A dangerously underweight fifteen-year-old girl looks into the mirror and sees herself as disgustingly fat.
Such extreme conditions as anorexia nervosa are shocking in their effects upon people. However, could we all have milder distorting self-beliefs about ourselves, perhaps?
How about this: We walk into a room and believe everyone is looking at us critically? Or, we believe that we are not creative. The reality may be otherwise. The mirror doesn’t lie, but our perceptions might be.
As we grow in self-awareness, we become aware of our internal mental narratives. These are mental scripts or thought habits. Now, some of these scripts serve us very well; they are empowering. Some scripts, though, undermine us. Some of our scripts are about who we indeed are, and some are lies that we have come to believe about ourselves. Such internal lies limit us; they prevent us from being the best we can be.
Truths about ourselves
So, how do we know the truth about who we truly are? There can be many sources:
- What we believe about ourselves in the context of our spiritual faith
- An objective record of our achievements, as perhaps we might summarise in our CV or resumé
- The people we serve and how they express their value in us (for example, returning to “buy” from us)
- The evidence we have in how people speak about us and act towards us.
Of course, we have to sift the truth from the lies carefully. For example, what people may say to us may be pure flattery, which is self-serving deceit. Some can be a criticism of us from ignorance or prejudice. Healthy close relationships can speak truth into us, that we come to believe. Equally, abusive, manipulative relationships close to us can have a very distorting self-image.
So we need to have a care how we receive the evidence, and what we genuinely buy into as truth about ourselves.
Writing down our scripts
One route to sifting the truth from the lies in this sensitive and complicated area is to write them down. When we write something down, it objectifies that script. It enables us to assess these statements with greater clarity and distance. Ultimately, we can resolve these statements into two lists:
- Positive, affirming truths about us, that are constructive, if sometimes challenging
- Negative beliefs that could remove any hope of our ever learning and improving
These two lists can grow as we grow. We discover more about ourselves as we step into new situations of challenge and develop our skills.
Speak it out loud
So what we can do with the positive truths is to declare them over ourselves. For example, we can say – out loud – something like: I am very competent in leading one-to-one appraisals. So, if we encounter a new, difficult relationship with a new team member, we can back up our positive declaration to ourselves from past evidence.
Speaking these truths out loud privately is very powerful. Purely mental assent does not seem to go as deep into our self-belief as if we speak it out loud. There is some evidence that as the mind hears us speaking, it begins to adjust its frames, its mindsets, to align with what we have spoken.
So, I invite you to declare positive statements about yourself over yourself in a private place. Then notice the effect it has on your confidence, the you that you bring to your different work situations.
The negative scripts we have about ourselves
For most people in challenging leadership roles, this list can be quite long. List everything out anyway. We find that some things happen as we do this:
- A negative statement or lie about us begins to atrophy as we write it down. It starts to look ridiculous. Good! It should do. Most of us harbour nonsensical negative beliefs about ourselves. Often, as these lies are allowed to persist, they then limit our performance. They are embarrassing. They are faint lies that unspoken in the back of our heads. So the best deterrent for these is to expose them to plain view. They shrivel with full-on scrutiny.
- We discover more lies as we write them down. This experience can dismay us at first. There seems to be a multitude of them. Persevere. Let them come. Write these little devils down. Expose each one for the fraud it is. We can say something like, “Bring it on.” We can let these lies lay themselves out on our list. Exhaust them. We can then say, “Is that all you’ve got?”
- We may well discover some rather more painful, deep-rooted negatives. These can seem too painful even to write down at first. We know where they come from. We refuse to be ashamed. We may need professional counselling to help us articulate these. There is no shame in seeking this kind of help either. Making such an appointment is courageous, and we are hunting down these most potent harmful scripts. We remember that these negatives survive by living in the dark, in our liminal consciousness. A good counsellor or therapist can help us learn to destroy them. They help us find healing and freedom from these distortions by walking that journey into the spotlight with us.
Laughing at the lies
So, what do we do with this grim list of negatives?
Laugh at them. The lies are not us. We can laugh at them. Often they grip us because we have taken them so seriously. If we can find the opposite truth on our other list, we can laugh knowing the truth about us is otherwise. Again, do this out loud in a safe place.
Some common objections
- Who’s to say which are lies and which are true?
Well, we need to go back to those external sources we trust: what people have written about us, the trust others have placed in us, the belief system to which we adhere.
In this relativist age, we have been sold short. We have been told that whatever is true for us is the truth. There comes a point where we need to take account of external sources; this is faith.
- Is this such a big deal? Do we really need to do all this writing and speaking and laughing out loud stuff?
Let me ask you this: Who is the you that you bring to places where there is danger or threat? As a leader, you need to bring your best you, your best identity, to those situations. Others that you lead deserve that from you. We all deserve you to bring your best self to the world.
As always, let me know in the comments below if you do this. Let me know if you try this for the first time, and what your experience was.