In the past 15 years, I have worked with some of the biggest Management Consulting firms. Apart from the rapid professional growth, the most common theme that runs across all my career experiences is the stress and the anxiety I felt every time I had to work with a demanding client on seemingly impossible deadlines. I pushed myself hard to deliver all these years. And that led to success in my career but also vicious loops of stress that I was unable to break. Then one day a few months ago, I decided to take a few months’ break from my job to check in with myself, rest, recuperate and break these vicious loops.
During this time, I began to go back to the instances that caused me maximum stress. I journaled whatever I remembered of these incidents, the situation, and my reaction. It was then that I observed that I had always missed recording another kind of dialog in these interactions.
The degree of stress I experienced was a function of two things:
1. my interpretation or judgment of the situation and
2. my internal dialog that was nothing but my judgment of myself.
Let me illustrate this for you. Imagine that you are in a fight with a cab driver. You are asking the cab driver not to drive rashly and the cab driver is ignoring you. At some point you threaten him with a complaint and the driver shouts back at you. You are stressed, feel unsafe, and you are in no mood to give up. Now imagine there is another passenger in the cab who is constantly talking. Only you can hear and see this passenger.
The only job this passenger has is to pass judgment on you, your words and actions. This second passenger can uplift you or bring you down. It can tell you that you stress too much and it’s totally unnecessary to do that. Or it can tell you are weak in such conflicts. It can tell you that you can handle this. You are too strong to get agitated by this. It can even tell you that you are a woman and no one will support you.
What Is Internal Dialog?
Internal dialog is nothing but this co-passenger whose job is to judge what we do. The judgments we place on ourselves reflect what we believe about ourselves. These judgments also impact our subsequent actions and our emotions when we act.
When we tell ourselves we are weak, our actions also reflect that judgment. For example, if you tell yourself that you are weak in a fight with the cab driver and that no one will support you, the chances are that you will not object to rash driving after trying for maybe once or twice. If you tell yourself you are too strong to care for these minor alterations, it’s quite likely that you will continue asking him to slow down or complain to the cab company.
Our internal dialog thus lives in the space between ‘what happened’ and ‘how we acted when it happened’. Apart from how we act, it also impacts our emotional state while we act.
If you tell yourself you are weak and have no support, you are not just likely to shut up but shut up with fear. This fear will continue to stress you out through the cab drive. And as and when similar situations arise in the future.
The Negative Internal Dialog
Negative internal dialog reflects how we approach and act when faced with difficult situations and people. For example, one of the circumstances that caused me immense stress was whenever I had a conflict with an authority figure. I would approach each of these conflicts as if it was a threat to my reputation, or it was a demand for me to prove myself. I also worked with an underlying assumption that I am not supported but expected to deliver.
So I approached everything and everyone defensively and didn’t ask for help even when it was available. This led me to work harder and be successful as a professional. But it also multiplied my stress to put so much pressure to prove myself as perfect or work alone even when all I needed to do was assess what was needed and do it to the best of my capabilities.
Now the question is can you flip this negative dialog on its head?
You can’t stop the internal dialog. Your co-passenger is here to stay. But you can maneuver it in the direction of lesser stress over a period of time.
For me, it took three steps.
Step 1: Catching myself in the act
The majority of my stress was stemming from my negative internal dialog, judgments and criticisms I was placing on myself. The first time I realized that was while I was journaling an experience. A client executive consistently added to the work in small ways and that led to a lot of stress for the team. I pushed back with all the client engagement tactics in my pocket. I also reached to my seniors for their advice and influence that I could leverage. But during it all, I continued to get stressed about work. I played the conversations with the client, my team, and senior colleagues in my head over and over again.
Was the situation unfavourable?
Was I doing everything I had been taught to do in situations like these?
Did I deliver successfully?
Then why was I so stressed?
Because I was waging war within myself, pushing myself to be someone I didn’t believe I was.
What Did I Just Say To Myself?
I have listed some of the things I said to myself. Feel free to make your own list of things you tell yourself subconsciously in stressful situations.
- I can’t do it.
- I am going to fail, disappoint people and myself.
- There is no support or help – I have to do everything on my own.
- I have been going around in circles asking for information; nobody knows anything.
- There is no end to this; everything outside of this context is also the same.
- Things are not the way I want them to be and they never will be.
- I don’t need anybody.
- People don’t do their jobs properly.
- I can’t take any more responsibilities.
- How dare this person walk all over me? I will show them.
- Am I even right about this?
A lot of negative dialogs are the result of early childhood experiences and the decisions we make about ourselves and the world at a young age. Parents sometimes protect us by placing a negative judgment on our capabilities and exaggerating the monsters out there. We tend to internalize their voices to an extent that it becomes our judgment about ourselves and the world. These judgments are so deeply ingrained in our internal dialog that we do not stop and think for a moment that what was true for our skills and experiences at a younger age isn’t true anymore.
If my parents told me to stay away from cooking gas when I was six or told me I was small and weak to stop me from going out alone in the evenings, it was to protect me. As an adult I need to not only do these things out of necessity but also because I enjoy them. But if I were to continue feeling fear while cooking or kept looking over my shoulder while going out in the evenings, then it’s bound to stress me out.
Criticism As A Guide Is A Big No
Sometimes parents also use criticism to guide their children and ‘meet their and society’s expectations’. These early childhood experiences lead to a lack of confidence, low self-worth, and feelings of ‘never being good enough’. When under pressure to deliver professionally, or meeting personal demands, the parents’ voice that we internalized during our childhood, the voice that tells us that we are not good enough, raises its volume and pulls us down. In many cases, it also pushes us forward to deliver, since we are used to using that voice as our motivation to do better, and be a better version of ourselves.
This constant internal dialog and the fight between not feeling good enough and pushing yourself harder to be good enough leads to stress and anxiety. Remember that even though you may have used this fight to prove yourself, deliver results professionally and personally, it’s unhealthy for you to store this stress in your mind and body. It ultimately burns you out and potentially leads to many health issues.
All of this does not mean that you blame your parents. Their most basic job was to keep us alive and safe and if you are reading this and they were clearly successful. This insight only serves to help us become more aware of what’s going on in our heads. And now that we are adults, we can realign, change, and create internal dialog that we need. This brings us to Step two.
Step 2: What do you hear vs what do you want to hear?
The simplest way I found to turn this around was by asking myself this – What do I want to hear if not criticism, second-guessing of everything I am doing and claims of not being good enough?
I made a list of things I wanted to hear, things that would make me feel stronger and empowered to deal with difficult situations without really killing myself over them.
This is my list, feel free to make your own:
- It’s alright to be angry or upset about this.
- It’s not your fault. Neither is it the fault of the situation or the other person.
- Whatever you feel at the moment is okay.
- Breathe and stay wherever you are.
- Break it down – take one step, pat your back for it, then take another step.
- Is the support really not available, or is it available, but you are not able to acknowledge it?
- You have done this before many times. You can do this again.
- Even if this is entirely new, you know where to find information or learn more.
- Is it possible to take a break for a few minutes and then come back to this?
- What are the things you are taking responsibility for? What are you truly responsible for?
- Is there anyone with whom you can talk about your feelings and they will not judge you or try to fix this for you?
- If not, do you want to write all of this down?
- What are you beating yourself up for?
- What will help you be kind to yourself right now?
- What will help you not to fight or flee? What will help you stay?
These are the things I was wishing the authority figures, my parents, or someone close to me would say to me to help me. I had to make this a part of my internal dialog. First up, I listed these things on a board in my study. My study has always been my sanctuary. By making this list visible in my study, I gave myself a place to go and hear what I wished to hear whenever I was stressed. I also made this list on my phone and saved it as a note on the home screen for all those stressful moments outside the home.
Step 3: Practice, keep adding to these two lists and don’t give up
Once I saw what I wanted to hear, I started catching myself in the midst of negative dialog way more often than I ever did. It wasn’t automatic for me anymore to talk myself down because I knew I had an alternative to it. And whenever I caught myself in the act, I reinforced what I truly wanted to hear either by going to my study at home or by opening my phone and reading this list. This has led to a number of results.
My approach to conflicts, authority figures, and difficult client demands is changing. Instead of approaching it as a fight to prove myself, I approach it as a professional commitment for which I can seek support as and when I needed it. If I don’t get the support I need, I am careful enough to not take it personally and use it to emphasize negative dialog again.
At this point, I am still not where I want to be, but I am getting there. One thing is for sure, though. For any new opportunity that comes into my life now, I am way more supportive of myself and my goals than I ever was. I am keeping my personal commitments to yoga and writing, and professional commitments to create a purpose-led career. These are the things I wasn’t able to do earlier because I pulled myself down with my negative dialog.
Stop the negative internal dialog, right now!
In essence, what you say to yourself matters way more than what others say to you. Asking yourself two simple questions – ‘what am I constantly saying to myself’ vs. ‘what do I really want to hear’ will change how you feel about yourself, how you approach different situations, how you act, and how you deliver on your commitments. That leads to lesser stress in your day to day life and more fulfillment in your accomplishments and success.
The article was first published in the first issue of Passionate Chic