I spend a lot of time thinking about the “Nasty Little Voice” (NLV) that feeds self-judging throughts to my clients (and me). And recently, it occurred to me that:
- Your NLV doesn’t have to sound nasty. It can actually sound quite reasonable, which, in my view, is just plain SNEAKY.
- Your NLV and SLV (Sneaky Little Voice) are actually engaged in a cage fight with an opposing and powerful force called…REALITY!
Before we talk about how to suit up Reality for this grudge match, let’s understand your Sneaky Little Voice:
What Does a Sneaky Little Voice Sound Like?
A client recently told me that his greatest fear about an upcoming speech was,
If I don’t do well, I’m going to embarrass my manager, and I don’t want to do that to her.
That sounds reasonable, right? After all, it could be true that, if he fails, his supervisor might be embarrassed, and some people might think it reflects badly on her.
So my client viewed this thought as a reasonable statement of fact—not as the insidious, undermining self-attack it actually is.
A Sneaky Little Voice is Just a Subtler NLV
What if my client’s fear had been,
If I don’t do well, I’m going to lose my job and everyone is going to hate me.
He would probably have identified that thought as an NLV punch, because it’s
- Global, and
- Not aligned with reality (people rarely lose their jobs, let alone all their friends, over a “bad” speech)
So the comment from your Sneaky Little Voice seems reasonable, while the NLV’s comment doesn’t. But if you look beneath the surface, you’ll see that they’re both designed to do the same thing—which is to make you anxious by highlighting the possibility of failure.
Why, you may wonder, is your brain doing this to you? (After all, it’s not like you need a reminder!)
Well, as close as I can figure, it’s because social anxiety—and a hyper-awareness of danger in our environment—was good for our survival many millions of years ago. The human brain evolved a fight-flight-or-freeze response (and an amygdala to trigger it) to keep us safe.
But nowadays, at a time when survival is much easier for many of us, fight-flight-or-freeze is often a misfire; an old technology run amok.
How can we counter it?
And who can fight back on our behalf?
Reality to the Rescue: My Story
For many years ago, I didn’t sleep well (or much) the night before leading a workshop. I would lie awake, tossing, turning, and reviewing the likely flaws in my plan for the next day; to the point where, when the workshop rolled around, I was too tired to feel anxious about it.
My Sneaky Little Voice was wrecking havoc!
But interestingly, I never realized this was a pattern. Every time it happened, I was sure there were unique reasons why this particular workshop was likely to fail.
Finally, my husband (who wasn’t sleeping well because of me) set me straight, saying,
You’re always like this the night before a workshop, and then it always goes fine. So whatever you’re thinking doesn’t mean anything! Go to sleep!!
His viewpoint was a surprise to me, and this welcome dose of reality was strong enough to KO my SLV.
Ever since, when I get anxious about leading a workshop, or writing a newsletter, or a whole host of other work challenges, I’ve been able to invoke that reality be telling myself,
You’re always like this when you’re working on X, and then everything goes fine. So it’s OK to calm down, because these thoughts don’t mean anything!!
Them’s fighting words (as the old western movies say), and they’re great at knocking out my NLV.
Get Reality Suited Up to Fight for You
Match-ups between your NLV or SLV and Reality are both universal and specific:
- Universal because almost everyone goes through them, and
- Specific because you’ll have to discover your own fighting words, based on your personality, your communications history, and the particular flavor of your LV.
Self-talk (silently talking to yourself) is my go-to for fighting off what I’ve been told is a very virulent NLV. In case this technique also works for you, here are some of the realities that I find useful to murmur in my own ear:
- I’m ready for this
- I’m prepared
- I’ve got this covered
- I’m going to do my best
- Worrying is a waste of time
- Get a grip
- Do your job
- Get out there and help people
- We are not gonna play this!
And while Reality Self-Talk is a great technique for fighting back against your Nasty or Sneaky Little Voice, it’s far from the only one. Some others are to:
- Go for a walk
- Do some yoga
- Do something vigorous
- Talk to a friend
- Invoke your Avatar
- Use affirmations, or
- Escape into a book or music
You can use any technique that’s helped you manage negativity in the past when your NLV or SLV comes calling.
And don’t wait for a big event (like a high-stakes speech or job interview) to fight back against these marauders. Try following a zero-tolerance policy, meaning that you never tolerate the appearance in your brain of thoughts that are trying to knock out your confidence.
Even sneaky, subtle undermining thoughts that begin with…
If you don’t do well on this…
That thought needs to be challenged, even if it’s “just” whispering quietly in the background.
And by challenging it early and often, you’ll learn how to win The Bout in Your Brain.