Some days are just more hectic than others. This morning it seemed impossible to accomplish the basic to-dos on my list and get out the door without being late, which makes me frantic and irritable and snappish. I grumble to myself, “I have too much to do” and “there is too little time,” which only heightens my frazzled state. Every sound becomes tedious, I become snarly, and the frustration bleeds into those around me.
The language we use to describe our situations (and ourselves) to ourselves has a profound effect on our emotional experience. This morning I tried to choose instead to say, “There is so much I want to do” and focused on being grateful that I have so many contributions I can make to the world. I reminded myself that the consequences of being five minutes late were surely not worth the negative experience I was making myself and those with me endure. I could feel the tension leave my body when I made this shift. Paradoxically, when I don’t rush, I find that everything moves more smoothly and quickly.
We are complex creatures. Language and mental pictures are essential elements of our intelligence as human beings and they shape the way we think. How we think in turn impacts how we feel. Thus, knowing how to shape how we think (meta-cognition, or thinking about thinking) has the potential to allow us to dramatically alter our life experience. We need to learn to frame our experiences for ourselves in ways that encourage us to be positive and adaptive. Are you “throwing in the towel” when something doesn’t work out? Or are you “putting this down and coming back at a better time”?
Our inner dialog becomes especially powerful when we are talking to ourselves about our capabilities. There is some interesting research to back up the idea that what we believe to be true about ourselves can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In one such study, researchers found that among a group of new accountants, those who had greater self-efficacy (belief in their own ability) had greater documented job performance compared to those with lower levels of self-efficacy – and that further, belief in one’s ability was a greater predictor of performance than was actual ability.
The good news is that our self-beliefs are quite malleable. In another study, researchers primed a group of Asian women with two stereotypes – being a woman (and therefore not good at math), and being Asian (and therefore good at math). They found that in the same women, scores varied as a function of the “stereotype threat.” In the first testing, women scored significantly lower than they did on the second testing.
The successful person therefore minds their inner dialogue so that it coaches them to achieve versus mocks their failures. Focusing on your strengths and what you have going for you quite literally can enhance your performance compared to focusing on your anxieties and fears about failure. While wisdom also demands that you be realistic about your weaknesses, focusing on them to the detriment of your strengths can hobble you, limiting your potential.
The same also goes for the way we think about and what we say to others. Robert Rosenthal had conducted work demonstrating the Pygmalion effect, in which children of teachers who were told that they were particularly gifted – despite being constrained from actually treating them differently – actually out-performed their peers on achievement tests. At the other end of the lifespan continuum, researchers showed that merely reminding elderly people that cognition generally decreases with age caused them to perform worse on memory tests compared to people who had no such reminder. People are determinedly human at work as well as in the lab – managers who believe that people work because you pay them tend to have employees who require constant oversight, whereas managers who believe people work for intrinsic motivations tend to have employees who work hard for the inherent satisfactions they find in it.
So whether you want to prime yourself or others for performance and success, mind your mind and mind your tongue. Remember that you are in charge of your thoughts, and monitor your inner voice for non-supportive chatter. Self-awareness is the first step toward self-mastery, which is the flywheel for growth. Cultivate and convey a belief in your own and others’ ability to grow and change, that they may learn to believe it as well.
“He who would be useful, strong, and happy must cease to be a passive receptacle for the negative, beggarly, and impure streams of thought; and as a wise householder commands his servants and invites his guests, so must he learn to command his desires and to say, with authority, what thoughts he shall admit into the mansion of his soul.” –Allen James