Did you ever tell a friend something like: “You made things weird, you are making people uncomfortable.”
No? Of course not. That’s brutal, why would you tell your buddy that. Might as well throw him in front of a bus. So why do we say awful things like that to ourselves?
Your inner critic tells you how people are judging you. (“Becky look at her butt!”) But, do you really know what people are thinking? Do you have any proof? Because actually, people are pretty nice. Even if you know that rationally, negative thoughts keep popping up:
- “She thinks you are unattractive”
- “Why Am I so boring?”
- “It’s your fault”
- “Have I said anything bad?”
You just want to present a good version of yourself. Though you know you’re making things bigger than they are, that is not how it feels. This negative maelstrom makes you anxious.
What if your thoughts were supportive? Like an encouraging coach in your head. Reassuring you and telling you to keep your head up. A confident supportive voice. Resulting in a more relaxed life. So talking to new people is easy.
A bit of scepticism is good. But chronic pessimism is faulty programming of your sophisticated brain. But your gray matter is also the the solution.
Your future simulator
According to the book The Future of the Mind, by Michio Kaku, there are 4 levels of consciousness in living beings. The level of consciousness represents the organism’s ability to simulate and react to it’s environment.
Level 0 is reacting to chemical and physical input, like plants. Adapting to light and water. Without any real simulation.
Level 1, beings are also aware of the spatial features of the world. Knowing where to go. Preferably warm places, or with food. But without any sophisticated interaction with other beings. Most reptiles are on this level.
Next is Level 2 – minds that can comprehend relations. The socio emotional dimensions. Necessary for complex herd relationships. Like a pack of wolves or a tribe of gorillas. With leaders, supports, tanks and healers, all coming together in a functioning team.
Finally us humans are on Level 3. Besides awareness and interaction to physical, spatial and social features of the world. Our mind can also simulate the future! The temporal dimension. This is huge! You use past experience and live data to simulate possible outcomes.
(these are not integer levels, but are on a sliding scale of course)
Awesome right? Tools for your simulation are logic, instinct and emotions. This is how you predict the behaviour of yourself, people and objects. And how they will affect you.
You use your memory and experience. A huge set of data that is stored in our system. This includes all the cat pictures you have ever seen, that awkward kiss you got from your auntie and the memory of your first LEGO bricks.
How does this exactly work? Well science doesn’t know exactly yet, so I will tell you the theory on a Dora the Explorer level:
Your brain consists of very dense matrix of neuron cells. Cellular cables all wrapped in a huge network. This neural network consists of feedback loops, memory, sensory input and more. Because of the scale and complexity of the human brain it can simulate the future. Planning about the future only works, if there is some awareness in the moment. So our consciousness goes hand in hand with future simulation.
Every time you use a certain feedback loop, your neurons get stronger. A thicker cable is created to guide a certain thought or behaviour. The circuit is more easily excitable. So the more often you use a neural loop – the stronger it gets. This counts for thoughts, beliefs, memories and fantasies. The more you think about being a wizard, the more easily you think about being a wizard. That is why I’m still waiting for an owl, flying in my Hogwarts acceptance letter.
(please read Kaku’s book if you want a better explanation, hahaha :), you’ll love it)
The feedback loops
But what if your data is corrupted? Or the data set is too small? Or worse, you get torn between negative feedback loops.
That limits the system. Limiting your thinking. Limiting your behaviour!
You want to socialize → you’re scared to say anything due to negative simulation → “they will think I am boring” → anxiety kicks in → fight or flight response → you don’t know what to say → you blank out and just stand there
Not only did you reinforce negative thinking, you also added a negative social experience to your data set. As you keep repeating this, the neural feedback circuit gets strengthened. That makes it hard to get out of.
Just imagine, having a more constructive mindset. A good set of data and positive loops so you are less anxious.
You want to socialize → you’re a bit anxious but excited to say something, due to positive simulation → “it might be scary, but I bet I will have a good time” → anxiety is overcome and you head over → you introduce yourself and ask how everybody is doing → you talk and have a good time
A better outcome right? Sure, your simulation does not guarantee a certain experience. But it sets a frame of mind, that you and others are affected by.
So if you are prone to negative thinking. You want to favour a more positive feedback loop. The solution is not a simple think positive. That won’t work. You need to alter years old wiring.
“But am I not born negative?” “Isn’t my mind fully grown yet?” Nope! It might be a bit calcified, but with the right practices you can loosen up your slimy lobes. Your wetware super computer is able to reprogram itself.
Don’t believe your mind is adaptable? Look at people losing a leg and finding a way to walk again. Or losing their sense of sight and still find a way to get around in the world. We can even use new input to create new senses! In a big part this is your mind rewiring to a new reality. Know you can also adapt a new way of consciousness.
So how do you feed the right part of the mind? You can actively and passively create a more positive narrative. Creating a way more constructive outlook on life. You start by being aware of your thoughts. Neglecting negative thoughts and favouring more positive ones.
Let’s first look at some indirect ways to be less anxious and stimulate your brain. Followed by active techniques to better train your mind using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques.
1. Passively minimizing negativity
Yes of course meditation is mentioned. Good for everything! Haha, you’ve read it everywhere already. But seriously. It has been proven in a multitude of studies to reduce anxiety. Calming and silencing your mind. As well learning to be aware of your thoughts. Seeing how they so spontaneously pop up.
Especially if you learn new motor skills and new cognitive skills at the same day, you will remember more easily. Theory is, that our big brains where necessary in our evolution for nifty motor skills. Skills like using tools. That’s why learning new motor skills stimulates making and remoulding new neurons. Stimulating learning other things faster at the same time. But let’s not forget that sweet boost in confidence after an intense workout.
Another way to relax is using your breath. Your breathing is at the core of your primary physiology. The O2 must keep on coming! Some very significant neural and hormonal feedback loops are connected to your breathing. You can use your breath to guide these.
Breathing deeply in and out is the key. If you feel distressed, forcing yourself to breath in, hold and exhale relaxes your system. Make sure they are deep full lung fulls of air. In through your nose. Out through your mouth. Try using this rhythm:
2. Actively reducing negativity
Question your simulation results
As you make future simulations in your mind that are depressing. Ask questions! Test this negative hypothesis.
You need to be critical about the imagined scenarios. Is what you are thinking and feeling justified? So if you think you are being judged or too anxious to take action. Ask yourself these questions.
- Will (doing) this matter in 5 years?
- Is this really all about me? Is this really personal?
- How do my emotions skew the reality?
- What is the worst that can happen? – and can I overcome that?
- If I were not anxious, what would I do?
This forces you to reevaluate your future simulations. Looking for more perspective and evidence contrary to the negative simulation. This will bring more positive aspects to light.
Your thoughts are mostly force of habit anyway, see them as such. Be actively aware that it is just an interpretation of the world. Not the world itself. Negative thoughts will pop up – notice them and ask yourself questions about them.
Most of the times it is not something in the world that freaks you out. But your reaction to something. Defusing the emotional reaction reduces your anxiety.
Besides objectifying your negative thoughts. Reframe them as well. Use your self awareness. As you have a negative thought – reframe it. Actively rethink the thought.
Take yourself out of the equation. Or transform it in an empowering statement.
- “They don’t like you” → REWIRE → “I don’t know what people think of me, but I like myself.”
- “Did I say anything wrong?” → REWIRE → “The thing I said might be strange, it doesn’t matter, I will do better next time.”
- “I just don’t think I’m good enough” → REWIRE → “Nobody is keeping count, I will just try to make the best out of my life.”
By immediately discarding your automatic negative thoughts – and actively thinking positive thoughts, you stimulate positive feedback. So in the long run these will pop up more automatically.
You currently have a given set of rules you believe that are true in the world. Mindsets are easy mental shortcuts, rules you’ve adopted to model the world.
Some are very useful. A lot are not. For example, a lot of people believe: “I need approval of others before I act.” How come? Why is that true? The mindset is arbitrary. It is better to learn some better ones to guide you in your life. Mindsets that empower you.
You can’t instantly have a new mindset. But there are ways to adopt them. One way is to keep beliefs you want to adopt in a notebook. Read them on a daily basis. When you have a situations, internal or external where they apply, think about them. You can then choose to act like this mindset is already your new firmware.
It might not always work. But sometimes it will. And the frequency will increase over time. Step by step you grow to live by these new paradigms.
So what are good mind-settings to configure? Here are some examples:
- I can grow better and develop myself, striving to be a bit better every day
- My past behaviour does not define my future behaviour
- People like me until proven otherwise
- I don’t have to prove my worth to others. I know I am valuable
- No matter what happens – new opportunities will open up for me
- Better to do it now, than live with the fear of it (from one of my favourite fantasy triologies)
Besides these, think of the right mindsets for YOU. How do you need to think to be successful? Or confident? Or happy? Find that out – start applying that frame of mind! You might want to read up on Literature, Philosophy or Psychology to find inspiration.
Boom! Goodbye negative thinking! Here you are, a great set of actions to take. Time to overwrite negative_voice.exe with some more productive programs :)!
As you’ve read there are numerous ways you can take back control of your automatic thoughts. No matter how all these anxious thoughts originated in your thinking. It’s time to overcome them. Help yourself, train that grey gooey blob of wonders. So you can enjoy your life better and make the best out of it!
Want to learn more? Never run out of interesting things to say? Join Timon, a former socially awkward geek. Now he helps fellow nerds to become socially confident. Easily approach people, make real connections and friends. Have captivating conversations without zoning out or feeling awkward. Read more at Techlecticism to become your best self!