For many leaders, the greatest impediment to success is one's own self-doubt.
If you want to improve your leadership, it's vital to cultivate a healthy mindset and deal to any self-limiting thoughts as they arise.
That negative internal voice is often loudest when facing the greatest opportunity and challenge, and can stand in the way of achieving your full potential.
The good news? Even the most successful leaders sometimes experience negative self-talk, and there are many effective ways to deal with that unhelpful voice in your head.
What are self-limiting thoughts?
Humans’ ability to imagine ‘what might be’ has played a powerful role in our success as a species. However, as with all strengths, it comes with some unhelpful side-effects, and self-limiting thoughts are an example of these.
Anyone with a normal, healthy personality will question themselves from time to time. For many of us, this happens a lot, as we find ourselves thinking things like:
- “I’m not good enough”
- “I’m an imposter”
- “I’m not ready for that more senior role”
- Or simply, “I can’t cope.”
1. Awareness is the first step
The first step in dealing with automatic negative thoughts is to acknowledge that you’re having them.
This mindfulness-based approach involves moving the thoughts from your sub- or semi-conscious mind into your conscious mind.
Once you are conscious of something, you are able to work with it, and it starts to lose its power over you.
By contrast, trying to ignore these thoughts will generally lead to a mental game of ‘whack-a-mole’, as they keep popping up.
So next time you have a negative thought, rather than ignoring it – or dwelling on it – simply acknowledge that it exists.
Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with kidney cancer and my surgeon told me that while he thought he had managed to remove the whole tumor, there was no way to be 100% sure, and that if he hadn’t got it all, there were no other treatment options: it would kill me.
For a long time afterwards, I assumed that every ache or pain I experienced was a ‘sure’ sign that the cancer was back, and that I was going to die. I finally took my surgeon’s advice and undertook Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program.
This mindfulness-based approach helped me notice my reactions, without judging them, so that I was eventually able to say to myself, “Oh, okay. I’m having one of my catastrophizing moments.”
While it didn’t eliminate the thoughts completely, it did start to rob them of their power over me, until eventually they became like a politically incorrect uncle who drinks too much at Christmas lunch every year: tolerated, mildly amusing, and essentially harmless!
2. Don’t assume it’s ‘the truth’
Cognitive Behavioral approaches to automatic negative thoughts are also highly effective, and cover a wide range of techniques.
For example, once you’ve acknowledged the thoughts exist, you can start reflecting on whether or not they are valid. More often than not, they are not.
Negative thoughts often stem from experiences we’ve had in the past that have little to do with our present circumstances.
For example, if our parents set extraordinarily high expectations of us as children, we may labor under the underlying belief that anything less than perfection simply isn’t good enough. If someone has had a scarring work experience early in his or her career, they may subconsciously assume that each new situation is likely to play out the same way, even if there is no objective reason to believe this is the case.
One practical way of dealing with this is to draw a line down the middle of a sheet of paper, write the automatic thought above it, eg “I’m not going to go for that promotion because I’m not good enough”, and then write down reasons why this may be true on one side of the line, and why it may not be true on the other.
This process starts to provide a more objective perspective on the issue, and may well help you realize just how many strengths you bring to the table. You might ask a trusted friend, colleague or leadership mentor the same question, and see what they say.
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg devotes an entire chapter in her book Lean In to the fact that talented female leaders (and some men) often set unreasonably high expectations of themselves, for example, believing that they shouldn’t go for a promotion unless they have 100% of the skills and experience required, rather than getting the role and then backing themselves to learn whatever they’re missing once on the job.
3. Turn your ANTS into PETS
Narrative techniques can also be highly effective. This is where we acknowledge that our Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTS) are simply stories we tell ourselves, and that we can choose to tell ourselves better stories instead: Performance Enhancing Thoughts (PETS).
This can be as simple as saying to yourself, “Whenever I notice myself thinking ‘I’m not good enough’, I am instead going to consciously say to myself ‘I am good enough’.”
The technique of turning ANTS into PETS is straightforward, yet incredibly powerful.
4. Environmental changes
Another effective approach to conquering negative thoughts is to change something in your environment.
A friend of mine has a Yin/Yang symbol tattooed on the inside of her wrist, which reminds her to be calm in the face of stress and self-doubt.
I’ve heard of someone who has a picture of himself as a young man, standing in front of his chopper when he was a pilot in Vietnam – where he used to literally get shot at on every mission – as a way of putting whatever challenge he happens to be facing today into perspective.
There are a wide range of ways to deal with automatic negative thoughts.
- The first step is to recognize that you’re having them, and that most people with normal healthy personalities do.
- Then, rather than trying to ignore the thoughts or ruminate on them, try out one or more of the techniques above. This won’t fix the issue immediately, but they should start to reduce the level of stress you experience as a result of automatic negative thoughts.
- Consistently applied over time they will significantly reduce the hold they have on you. Eventually, you are likely to reach the point where the negative voices in your head become like old friends, who you briefly acknowledge, smile at, and then get back to whatever it is you want to be focusing on!