You know that person who always has something nice to say, even when you told him how you just had the worst day of your life? You spilled out your guts only to receive back some New Age or motivational affirmation about how good always comes from bad. If you are like me, rather than slapping some sense into the man, you quickly walk away shaking you head.
Arguing with a motivational apostle only produces more pronouncements of how the universe is beautiful. He has no choice but to argue because if one of his assertions were to be proven wrong, his house of affirmations would crumble.
The truth about motivational self-talk
A litany of positive statements will produce results—but they’re generally short-lived. They become the rules that guide people who are addicted to them. These repeating support statements affirm how to be and what to do whenever there is any stress. “It could be worse,” comforts you when you feel alone. As a collective, they form a matrix of statements representing belief systems often taken from family or institutions.
But all these platitudes and “rules of engagement” deny the inner and outer reality. We created an industry not only to legitimize this approach, but to give you more affirmations when yours aren’t working any longer. Much of what is pop psychology, the New Age movement and self-help books and seminars drift into nothing more than a more sophisticated set of beliefs and affirmations to keep us from truly experiencing what is actually happening.
Daniel Pink’s new book, To Sell Is Human, does an excellent job of explaining the downside of what he calls “declarative self-talk.” Pink brings in the latest research on self-talk to show that when you question yourself rather than just pump yourself up, you are happier and a better sales person. Pink explains: “Declarative self-talk risks bypassing one’s motivations. Questioning self-talk elicits the reasons for doing something and reminds people that many of those reasons come from within.”
If you are going to be successful over time, in any field that relies on human interaction, you will need to first connect to yourself before you connect to others. The depth of your connection to others in business or in a romantic relationship will never exceed the connection you have with yourself.
It’s a lie
When you attempt to deny what’s happening by telling yourself how it should be, you are lying to yourself. When you are lying to yourself about what you are experiencing, you are setting yourself up to lie to others.
Many years ago I was teaching and setting up research for a nonprofit. It came out that the former executive director was embezzling. The current executive director at the time, a former accountant, hired a Big Eight accounting firm to do an audit. When the audit came back confirming the theft, the former executive director continued to deny everything, as if the audit was a cartoon someone drew up.
What stunned me was how many of the members continued to believe the former executive director. Until I realized something: in his world, he wasn’t lying. Over the years of stealing a little here and a little more there, he had constructed an alternative reality. His self-talk was what he told others. I suspect because their self-talk matched in some way, many continued to believe him.
Constant positive affirmations create disconnects with your body and emotions as much as with reality. Some part of you continues to know there’s something off. This dissonance between the conscious mind and your unconscious mind produces tension, mistrust, not being present and toxicity.
Why motivational talk?
What does someone get from reciting a positive pabulum of self motivational self-talk when it produces negative consequences, and repels others?
We develop this habit as a kid when we had no one else to protect us or comfort us. Our parents couldn’t always be there doing the right thing for us in every moment. So we developed our conscious mind to be our coach, assuring us that we’d be OK.
As our mind became our ally, we increased our skills of self-talk, and we further disassociated from our somatic and emotional experience. Checking out is a natural survival skill; when we can’t fight or flight, we freeze. When we can’t fight off a predator or run from it, we pretend we are dead. This freeze response is as hardwired into us as fight-or-flight.
Unlike other mammals, we have a conscious mind that can step in as a mental contributor of this freeze response when we check out. Rather than focus on the threat, terror, or pain, we focus on what we tell ourselves. As limiting as this strategy may be later in life, it worked when we needed it – we survived.
As we enter our state panic, or even micro-panic, we look for beliefs and words to reassure us. We grab what we saw the adults around us use. Even in quasi-survival situations we aren’t picky. Like the drowning man, we will grab the closest thing we can get our hands on to survive. We don’t see that we are a parroting what others believe and say. We see it as surviving and winning. What might look like the ultimate conspiracy theory of mind control, is just cultural and family imprinting. Unbeknownst to us, we are carrying on a lineage of limiting beliefs and self-talk.
What’s the cost?
If you are replaying your self-talk songs in your head, you aren’t fully experiencing life. Nor are you genuinely connecting to others. Your self-talk may be talking to another’s self-talk, but you aren’t allowing yourself to feel the impact of your interaction. As Daniel Pink writes, the person you are interacting with will remain distant at best. You may debate and argue your points. You may even win. But have you enjoyed your connection? Is it likely that the other person will seek you out for more interaction? Or as Daniel Pink would ask, would that person be likely to seek you out for a later purchase?
I know this dance well. It wasn’t until a few girlfriends hit me over the head with their emotional honesty that I realized what I was doing and its impact. It was as if there were a third person in the relationship: my self-talk. He was there translating, spinning, protecting and filtering my experience and expression. As I look back, it’s amazing these women put up with me long enough so I could get what I was doing.
After my realization I began to see how others also “gift wrapped” who they are with what they told themselves. Over time the gift wrap tears down, revealing a plain shipping box. Whoever is left holding the bare box feels he or she was tricked—after being sold the fancy wrapping with the expectation of a beautiful gift inside, they feel pissed to find a simple box.
The longer you wait to go deeper than the self-talk, the more you have invested in your monologue. Your life of quiet desperation becomes a numb life. Others keep their distance from you. You are left with your affirmations protecting you and comforting you as they always have.
It’s fear of not being in control, being alone without your childhood ally, fear of failure and the past catching up to you that keeps you doing this. Every time you choose to talk to yourself rather than feel or express, you step ever so slightly away from authenticity.
Your body’s physiology, along with your mind, becomes trained to this pattern of using your self-talk to be your confidant. PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) produces the physiology of trauma or stress when that original trauma or stress is no longer there. That self-replicating physiological process links with the self-talk. As soon as your physiology starts to experience a stress response, your self-talk kicks in. You don’t need an external event to initiate the process, the body will do it on its own.
What to do?
Question reality. What you thought was real was often your coping mechanism of survival.
Don’t believe everything you are told. You pick up these voices because there was nothing better. You picked up what others picked up to survive. As Daniel Pink suggests with his “alternative interrogative prospective,” listen for the inherent questions and ask them of yourself. Feel the emotions, look at all the options, do the work required to succeed, take a risk and see failure as learning.
The core tenant of our men’s groups is “take the man deeper.” Every process I create for these groups in some way has that as its purpose. It’s my experience that within each of us are the solutions we need. Others can guide us to become more aware so to find people that encourage you to feel, express and act in ways that are beyond your self-talk. These solutions and supportive relationships have their success in you being open to a deeper awareness and experience.
A man in the group will be working on an issue, then some other man may jump in to give advice (code for “share his self-talk”). Either the man doing his work or another man will remind the advice giver that he’s not taking the man deeper to his own solution. Extinguishing our reliance on our self-talk takes practice. The immediate feedback and modeling of these groups are powerful ways to shift this old pattern.
As you move forward, be it with your partner, at work or in any interaction, feel what is occurring as you do the best you can to speak what is true and stand up and move forward. For men this is crucial to feeling whole.
With Masculine Emotional Intelligence™ I speak about how men can experience and express emotions differently than women. As men we are more focused on action and movement. A man will often need to move as he feels and expresses. One moment he may be overwhelmed by the emotions. As he allows the emotional waves to break he is then able to move and stand back up. If he’s talking to himself he’s not feeling and unable to go through the cycle of full emotional expression returning to a place of balance. A man talking to himself is fighting off emotions to maintain an appearance of balance.
What will questioning and feeling give you?
In the short term it will be scarier. As you stick with it you will see how it gets easier and actually fun. You exchange short-term success for a deeper and more sustainable success of being your own man. You are no longer dependent upon your self-talk to be your confidant or ally. You have real people instead. You have your own acceptance.
You’ll exchange the old self-coaching for more accepting of what you are experiencing. You aren’t necessarily passively accepting what is occurring; it’s that your response to what is occurring becomes authentic and spontaneous. There’s no middle man arbitrating what is felt or expressed.
Over time you will notice through focusing on your experience that you are more relaxed. Old limiting beliefs, emotions and behavioral patterns slowly released. Those skeletons in your closet left, replaced with the sense that you don’t need to be perfect to succeed. You learn that you can survive and succeed because of failure. You’re not fragile.
The Golden Mean
It’s not about feeling all the pain, nor is it about trying to just feel good all the time. It’s about balance. Daniel Pink in his book speaks about Professor Barbara Fredrickson’s research on positivity and what makes people flourish. She discovered that when positive emotions out number negative emotions with a 3 to 1 ratio, you have reached the sweet spot of life.
There is an upper limit. Over 11 to 1, you are at risk of limiting yourself. To use Barbara Fredrickson’s metaphor, your negative emotions are your keel keeping you on course. Simply, your fear warns you. Your anger defends you. And your grief allows you to let go. Barbara Fredrickson provides a free two minute test to get you your own ratio.
It’s your ability to let go of your self-talk and become open that sets up the positive emotions. Our experience and her research show it’s not the big positive emotions that sustain happiness; it’s the little appreciations that compile to replace surviving with pleasure.
Don’t talk that self-talk. Walk the risky openness of life.
Question your own authority as you go deeper into your own experience of feeling and acting. It’s not just letting go of your favorite affirmations, it’s also filling that space with what life brings you. That also means being more congruent with what’s happening and what you are expressing. As Daniel Pink points out, that congruency will be your best tool in selling whatever you are selling. Your relationship with another is a mirror of your relationship with yourself.
Find others that are willing to travel this journey. Together you can support each other in being the men you dreamt of being. Your courage to live a truthful life will open others. When you show them it’s safe to be open, they will open.