Who’s calling the shots – you or your inner cavewoman?

3 tips to overcome your instinct to self-sabotage

Have you ever had a performance review where you got glowing remarks in 24 out of 25 categories, and one “area for improvement”? What did you focus on? If you’re like most women (including me), it was that ONE thing ….

The truth is, our brains are hard-wired for negativity.

Scientists call it negativity bias. It’s a fact of human evolution. There’s a primitive part of the brain called the lizard brain that jumps into action to protect us when it perceives a potential threat. This triggers the fight/flight response, which was a matter of life or death for our ancestors. They needed to take down that saber-toothed tiger or run like crazy to get back to the safety of the cave in order to survive.

While we don’t usually face that kind of physical threat today, our brains are still on high alert, guarding us against potential threats. When we think about trying something new or stepping into a leadership role where we risk criticism, disappointment, rejection or failure, our brains register this as DANGER and work overtime trying to keep us safe.

It sounds counterintuitive, but critical self talk is often the way our minds try to protect us.

Thoughts like: “You’re not ready. You don’t have the right experience. And anyway, who do you think you are?” have us second guessing ourselves and keep us playing safe and small.

As noted neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson said:

“The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” 

So how do you keep your negativity bias in check so you can take the smart, strategic risks that lead to big wins in work and life? Here are three tips that can keep you moving forward when your pesky inner critic tries to keep you safely stuck in place.

  1. Recognize that your thoughts aren’t the problem. Negative thoughts are going to pop into your brain – that’s normal. Please don’t beat yourself up when this happens – your brain is doing what nature designed it to do! The key is to notice what’s happening and name it: “Oh, that’s my lizard brain trying to keep me safe.” Now that you understand what’s happening and why, you can defuse the power of your negative thoughts and choose to respond differently.
  2. Practice self-compassion. We are so hard on ourselves! And compassion doesn’t just feel good, it’s usually the more honest response. Because what we’re normally telling ourselves, courtesy of our lizard brains, is a lie. If you say to yourself after a setback, “I can’t believe I just did that. I’m such a screw-up”, that’s not the truth of who you are and what you’re capable of achieving. Instead, speak to yourself the way you’d talk to a dear friend – with kindness. Shift the focus to what you learned and how that will help you in the future, instead of wallowing in harsh self-criticism that shuts you down.
  3. Own your real value. Many women don’t fully appreciate the value they bring and diminish themselves and their accomplishments. Instead of replaying those moments when things went wrong and you made a mistake or didn’t speak up, what about all the times things went well? Times when you solved a tough problem, came up with a creative idea, or handled a difficult conversation? Challenge the default assumptions and beliefs you’ve been carrying around, and own the truth of who you are and all the skill, talent and experience that you bring.

Don’t let your cavewoman brain keep you from creating the career and life you really want. You’re capable of so much more than you think you are!

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