It shouldn’t be such a big deal.
You are good at getting some things done. You know this. You may even remind yourself of it at times—especially when you come face to face with the other thing.
You know the one I’m talking about.
The one that makes your stomach tighten and your heart put up walls. The one that is so far off limits it doesn’t usually make it on your self-improvement radar.
That other thing.
Except despite your efforts to lock that part of yourself away, it keeps showing up knocking at the fringes of your consciousness.
It shows up in regret for missed opportunities, in futures that never unfold, and in anxiety that haunts you despite your best efforts to repress it.
But what if there were a way to finally let all that go for good? A way to not have to avoid the thing anymore? To not have to fear or to regret? A way to finally do the thing you were sure you couldn’t do?
Turns out there is.
How You Came to Avoid the Thing
How did the thing come to have so much power over you, anyway?
Maybe there was a traumatic event in your past. Or maybe it was an ordinary event that for whatever reason made an extraordinary impact on you. Maybe you can’t even pin it down to one specific memory.
Truth is, the details of what did or didn’t happen in the past don’t really matter that much.
What matters is how you have come to connect the dots surrounding your story. Even a simple, everyday story like my daughter’s.
How A Simple Everyday Experience Become Powerful
Years ago, I took all six of my children to craft day at the local library. In retrospect this was a mistake. I was naïve and poorly informed.
The public library in our town had been closed for a couple of years due to lack of funding. When it finally reopened, with a brand-new all-volunteer staff, I figured it would make a fun day trip destination for my six children, ages 11 and under. We showed up for an advertised children’s craft activity, only to find half the town had the same idea. I think the library staff was as surprised as we all were at the turnout. They weren’t prepared for the number of children or the range of ages.
What felt like hundreds of children (but was probably closer to 40 or 50) squeezed into a small storage room at the back of the building. It was cramped and uncomfortable. Everyone sat on the floor. Elbows poked elbows. Knees banged into knees. It was hot and poorly ventilated.
Just as I was wondering what I had gotten myself into and scanning the crowded room for an escape path, a volunteer arrived to announce the surprise activity of the day: origami. I felt my heart sink even further. Origami is rarely successful with small children, even under ideal conditions. My children were aged 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and 11. Heaven help us.
The volunteer, who we couldn’t see or hear clearly, demonstrated the steps to making an origami frog. We did our best to follow along. The 11-year-old helped the middle children fold the paper, while I tried to entertain the now-restless and irritable younger siblings. Finally, the older girls managed to create something that resembled a frog.
Success! I was relieved that we could finally get out of there.
But then my daughter touched the frog’s back. It was supposed to jump.
I didn’t care. The kids were sweating and crying. I was frustrated. We had made a good effort under difficult conditions, and I was DONE. But as I shuttled the kids to the car, my oldest daughter said the words that made that experience powerful.
How Your Power is Tied to Your Words
As we walked across the parking lot, my daughter said, “I suck at origami!”
I immediately spun around and answered, “Don’t you talk like that!”
At first, she thought I was referring to the word suck. But I was much more concerned that she was labeling herself and her abilities incorrectly.
Labels have power. We grow into them. The ones we choose to hold onto can come to define us.
The same thing is true for the rest of the dialogue that runs inside our minds.
The truth is, my daughter could have gone home, turned on the air conditioning and a youtube video, and made a frog that jumped—if not the first time, then eventually, with practice. She didn’t suck at origami. One effort at origami had been unsuccessful.
But if she chose to believe instead that she sucked at origami, it would end up becoming true.
Picture her stomach tightening and her heart racing in high school art class years later when her teacher announced the next unit.
Papercrafts? Oh no. I can’t do that.
It’s a simple example, but I bring it up because most of us have an origami frog incident somewhere in our past. In fact, that thing you just can’t do probably started out as some version of an origami frog incident.
Your incident was different. It may have been more or less traumatic. The stakes may have been higher or lower, or the consequences more or less significant. But whatever the differences might be, there is one similarity that outweighs them:
Your actual experience matters much less than how you think about it. Changing your thought patterns is the key to taking back the power that your experience has been stealing from you.
How to Take back Your Power
So much of what we feel and do happens on autopilot. An experience prompts a feeling prompts a reaction in quick, domino-style succession. It can all happen in less than a second. That makes it feel inevitable. But it isn’t.
There is a space in the middle of that domino chain. That space is the key to your power. Once you find it, and own it, you control your own destiny.
The power in that space is what makes you human. Picture a dog. Make it a loving, loyal, friendly pet—the kind of dog who would never bite a person. But put that same dog in extreme physical pain, and all bets are off.
Veterinarians advise that you muzzle an injured animal before trying to transport it or administer emergency first aid—even if it is a loving, loyal, friendly pet who would never bite a person. That’s because dogs bite reflexively. They react to pain.
Humans are the same way. We instinctively lash out when we are in pain—not just physical pain, but emotional pain. ‘The difference is, we have the ability to learn to override that instinct.
We override it by finding the space—even if it is only a fraction of a second worth of space—where thought meets experience. In that space we choose how to interpret the experience, consider short and long term consequences, and craft a response.
I know, I know. There are plenty of times that you already do this. Certain things are just different. The reactions are stronger, faster. Maybe it’s the times the anxiety flows over you in waves that knock you to the ground and threaten to drown you. Or maybe its that one person who triggers you to go all incredible hulk.
It isn’t you. It’s the thing. That thing you absolutely cannot handle.
And that’s okay. Because you are going to become a ninja. You are going to master this, to own it so completely that even the thing is no match for you.
How to Become a Thought Ninja
Even a fourth-degree blackbelt starts out as a beginning martial arts student. At first they don’t have fancy moves, muscle memory, or amazing reflexes. In fact, they are about like every other person walking down the street. The only difference is that they persist.
The same is true for becoming a thought ninja.
You can train yourself to think differently. At first the practice will feel awkward, and you will wonder if it will ever work. You will be tempted to give up. But when you persist, something magical will take place. Your brain will develop new pathways. Your go-to response will become different than it used to be. And that change in processing will transform everything.
Instead of processing experiences in the old way, with fear and negativity, your brain will begin to see things first with optimism, humor, and hope. What used to feel forced and unnatural will become second nature. Best of all, over time, your physiology will come to mirror your thoughts. The physical symptoms that used to hold you back will fade and become manageable.
You will have control of the part of life that previously felt out of control.
Your thought ninja training program has four parts: awareness, emotion, bodily reactions, and thinking errors.
How to Change Your Awareness and Transform Everything
Remember those automatic processes we talked about? The ones that make your reactions seem immediate and inevitable? The first step to disrupting them and rewiring your brain is to notice when one of those processes is taking over.
Doing this is the moment is tough at first. Your reactions move too fast. So let’s start by noticing in retrospect.
Think about a time when the process you want to change took over and prevented you from reaching your goal. Specifically, look for three different parts of that reaction: feelings, physiology, and thoughts.
- What were your subjective feelings? Sad? Afraid? Embarrassed? Something else?
- What was happening with your body? Notice things like muscle tension, heart rate, and breathing.
- What were you thinking? List some of the phrases going through your head.
Each of those three categories provides opportunities for you to disrupt the process that is getting in the way of your goal. Starting now, each day reflect for a few minutes on any times one of the automatic processes took over. Notice what was happening in each of the three categories. Notice which of the strategies I will teach you could have applied. With practice you will find yourself noticing these opportunities in the moment instead of searching for them after the fact. And that is the single most important step in change.
How to Work With Your Feelings to Claim Your Power
Feelings aren’t facts. They are slippery. They come and go and shift from one form to another. And yet they are so powerful. At their worst they can overwhelm your better judgement and hijack your life. At their best they add meaning and beauty, and they provide invaluable guidance to navigating all things interpersonal.
Some people respond to a rush of emotion by shutting it off. It’s a strategy for control that works really well—until the day it doesn’t work anymore. People can suck it up and deal with it until there just isn’t any more room inside. Then the emotion makes its way out. Sometimes it comes in the form of an explosion they didn’t expect and have very little control over. Other times it’s a slow leak of passive aggression that they may not even see for what it is—although their friends and family do.
Other people ride a constant wave of emotion. They don’t want to shut it off because they see the emotion as a part of them—their most authentic self. But because emotions are changeable, the result is a chaotic life that feels chronically out of control.
Your goal is to avoid either of these extremes by meeting your emotions in the middle.
Create a space of acceptance, where you notice what you are feeling, and call it by name. Allow the feeling to run its course. Acknowledge it, without either fighting to suppress it or allowing it to take control of your actions.
It’s a feeling. It deserves to be heard, but it doesn’t get to control your life. When the energy has discharged itself, you can look back and learn from it without giving it the power to interfere with your goals.
Remind yourself: I’m feeling (insert emotion). It’s an emotion. It will pass.
How quickly the feeling passes depends in part on how effectively you work with your body’s physiological response to the emotion.
How to Work with Your Body’s Emotional Response Instead of Against it
Emotion brings physiological effects: things like changes in heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, appetite, and perspiration. In fact, some psychologists think the subjective emotions we feel are a result of the way our brains interpret these physiological changes. Have you ever considered that you might be sad because you cry, rather than the other way around?
Whether or not you agree with that theory, there is one thing you have certainly experienced for yourself:
There are many situations that elicit a physiological response that could be interpreted in more than one way. Is a rush of adrenaline exciting or terrifying? Varying answers explain why some people like amusement parks and motorcycle rides while others don’t, or why some people love the rush that comes with being on stage, and others hate to draw attention to themselves.
Many of us instinctively fight the physiological changes that come with emotion. We stress at the first sign of stress. Our stress reaction amplifies the physical changes even further, and a cycle begins that keeps our bodies on continuous repeat.
There is a better way. When you feel the physical changes linked to emotion coming on, name them. Let yourself feel them, in a way that is present, but slightly detached. Be an interested observer. As you do this, the energy is able to work itself out because you aren’t feeding it.
Unless you’ve had some extensive biofeedback training you probably can’t make your heart stop racing on command. But you can help the experience to wind itself down more quickly and naturally by not letting it scare you. Research says the balance of stress hormones in your body actually shifts when you channel your physical reactions into curiosity, courage, problem solving, and teamwork instead of fear or anger
One of the best ways to channel your physiological responses in healthy ways is to shift your thought patterns.
Claiming the Power of Your Thoughts
Research says one of the most effective ways to shift your mood is to shift the words you use, both out loud and internally. Even small changes make a big difference. That’s why it mattered whether my daughter told herself I suck at origami or my first origami frog didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to.
The first statement feels more discouraging. It’s more likely to shut you down, for three reasons.
- It attributes the setback to something personal. The frog didn’t work because of something about her—she just sucks at origami. It doesn’t take external circumstances into account.
- Second, it frames the problem as something permanent. The second statement is framed to remind her that the situation is temporary—its just a first attempt. The next try could be different.
- Third, it frames the problem as something pervasive. Saying she is not good at origami in general is very different than saying one project didn’t turn out.
Even if you don’t think about these distinctions consciously, your subconscious will grab onto the unspoken implications of your words. They will become true for you.
When you review you day and the times automatic responses took over, notice how often these three things–personal, permanent, and pervasive—come up in your internal and external language. Stop and revise those thoughts. As your mental habits shift, so will your confidence and resilience.
Your New Reality
It seems like you’ve struggled in this area forever. The discouragement is so ingrained it feels like a part of your identity. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.
You have the knowledge to recognize the patterns holding you back.
You notice when that tired old pattern starts up again, and you interrupt it.
You see the emotions and physiological responses that used to overwhelm you for what they are—feelings that will pass. They no longer have the power to dictate your decisions.
You claim your power by carefully choosing language that breathes life and hope into whatever situation life throws at you.
You are strong, confident, and peaceful. You face your fears. You rise to the challenge you just couldn’t bring yourself to tackle.
And you are victorious.
You can read more about using stress in positive ways here.
You can learn about working with your breathing to trigger a calming response in your nervous system here.
You can read more about beating procrastination here.