One of the most important tips I ever learned was that my brain has the power to destroy me – if I allow it.
The human brain is God’s most magnificent creation – 30 times more powerful than the world’s fastest supercomputers with unlimited storage space and enough energy to power a light bulb. Always processing, our brains produce countless thoughts every day; and studies indicate up to 70 percent of them are negative. We compare ourselves to others, long and plot for approval, and scheme for power and control. We can’t help it; it’s in our nature.
My epiphany came during a session with an executive coach who was dragging me, kicking and screaming, through an exercise in conflict resolution. Of course none of it was my fault. I was obviously under attack. Anyone could see it. The new guy was trying to sabotage me and take my job. But I went ahead and played along with my coach’s little game.
If you’re anything like me (and I’m guessing you are because you’re still reading), your brain is constantly working overtime – keeping you awake at night with its analysis, fears, plans and schemes to take over the universe, with or without you.
So-and-So’s probably thinking this, so I’m gonna…
If this happens, then it means that, so I’m gonna…
If that happens, then this will happen, so I’m gonna…
My brain has stored at least a terabyte of that most meaningless term in the human language: “I’m gonna…”
Far too often, our fears never materialize, so all that time and energy we spend scheming and calculating all the things we’re “gonna” do is irretrievably wasted. (That’s not what my coach taught me. That’s a freebie I came up with myself.)
During my coach’s futile exercise, we discussed when a co-worker I’ll call Bob met privately with my boss to propose “tweaks” to my newly-presented strategic plan. I saw it, I explained, as a devious act of sabotage from a conniving little weasel who thought he could do my job better than I. (My brain figured it all out the night before, along with a detailed plan on how I was “gonna” respond. It took all night.)
My coach, whom I’ll assign the non-binary label of Terry, listened intently, without a hint of judgment, and asked, “So, you think Bob woke up this morning and thought, ‘I’m gonna destroy Tami Marler today,’ and that’s why he had a private meeting with the boss about your strategic plan?”
Jeez. When he put it that way, it did sound a little paranoid; but that was exactly what my brain had calculated in my sleepless night before.
“Yes,” I pronounced, a little less certain, “Otherwise, why would he not just come to me with his ideas?”
“Well, that’s what you would do because you’re a forthright, confident leader,” Terry praised, disarming my defenses, “but let me bounce some other possibilities off of you.”
Well played, Terry. Well played. How am I going to argue with being a “forthright, confident leader”? So, I humored him and listened.
“Today, you have the confidence to approach anyone about anything;” he continued, “but think back to your first week with the company. How confident were you then?”
It was, of course, a rhetorical question. Terry knew exactly how insecure and unsteady I was in my first week with a new company in a new industry about which I knew so little, I didn’t even know enough to know what questions to ask. I sat quietly and absorbed for the first few months, so ingrained in me is the concept of speaking only when I have something valuable (or at least entertaining) to offer. Terry knew this well.
My anger dissipated with every point he made.
“We’ve worked a lot on making you more approachable,” he reminded, “because, we’ve talked about how people can be intimidated by a decisive, self-assured woman.”
I thought back to the eye-roller discussion, prompted by Terry’s sessions with other leaders he said were trying to muster the nerve to approach me.
Get over it, I don’t bite.
If you’re so intimidated that you can’t request a meeting, you have no business being a leader.
Buck up, Buttercup. We’re adulting now.
It was Terry’s duty to get both sides to come to the middle, so I was tasked with being softer, less “business-y”, more vulnerable and demure – because being competent, professional, cordial and kind is too intimidating for some. But whatever, I agreed to do my part.
Terry suggested this Bob thing might be another of those instances where Tami Marler was too scary to approach with great ideas.
“What if it wasn’t a matter of Bob thinking he was good enough to take your job, but a matter of Bob worrying he’s not good enough to approach you with his ideas?” Terry proposed; ending with, “Instead of waking up this morning with an evil plan to destroy you, what if he spent a sleepless night trying – and failing – to muster the courage to present his ideas to you?”
Ugh. The idea made me sick. Was I really so unapproachable that people felt they needed to circumvent professional standards? Maybe Bob wasn’t a conniving little weasel who needed to be cut off at the knees. Maybe he was an insecure employee in need of reassurance and encouragement so he could feel like an appreciated member of the team, with valuable insights and ideas.
The moment Terry asked me if I really believed Bob woke up in the morning with evil plans for my ultimate demise, was the moment I realized I’d wasted an entire night fretting about nothing, and that I’d wasted a lot of nights fretting about nothing.
Today, every time I find myself thinking the worst about someone, I ask myself the same thing: Do I really believe this person wakes up in the morning with the intent to do evil, or could there be extenuating circumstances; and, more importantly, could I do anything to alleviate those circumstances?
Sometimes, it turns out the person really is evil with evil intent and hate in their hearts. But fretting over their hate changes nothing, and all the “I’m gonnas” do is feed my precious time, energy and power to the soul sucker who thrives on it.
Turns out, Bob was a conniving weasel who wanted my job; and in all the months he spent obsessing over my ultimate demise, I obliviously and joyfully grew as a valued leader in the company. Defeated and unable to advance, Bob eventually moved on.
Had Terry not forced me to consider other possibilities – even though I was right about Bob – my brain would have kept me mired in paranoia, fear and hate, inflicting untold damage on my body and spirit, and probably affecting my job performance as well. What could I possibly have accomplished in all the time and energy I would have squandered, scheming “I’m gonnas”?
The brain is an amazing instrument, capable of astonishing feats. But my natural tendency toward self doubt and cynicism keeps me teetering on a tightrope of self destruction. I have to make a constant, conscious effort to rein in my brain so that the negative 70-percent of my thoughts don’t destroy 100-percent of my life.