Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?

Are You Your Own Worst Enemy?

Alistair Skellern

Alistair Skellern

Principal Consultant

It’s a strange question. I ask it because having coached leaders and sportspeople over the last 20 years, one thing I’ve become acutely aware of is how many people “get in their own way”.

What do I mean? Well, I’m referring to that voice in your head, your self-talk or internal dialogue. We all do it by the way (talk to ourselves), most of our conversations are in the privacy of our own head! You are probably discussing it with yourself whilst reading this! Perhaps talking to ourselves is not the issue, it’s when we listen to ourselves…

The key then must be what we are saying to ourselves, and indeed, how we are saying it and the impact it is having on us.

During the profound upheaval many have faced globally during the COVID-19 pandemic, greater focus has been brought to bear on the mental wellness of our teams, our colleagues and our loved ones. Quite rightly so. I would add also a focus on our own well-being, in the form of attention to our self-talk.

The latest in neuroscience and psychology suggests that the kind of talk you engage in has a profound impact on the quality of your life.

Quite simply, the language you use to describe your circumstances determines how you see, experience and take part in them, and dramatically affects how you deal with your life.

It shows up in how you confront problems, large or small. Whether you catastrophise situations, or are able to zoom out and view rationally from a distance. In his recent book “Chatter”, psychologist and neuroscientist Ethan Kross, suggests tools and strategies to “tame” our inner-dialogue and “help people resolve the tension between getting caught in the negative thought spirals (catastrophising) and thinking clearly and constructively”.

The techniques he suggests are often simply applied “life-hacks” if you like, to shift our thinking to gain greater control of the conversations we are having with ourselves, controlling the inner-voice.

Whilst the techniques are scientifically validated, it is up to the individual to practice them, and discover which are most effective for them, but in short, the good news is that positive self-talk can dramatically improve mood, increase productivity and grow personal confidence.

So let’s take a look at two key examples.

The first is to use distanced self-talk.

Kross describes experiments whereby half of the participants were asked to view an upsetting memory through their own eyes, the other half from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. The groups were labelled “immersers” and “distancers”.

The immersers got trapped in their emotion and tended to focus on the hurt, leading to yet more negative feelings. The distancers were able to take a broader perspective, think more clearly and emerge with the insights of a third-party observer, often arriving at constructive solutions.

So what is the tool? Use distanced self-talk. Kross identifies the power of using your own name, and second person “you” to refer to yourself. “Alistair, calm down, this is not the end of the world”.

With practice, I have personally found this methodology really useful, combined with the question “What do you want now?”

The second example given is to “engage in mental time travel”.

By imagining how you will feel about your experience in the future, you can gain perspective and understand that the experience is temporary, providing hope! My Mum used to say to me, “one day you will look back at this and laugh”. I guess she was giving me the brain-hack, suggesting the future would be better (and it always was).

Mental time travel provides distance and enables you to broaden your perspective, to gain the realisation your current emotional state is not permanent. 

So are you your own worst enemy? Are you saying things to you, about you that are not useful? Things that no-one else would dream of saying to you? Learning to control your inner-voice is vital. It will enable you to connect to your reality, instead of your emotionally soaked self-talk story about your life. Now wouldn’t that be a fine thing?!

In closing, I will eave you with this thought. As a young man I used to swim competitively. A visiting team from Florida, USA were wearing cool T-Shirts, and written on the back was this: “The Access To Success Is Through The Mind”. I have never forgotten this, and indeed see them as words to live by. The first step is your self-talk.

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The Power of Updating Your Beliefs

The Power of Updating Your Beliefs

Darrell Burberry

Darrell Burberry


Instinctively we like to learn NEW things. You might read this article with the goal of learning something you didn’t know.

If that outcome is achieved you will get a rush of dopamine, the reward chemical. You will feel good and you will have updated your beliefs.

Updated your beliefs? Now, that sounds like a stretch beyond learning. It might suggest that your beliefs are outdated, inaccurate or even wrong.

If I told you that what you believe about the world is wrong, it’s possible that you’d instinctively defend your position and aim to prove that it is me that is wrong.

So, here’s the paradox, we like to learn but we don’t like to change

In particular we don’t like to change our beliefs. 

Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that self-belief, or confidence in our beliefs, is corelated to low competence. Who would believe that? 

Confidence is something we all want.  “If only I was less confident”, said nobody ever!

However, by being less confident we open up to the possibility of learning and updating our beliefs.

his graph shows a rudimentary view of The Dunning-Kruger effect. High confidence equals low competence (far left). Expertise (far right) is good, but rare, and equates to mastery. For example, a Chess Grand Master. There’s room for learning, but their experience and results justify a high level of confidence.

Who thinks it’s good to be average? Well, here it is.  Having an average level of competence (the middle), or being open to learning, results in an average level of confidence.

On the path to mastery this is a belief that will hold you to your humility and keep you learning.

The Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that it’s common to over-estimate our ability, knowledge and understanding of subjects or experiences. This begets confidence and a belief that we know much of what there is to know.

In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the court jester, Touchstone, lectures William, a countryman and minor character, “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

The trouble with ignorance is it can feel like expertise.

Believe in Humility and Curiosity

Whilst many of us would instinctively sign up to being humble and open to learning we often miss blind spots that empower our ignorance. This is because our identity is under threat.

Our identity is a catch all for our beliefs. Politics, religion, ethics, values, democracy, diversity, inclusion and leadership along with many other topics are subjects on which we are likely to have formed beliefs over a period of time.  Are we continually updating those beliefs or are we pretty sure of our position?

The surer we are the more likely it is that we are wrong. Why? Because we have closed the door to learning and changing.

At Arcadia Consulting we train and coach hundreds of leaders every year and in the face of the pandemic we recently launched a research paper and programme solutions called Rebuilding the World’s Confidence

The pandemic has shaken the world and our belief about our health and wellbeing. This has also led to a loss of confidence in economic prosperity and human interaction.

So, we are suggesting that the role of leaders is to help rebuild that confidence. The confidence we want to engender, amongst other things, is optimism and resilience.

This is not the confidence that means we are right. This is confidence aligned to humility and openness to learning. The confidence to update our beliefs and to change the way we lead.

What we know more than ever is that we can’t predict the future and that’s a good thing.  It’s counterintuitive to view uncertainty as a good thing, but the less sure we are the more open we are to change.

Now, that’s an empowering belief to update. 

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