when I'm in the pantry is not that level of risk, but my mind is not understanding that it's serving up lovely negative messages for me to worry about and ruminate on. Our job is then to learn, to stop listening to the messages, to stop them from hooking us into the emotional responses that they give us to be less gripped by it and to feel released, to get on with our daily lives. We can learn that our minds are looking towards the negative. We can see that and begin to shift it around and look for alternative views. Rick Hanson has this lovely way of describing this, that the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive experience. So the Velcro there is very sticky, the negative experiences stick and the Teflon, the positive experiences just slide off. So we have to work in order to hold on to the positive and to ignore some of the things. Now in our working lives and in our personal lives, these types of experiences can be triggered by a wide range of things. It can be maybe self-doubt or low confidence, as I've said, worrying, if we're up to the job, perfectionism actually can trigger some of this worry and concern. I know for me, I try to get things perfect so that I don't have to worry. And then when it's not perfect, I worry about it not being perfect comparison without this can really trigger us into a negative spiral. We're looking at a colleague and thinking that we're not as good as them. And then we can go on to, uh, you know, problem solving. What do I have to do? How can I be like there, maybe I can't be like, then as I've alluded to making a mistake can trigger us into this rumination. And also, finally being out of our comfort zone can trigger it often when. Moving into a new role or moving into a new situation that can lead to an increase in our negative thinking or worry. This is something I see as a coach. Often, often when people have taken on a new level of responsibility, they suddenly feel that they are not good enough. They're worried about what's going on. And again, this is just the mind to problem solving, looking out for danger. So before we go on and look at what we can do about it, I want to share a little bit about my own story and journey with confidence, negative thinking worry. And I would go as far as to say anxiety. Really for much of my career, I've actually been plagued with this, um, particularly rumination worrying about things, turning them over and over and over in my mind. And it has had a really big impact on me. It's stopped me from putting myself forward for jobs or coaching assignments. Standard. Um, but also I think it was very draining. I would spend so much of my time turning things over in my mind that I often felt very tired and I usually felt that this was disproportionate to how hard. I was working and. All of this was happening, despite me having some good therapy and dealing with personal issues. They were something that I wasn't able to resolve around this anxiety and worry and rumination. So I knew it was affecting me. I knew it was holding me back, but I was a bit stuck on what to do with. So about 15 years ago, I decided to go on a bit of a journey of this. And, um, I think I called it project Jean at the time. Um, and back then, there actually wasn't so much accessible information on how to manage this. There's lots now. And I will signpost some of them. The neuroscience was only just emerging and. Uh, so we had less sort of frameworks to hang things on, but what I very quickly learned from the reading I did was that my thinking patterns had a big impact in it. And that if I could learn to become more aware of what I was thinking to learn to observe it, then I had a much better chance of managing. So the first thing I did was I went on a journey to do that, right. Uh, increasingly became aware of what was the story. My mind was telling myself what were the particular negative thinking patterns that showed up. I began then to build in some of my mindfulness practice. So that I could become aware of it so that I could notice what it was that I was thinking and maybe what I was feeling, and then I could track it back. I mean, one particular thing I did was that if I noticed that I was feeling a bit, either low energy or a bit sad or worried about something, I would pause and track back and think, what was I just thinking? Because often the thinking was having. Um, observed by me and I would go back and think, oh my goodness. For the last half hour, I've been unaware that I have been worrying about something and it's been going and going and now I just feel really depleted and a bit sad. So I practiced, I practiced and practiced and I can honestly say I got better and better at it. I used some of the techniques that I'm going to share with you today. I did some great reading. I understood the neuroscience as it emerged, and I'm constantly learning new things about this. And all of this has really made a significant difference. I know. That I am much less often experiencing negative thinking or self doubt. And when I do, I'm able to live with it, understand it and find a way through it. And so, because of all of that, I feel like I'm living proof that we can do something with. One of the things I learned along this way is the whole role that the amygdala that our amygdala have on us and that they are basically our danger signal in the brain. And in fact, some neuroscientists believe that every single piece of information coming to us from externally, but also from our body, first of all, goes through their amygdala to see if it's dangerous. If it's going so hard, And when that happens, if there is a harm, it sends messages to the brain. Which then sends messages to our hormones, which leaves us into the feeling of not being great, feeling low, whatever it is we feel like. And when I learned that, that made a huge amount of sense to me based on my energy, because I wasn't aware that this was going on and my thinking would go on forever. And then I would be feeling bad. I was in a really bad cycle of amygdala signals, worry, feeling bad, going around and around. So as I said, I learnt all of that and I've really learned to become very aware of it. And I've learned some, some good strategies that mostly work. Of course, I'm human. And there are many, many times it still comes back to haunt me. But I do know now that I know what. So, let me go on and share with you. What are the, some of the things that I've learned to do from all the reading and all the practice and courses I've done to do this, but before I start that, I want to share one of the things that I've learned and that's that we have to come to terms with the nature of life being like this. Modern has got a big idea that we need to be seeking happiness all the time and, and looking for all the positive. In fact, some people have been talking about the idea of toxic positivity, and I really sign up to this. It's important that we accept that the human life, the human condition has highs and lows has challenging experiences. And our work lives, of course have this no successful career is successful without setbacks. At times we can't stop this happening. There are sunny days and stormy days. What we can do though, is we can learn to weather the storms better, and this is what I've done to learn. I'm really keen that we accept that this is a not about looking for perpetual happiness. This is about looking for and learning strategies that can help us to live well through the highs and the lows, the challenges, and the opportunities that come our way. Now for me, step one on this journey actually reflects what I've been describing for myself. I strongly believe that we can't change what we're not aware of that unless we learn to become aware of our own thinking. Our own feelings. We're not actually going to be able to stop them from hooking us, from taking us down into the pit. And this can seem a bit counterintuitive are often our approach. Often what we're taught in fact is to try and push down our thinking and feeling. We're often taught that to let it come up means it will have more power over us. That there's a really lovely metaphor that helps me to think about. If you think about a beach ball sitting on water, and if you try to push that beach ball under the water, it's going to be really hard, but not only that it'll keep popping back up and if it's a light beach ball, it will also roll around and everywhere and get in the way. And this is the same idea with our thoughts and feelings. If we try and push them, then they pop up. They come up in other places and also we can't learn how we're going to deal with it. So a key part of our recovery are learning to be psychologically safe in ourselves, is to learn to notice. Our thinking and feeling and to accept it with self-compassion to be acknowledging that this is part of us, that this is part of the human condition. Then step two is what I would call learning to unhook. When we're worried or anxious or ruminating about something, we're often fused with it. We see it as being a part of our selves, a part of our identity. We become gripped by the feeling and the thoughts that go along with it. And they, we can't seem to stop them. They become part of us. So for example, back to the meeting thing, if I say something in a meeting I regret, then I start to feel worried and anxious about. It then fuses with ideas. Like I'm not good enough. I don't know enough. And then we begin to believe these as fact, and then we go over it and over it and over it again. What we can learn to do is to observe those thoughts and step back for them and see that they are just our mind making up a sort of defensive or protective thought their problem solving the mind is helping us to be safe and we can learn to observe them and see them for what they are. And this is what's called a unhooking or a diffusing strategies, and there are a few different ways of doing this. The, the first one that I found very useful is to write down all the different thoughts that I'm having. And you could even write them in a speech bubble and then just look at them and think, ha how true are they what's going on with that thought? Or are they just things that my mind is saying? And even putting them in a speech bubble makes that really symbolic, because then you can see that it's just a thought that's popping, right? You can then thank your mind for sharing these great problem solving ideas with you and ask it nicely to pause for awhile. This, that might sound a bit silly, but actually it's part of that, letting the thoughts and feelings come up, not pushing them down and then just acknowledging them and saying, thanks mine. I know you're trying to help me. Um, but actually for now, I'd like to set those thoughts aside and move on to the job that I'm doing at hand. Perhaps one of the most helpful strategies that I've used, uh, is, comes from the happiness trap, which I'll talk a bit about in a minute. And in this strategy, you write down the thought that you're having. So it might be, I'm not good enough at public speaking. And then you write in front of that, I know. That I'm having the thought that I'm not good enough at public speaking. And as soon as we do that, we unhook from it. We become detached from the thought we observe it. We see that it's a thought, and then we can begin to think, what can I do about it? There's a couple of other ways of doing this that are a bit more different. If you like them for a bit more creative, you can take your thoughts. I'm no good at public speaking and sing a song to it. You can sing happy birthday to it. You know, another one is sometimes people say, oh, I was so stupid to do that. Sing it to one of your favorite songs and see what happens. Just doing that. Take some of the sting and some of the power of. Another thing you can do is you can name it. So when a group of things come up, maybe you're worried about, uh, being in the team and some things have happened in the team. And you're worried about what, whether the people in the team like you or not, you can give that story a name. So that might be, um, I'm not likable story. And when it comes up, you can say, ah, there's that I'm not likable story had ups again, observer noticing. And allow it to have less power. Something I do pretty consistently is I distract myself because when I'm having this thinking, I'm really gripped by it. And it's like, I can't stop thinking about it. So this can be things like looking at photos of your kids or puppies for him. For me, I play jazz I felt some jazz on Spotify and it. Always it's like a trigger to me. It allows me just to calm down and to begin to notice my surroundings. We can also, um, learn to name the thoughts as a group. And this is a particularly helpful middle of the night strategy. This is something I want to thank Martha Beck again for, um, I'm often thanking Martha Beck for things. What she suggests is that. When you're awake, perhaps in the middle of the night and you're worrying about something and it's going around and around in your head, just name it. I tried this recently myself, so I was like, oh, that's a thought. Hmm. That's a worry. Oh, there's fear popping up high fear. Oh, there's the brain problem solving. Oh, there's fear again. Oh, there's some more worry and so on. And it's amazingly simple and amazingly effective. I was back to sleep in minutes. All of these are. An introduction if you like. And so how we can learn to understand what's happening to us and to be less gripped by it. And I really can't recommend enough the book and the work by Russ Harris, his main book is called the happiness trap and he shares a lot more insights in that book about how we can live well, how we can learn to understand what's happening to. And for it to have less power over us, he also has a very good online course, which you can take, which is full of strategies. It's, uh, uh, not live. So you watch the videos, but I've done one of his courses, extremely good, extremely with value. This is not a paid promotion and all of these, uh, things that he writes about, um, Back to this idea that actually we're always going to have a relationship with negative thinking. It's not going away, but we can learn to live better with it. I also, if you're interested offer a coaching package for people who like to work on this particular topic, and if you're interested in that, you can go via my website, jeanbalfour.com. So here we are, the good news and the bad news, the bad news is that negative thinking is here to stay. But the good news is that we can form a different relationship with it and it can have less power over us. And I know for me, I am in a such a different place. I have a lot more. That I ever had really. And here I am older, I'm 15 years older with more energy. And so I really want to encourage you and wish you well on a journey of living well. And remember we're all in it together.