Don’t Believe Everything You Think!

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I spent the last seven days;worrying over an upcoming client phone call in which — I was convinced — the client was going to say "Thank you . . . and goodbye." I worried about it, stressed about it, played out in my head the conversation I expected to take place (and replayed it and replayed it).


I anticipated what I might say. I lost sleep. Ultimately I allowed these worries to take the shine off my days.

I'm sure I'm not alone in this. In fact, I know I'm not alone, given the many leaders who have shared with me the worries and things that "keep them awake at night."

What do we worry about?

In my book, , I've dedicated a whole chapter to exploring how our internal self-talk and worry can undermine our success.

Reportedly, the average human being has around 50,000 thoughts a day (which explains why my "brain" is rarely quiet)! All this silent chatter and self-talk can be powerful in its ability to build self-confidence, overcome barriers to success and get us out of danger.

However, unhealthy self-talk and worry have the ability to paralyze us — limiting our perspective and options, because:

  • We worry about the future: what might happen, what potential pitfalls we may experience.
  • We worry about the past: what we should have said or done.
  • We worry about the here and now: missing an impending deadline, worrying about what others think of us.

In fact, we "should have" and "could have" and "if only" ourselves into a frenzy of hypothetical outcomes, as we attempt to rewrite history. Sometimes, the insights we gain from this self-talk are helpful. But other times, it's conducted without deliberate thought or intent to learn, and it tends to knock us down and wear us out. Especially when things have gone wrong and we are experiencing a tough time.

What’s interesting is that when things don’t go as planned, most of the stories we tell ourselves are negative. We rarely start by giving ourselves (or the other person) the benefit of the doubt. Don’t believe me?

  • Imagine you’ve been working hard on a project for the last few months and have prepared an executive presentation. You are scheduled to deliver that presentation in ten minutes, when you receive a message to say the executive team has canceled your meeting. What's going through your mind?
  • A colleague who has missed past deadlines is due to submit a document to you by close of business today. Your phone rings and the caller ID displays this person’s name. What are you thinking as you answer the phone?
  • A colleague continually interrupts you in meetings. What are you telling yourself about this person's motives and how they regard you?


Experience has shown that your mind will assume the worst: The executives don’t know what they are doing; your project isn’t important; your colleague is about to let you down again and not have the work done on time; your colleague is arrogant and doesn't respect you.

Only a small percentage of stories, if any, will provide a best-case scenario. For example, “The executives have confidence in me and are focused on another priority.” “My colleague is calling to say the project is finished early.” "My colleague is excited about what I just said and wants to go deeper."

In my case, I worried about the possibility of my client saying "goodbye," even though I had no reason to, no facts to lead me to this conclusion. In fact, it turned out quite the opposite — we had made progress in the program I'd facilitated. The participants were applying the insights and making a real difference in how they led their teams and in the results they were able to deliver.

However, I still had that knot in my stomach, that sense of self-doubt. I was worrying both about the past and the future! But just because something might happen doesn’t mean it will. The requisite rule, then, may not be easy, but it’s simple: You don’t have to believe everything you think.

Get off the trash-talk roller-coaster

I recently stumbled across something I now call the “trash-talk roller-coaster.” It goes like this:

  1. This is awesome!
  2. This is harder than I expected.
  3. This is awful!
  4. I am awful.
  5. This is barely okay.
  6. This is awesome!

What I realized (and why I refer to this list every day) is that it neatly sums up my thought process on a daily, hourly and minute-by-minute basis. And the really scary thing? It can take me nano-seconds to go from number 1 to number 4. It can then take considerably longer to get from 4 to 6.

Even after all the time I've spent relating these principles, debilitating moments of self-doubt still creep in. Being able to translate limiting self-talk into something more positive, and to reach out to an ally for an empathetic ear, or a quick kick in the pants, can be so critical. 

In the case of that dreaded client call, one of my colleagues gave me a pep talk, exploring the triggers behind my worry and providing suggestions for the upcoming conversation. I , listened to some powerful music, prepared and pictured a positive outcome.

Ultimately, I chose to wait and see what the client had to say and then decide how to reply. As a result, the knot in my stomach got smaller. 

And the call? The client wanted to discuss the next program. My worry had all been for nothing.

How do you get off your own version of the trash-talk rollercoaster? Share your insights in the comments below. I'd love to hear from you.


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