Editing Our Self-Limiting Thoughts

August 2, 2020 | Leadership & Management | Written by Mohamed Soliman

Do you notice yourself doing one mistake and going into a spiral of “my boss will place it in my performance profile and this might affect my next promotion which will affect my salary and my career which will…..?”

You are not alone. We all have internal critical voices that both push us to become better but also could hinder our personal development. The critical narrative keeps running in the background noise as random thoughts. They hold us back from achieving our individual or career objectives. Sometimes we do not even know where these narratives come from. They could stem from past experiences, the language we use, or the language people around use. We are, however, not helpless about these repetitive negative thoughts. Here, I will share with you one way to use language to reframe our inner voices.

One of the most common barriers to accepting a new reality or challenging ourselves is the language that we use in our subconscious internal dialogue. Why? Because, for the most part, we are not even aware of the language we use to label our thoughts. Words influence our view of the world, both positively and negatively. So much confidence, self-esteem, and motivation can be truly limited by the language embedded in the thoughts of the critical narrative running subconsciously in our minds. For example, our internal monologue might whisper “I have not done much today” or “There is no chance I will find a similar job to the one I lost in this tough economy.” With time, such self-limiting thoughts become a “belief,” information that we start to see as truth or facts.

Is there a piece of evidence that our thoughts can be shaped by language? The answer is yes. It comes from the work of Edward Sapir in 1929 which was then expanded upon by Benjamin Whorf. Known as the Sapir-Whorf hypotheses, the theory provided evidence that language directly affects our thoughts. Their work – albeit opposed by other language scientists – proved that the language we use deeply shapes our experience and understanding of life, touching all aspects from our perception of reality to the structure of our self-identity. This notion might come across as counterintuitive to many readers of this piece. I would not be surprised if you felt skeptical about it. I certainly was unsure what to make out of Sapir-Whorf’s work and their linguistic relativism. Yet, reading more deeply about the interconnection between language and human psychology, I was amazed how negative words and language could – subconsciously or unconsciously - turn into negative core beliefs without us even realizing the origin or the evidence that supports these core negative thoughts. For example, you might feel certain that you are a victim of a boss or a partner. The more your internal critical voice label them as “narcissist” and label you are a “victim,” the more you will feel helpless … until the same “narcissist” boss or partner surprise you with a selfless, generous act that you would have never thought that this ******* will do for you. This is just one example of the many mental constructs that we run in the background. Many of these negative-word-made constructs are self-sabotaging.

Now, is there a way to use language as a tool to reframe our internal critical voice into a healthier, realistic one before unconscious thoughts become negative, self-limiting beliefs? Try this four-step guide that is based on the work of many years of research in the fields of cognitive and behavioral psychology.

1. Catch your specific internal dialogue on a tape or a paper: This is the most important step. Use your smartphone recorder. Dictate your negative thought on an app. Write it down. Use whichever method that works fast for you. If this means you take a brief bathroom break at home or work to catch your thought, then take a quick trip to the restroom and write/record/dictate your thought. Some of these thoughts might be so familiar such as “I do not fit with this work environment,” “my partner is not as interesting as they used to be,” “I can’t make a single mistake in this report or I will be fired,” or “there is no point in trying; I have done this many times in the past and it did not work.”

The main barrier here for many is honesty with yourself. As Richard Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” Remind yourself that no one else is watching or listening to you recording your inner voice except you – especially in the bathroom!

2. Replaceverbally or in writingthe specific negative thought(s) with their opposite: even if you are not convinced the that opposite idea is true! For example, write down “I can do better in …,” “It won’t be good to make a mistake in … project but I won’t be fired because of one mistake,” “I appreciate my partner as who they are now, not as who they were when I met them years ago,” or “I might need more time to know the work culture and key players and I will be better at understanding the work norms with time” Make use of the effect of language that has on our thinking - linguistic relativism - to shape your thoughts rather than trying to change your thoughts first and then using the language as a vehicle to express them. It is challenging to uproot self-critical thoughts without replacing the language of your internal critical self. Expressing a specific, opposite positive belief in writing or verbally might not feel real in the beginning. With time and repetition, it will sink in. The more specific and rationale the counter positive belief is, the more you will buy in it.

3. Look for evidence that supports your new positive belief: This is the second hardest step – the hardest is catching your internal critical thought that keeps running in the background without you even realizing it exists. At this stage, you might feel that the new belief is fake, untrue, and you can’t buy-in. This is normal. It is part of the process. You might need to focus on the good aspect that supports the new positive thought. Is not that a form of cognitive bias? Yes, it is. And let it be! You are not in a process of making decisions - where we would try to avoid cognitive biases such as false optimism or confirmation. You are in the process of building a new language that will help you control your inner critical voice.

For example, if the inner voice says “I won’t be able to handle this amount of work in such a short time,” remind yourself of a specific time when, for example, you handled the hassle of moving to a new place within a short time frame and you managed to cram many things in a short time. “I managed to move to X in Y days. I can do this one too.” You could argue that this memory falls under the category of “selection bias:” you selected a memory that emphasized your stamina and time management and ignored the many where it did not work. So what? This incident is a fact; you are not making it up; it is a true memory; it does not involve judging anyone else but you. And it uses a positive language that will change a specific repetitive negative thought into a positive one. You do not need to feel guilty about using your innate biases to help you reframe your own internal critical voice. The goal here is to look for and embrace true, factual evidence that supports a positive thought and write it in a language that resonates with you.

4. Post visual reminders of your new positive language: Write your new (specific) positive thought in a big font on sticky notes or flashcards. Post them in areas that you will not miss reading them. It could be inside your car, on your bathroom mirror, near your bed, or on your keyboard. Read them in a voice that you could hear. Change them frequently to the new positive statement when you catch a new negative train of thoughts. The more specific your language about the situation, the more impactful it will be. Think of it as a fun, ongoing process where you use language as a tool to rewire your thoughts in a way that will boost your self-confidence.

Our internal voice runs non-stop – even when we are sleeping. We might not be aware of how it shapes our decisions and actions, but it certainly does. The work by Sapir and Whorf showed that the language we use to describe ourselves and our environment truly shapes the way we perceive and see the world. Hence, it is not surprising that changing the words we use to describe a thought can change the way we perceive a specific situation in a way that is authentic and supportive. And this will change our inner critical voice is a more self-compassionate one. Language is not a mere vehicle of thoughts; it can shape our thoughts.

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If you are interested in connecting with me, please book a time on my calendar on my website www.drsoliman.com. I would love to hear your thoughts!