My previous article was all about approaching 2020 with a positive attitude: don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get things right today, dust yourself off and start again tomorrow. That way, you won’t let obstacles prevent you from reaching your goals.
But when one of my clients read that article, he asked me a question: “What if the negative voices in your head won’t let you start again tomorrow? What if they’re chattering so hard that you end up self-sabotaging yourself?”
It’s a problem a lot of people are familiar with, and it can have a massive impact on their professional and personal lives. The negative voices in our head can disrupt and sometimes completely derail our progress, make us less effective and less productive, and undermine our health and relationships. Sometimes they can lead to self-sabotage and, in the worst cases, extreme depression.
Even the seemingly most confident and successful people experience negative voices. They often appear just when everything’s going well; you’re on track to accomplish your business goals, you’re sticking to your good habits, you’re feeling like everything’s falling into place. But then, as soon as you think you’ve got all this good stuff nailed, the negative voices mug you from seemingly out of nowhere: “You’re not good enough. Why did you think you could do this? You’re a failure. No-one wants what you’ve got. Don’t embarrass yourself. Give up.”
Negative voices are more than self-doubt, they’re psychic self-harm. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve already achieved, or how capable and accomplished you already are, they can leave you feeling like a deer caught in the headlights.
My client’s story
Client confidentiality is supremely important to me, so I asked for his permission before telling you this. We won’t go into the full details, but here’s a precis:
My client is a writer. He’s published a couple of books, he’s sold a couple of film scripts, and he used to write for television. His career has been a series of stops and starts, and he often feels burned out creatively, so we’ve been working on his goals and motivations, and trying to develop a strategy for how he can finally take things to the next level. It’s been going particularly well over the past few weeks, but then he told me the negative voices were back again. He was at his desk, working on a project, and all of a sudden the voices started bringing up all the failures of his past, telling him what a loser he was, making him doubt everything he’d been happily doing until a few minutes earlier. The voices stopped him dead in his tracks, and by the time he’d called me he’d had almost two days of not being able to accomplish anything. “I’m back to feeling full of doubt and anxiety,” he told me, “I just want to throw everything up in the air because what if the voices are right and I can’t do this anymore?”
Negative voices & burning bridges
In a past session, my client had told me he was the “Go-to guy for burning bridges.” That was something a colleague once called him, and the description stuck.
In other words, when the negative voices appeared, he’d been known to deal with them by completely self-sabotaging what he was doing. That’s bad enough when you’re sabotaging a productive habit like eating a healthier diet or going to the gym but, in a business or personal situation, self-sabotage can be extremely dangerous. It can ruin trust, destroy relationships, create conflict, and set you up as a loose cannon nobody wants to work with.
My client told me that a self-sabotage episode he’d had in 1992 had harmed his reputation so severely that he didn’t sell another script until 1997, and that was with an overseas producer who didn’t know anything about him.
And it all started with negative voices.
What causes negative voices?
Negative voices generally come from places of fear and insecurity. They’re often created by experiences we had many years ago, sometimes as far back as childhood. It’s been suggested that negative voices could be trying to protect us by stopping us from stepping outside our comfort zone and potentially meeting with disaster. It’s even been suggested they can be caused by a fear of success and achieving happiness. The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle said that negative voices deliberately attempt to ruin our chances because the possibility of success and happiness can feel unnerving; “True happiness isn’t what many of us know, it’s not what we expect, and getting what we want can also feel risky. It puts us at the mercy of fate, hope, other people, and the risk of loss.”
Interestingly, Tolle also thinks negative voices might be an indication you’re doing something right; “Mind attacks can also be a sign that you’re thinking more deeply, so the mind is trying to lie to you to protect you. And the mind becomes personal; it knows your vulnerabilities.”
However, whatever their origin, one thing is sure: negative voices hold you back. Keep listening to them, and you’ll find yourself in a mental straitjacket, unable to focus, unable to make decisions, unable to fulfil your human potential.
How can negative voices lead to self-sabotage?
If the voices are loud enough and persistent enough, ‘flight’ rather than ‘fight’ can feel like the best solution. In extreme cases, that can lead to the type of ‘burning bridges’ behaviour that damaged my client’s career. After all, when you’re feeling trapped in a tricky situation (or a relationship), and there seems to be no escape, blowing everything up is a perfect way to ensure you never have to cope with that situation (or the negative voices) again.
It’s something many of us learned when we were kids: shout louder, stamp your foot harder, and you’ll eventually get your way. It’s a knowledge that’s deeply ingrained in our DNA.
But here’s why the self-sabotage impulse is even more hazardous; because it often happens in anger, sometimes as a knee-jerk reaction to something that may seem completely unrelated. In my client’s case, he was annoyed by something one of his colleagues had said before the meeting. He was already upset about where the project was going, and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, which means that when he exploded, he hadn’t given himself time to think clearly and consider the ramifications of what he was doing. Unfortunately, by the time he’d calmed down, things had been said that couldn’t easily be taken back. Twenty years later, when he met one of the producers at a social function, they still couldn’t talk to each other.
How do we stop the negative voices talking?
It’s unlikely that our negative voices will ever entirely go away. Still, one of the most effective ways to deal with them is to remind ourselves that they’re generated from our fear and insecurity and that what they’re telling us isn’t the truth. How we feel inside ourselves, and about ourselves, isn’t the way the outside world sees us. Our negative voices are telling us lies.
In his book The Inside Out Revolution, Michael Neil says, “Our experience of life is created from the inside out via the principles of Mind, Consciousness, and Thought. We’re living in the feeling of our thinking, not the feeling of the world.” In other words, even though we feel our thinking, and how we’re feeling is real, it doesn’t mean that’s how life is. Experience doesn’t come at us from the outside-in, it comes from the inside-out; the more we understand where our experience is coming from, the less frightened we’ll be of it and the more we’ll realise that our negative voices are illusory.
So, when the negative voices arise, remind yourself they’re not real, and then replace them with positive thinking:
“You can’t do this.”
“I’m doing this, and I’m going to reach my goals.”
“You’re a loser.”
“Every moment I move forward, I’m closer to success.”
“No-one believes in you.”
“I believe in me, and when other people see what I’m doing and who I am, they’ll believe in me too.”
As Michael Neill says, it’s a simple psycho-spiritual equation:
Mind + Thought + Consciousness = Reality
Mind + New Thought + Consciousness = New Reality
That might sound a bit New-Agey, but it’s a critical consciousness shift. If you work at it, it’s a highly effective way to disempower negative voices.
How do we avoid self-sabotage?
If you’re managing to silence the negative voices, self-sabotage shouldn’t be a possibility. However, there are practical steps you can take whenever it feels like the pressure is mounting. One of the best ones is to use a variation of Mel Robbins’ Five Second Rule. According to her Rule, if you have the instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within five seconds, or your brain will kill it. Instead, in situations where you might say or do something you’ll regret later, try inverting that Rule so you can suppress the instinct to act. Mentally step back and count slowly from one to ten, giving yourself the chance to clear your mind and see the situation with more clarity.
More constructively, before you place yourself in the environment where an outburst could happen, know what your triggers are and think about the harmful implications of self-sabotaging. If you’re that unhappy, the chances are the other people involved will be having their issues too. Talk to them, discuss how you’re feeling, negotiate a new arrangement, or – if the situation is untenable – agree on an exit strategy so that you can step aside with no bad feelings and your relationships and reputation intact. Or, at least, more intact than they would be if you’d gone nuclear.
Do something different
Where my client was concerned, I also had one other suggestion: stepping away from the desk and doing something entirely different. It’s even better if that can be a physical activity, like doing some stretches, going for a brisk walk, or working out at the gym, because when your body’s moving your mind naturally follows. The voices might stay with you for a while, but the longer you’re focused on doing something else, the quieter they’ll become. In my client’s case, he went to the gym. Two hours later, he was on the right track again, because he said he’d shut down the voices by doing something that positively benefited him and made him feel stronger. When I checked with him before writing this article, he told me he was back at work and that, when the negative voices had briefly threatened to reappear, replacing them with positive thinking had silenced them.
It’s working for him, at least for now. Hopefully, it will work for you too.
If any of this has been useful, and if you’d like to know more about the kind of business coaching I offer (or find out if I could be the perfect coach for you or your team), don’t let negative voices prevent you from getting in touch! You can reach me on 01603 567794 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you think I could help, I’d love to talk with you.