How are you at pep talks? When a friend needs a little boost to make it through a tough time or challenging experience, are you one of those people who can usually give them the motivation they need to keep going? I mean, we can all quickly say “You got this” when we see someone on the strugglebus, but some people seem to have a gift for saying exactly the right thing to ignite the spark that keeps the fire lit a little longer. Certain people can do that for others AND for themselves as well…but for a lot of us, the tone changes when it comes time to turn that voice inward, especially when we feel like the stakes are especially high.
When you’re doing something that pushes you to your limits – for example, taking the GMAT or GRE, let’s say – or, agreeing to a “stretch” assignment at work, or training to meet a physical goal, you probably have an internal “coach” that encourages you to keep at it. I’m guessing, however, that the tone of that coach probably sounds a little bit different than the one that encourages your friends and colleagues when they’re looking at an uphill battle. That “Hey girl, you’re amazing and you’ve got this,” morphs into more of a, “C’mon now, pull it together, stop slacking/being weak/being lazy, etc.” which can pretty quickly slide into the territory of “You always act like this,” and its close neighbor of “You probably can’t do this after all.” Even as you’re telling yourself to get it done, the background vocals in your head are reminding you that you don’t think you can. Not exactly friendly banter, not to mention a lot of extra head noise for someone who’s trying to focus on a daunting task at hand.
You’ve heard me talk about this before, but our brains seem to be especially busy when we’re under intense stress – just not always with what we need them to be working on. Even if you’re one of those people who can’t tell a story to save your life, you’re suddenly among the world’s elite at structuring narratives. As you stare at the GMAT or GRE question on the screen, just as you have a million and one times before, your mind begins to take you on a journey through all the catastrophes that may unfold if you don’t get your target score. As the thought avalanche builds momentum, the clock ticks on the screen, which only piles on the stress. Before you know it, you’re in full fight-or-flight mode, mainly over a fictional storyline as opposed to the question itself.
Even if this doesn’t sound like your personal relationship with test-taking, you probably have experienced this slippery slope into self-doubt somewhere along the line. Maybe before a big presentation, tough conversation, or scary leap of faith. It’s a pretty well-traveled mental path for most of us. As bad as it feels, it’s mainly a form of self-protection. If we imagine the worst, then it can’t surprise us, right?
Nah. Don’t kid yourself. It still stinks if the worst comes to pass, no matter how “prepared” you thought you were for it. And to be honest, think there’s any chance that your envisioning a disappointing outcome may have actually contributed to it? I mean, if you think you’re going to lose your balance on a precarious perch, you probably will…amirite? Wobble, wobble…
So, here’s what you do: you take a breath. You shift your focus away from the story, and onto your inhale, and then your exhale, two things that are actually happening right now, in real time, in real space, and not in your oh-so-creative imagination. You tell the story “thanks-but-no-thanks” for the moment. You just breathe, and allow your brain and body to respond to what’s actually happening right now. There’s a question on the screen – you’ve seen that before. You’re about to share some info that you’ve prepared and rehearsed with a group of people who – just like you – are human beings. You’re about to give some news to someone, and you think you know how they’re going to respond, but that’s just another story, right? You don’t know until you let it fly.
You don’t know anything about the future until it becomes the present moment. So, that’s where you train your focus. Take care of the task at hand, and then do it again. Keep that up, and before you know it, you’ll be exactly where you need to be – and headed in the right direction.
Photo credit: Tamarcus Brown