Engineering and Leadership || How to change your inner narrative

[Note from Pat: This is a guest post from the excellent Timon Klip of]

Have you ever heard of the the brain in a vat theory? It’s a philosophical thought experiment. In short, it asks; how do you know if you are not just a brain plugged into the Matrix? Are you experiencing the true reality? Is this your real body? Or as Elon Musk popularized it lately, could we actually be living in a simulation?

All our experiences happen in our brain. Our personal neurochemical black box. This is where our consciousness somehow arises. We are our brains. That’s why these theories state: your consciousness can be virtual, digital or just artificially stimulated. Like a brain, with electrodes, in a vat.

You would never know because all consciousness is within some sort of complex structure, which, theoretically, can not determine true reality from fake reality. Don’t believe it? Try some VR games. A simple simulation will trick your brain with ease.

Setting aside whether this world is real or not. There is no doubt, that your brain, and thus your thinking, shapes your reality. In your brain, you constantly tell yourself stories. Stories about the world. Stories about yourself. Based on what you’ve seen, you’ve been told or deduced from experience.

These narratives shape your experience.

The problem with what your brain tells you

Unfortunately, your thoughts are not always positive. You have doubts, fears, second thoughts. For some people, there is a constant lingering anxiety. Your personal inner critic can bombard you with discouraging thoughts like:

“I can’t manage a team. That’s why it’s all my fault.”
“Don’t talk to her, she will think I am unattractive anyway.”
“Why is everyone looking weird at me? They know I am nervous”
“I won’t even try, I will make it weird again.”

Let’s set aside where these thoughts come from for a moment to focus on the real problem with thoughts like these. They prevent you from taking action, even though deep down, there is also a part of you wanting to act. But you won’t speak up in a meeting. You won’t approach that cute girl. All because that inner voice is nagging at you. It trumps your motivation to take action!

Especially analytical minds tend to play away the ’emotional’ aspect of their inner life, as though it doesn’t really count. But what you tell yourself (and the underlying beliefs) determines your actions, in turn creating your habits, thus shaping your life. Negative thoughts keep you in a rut. Positive thoughts will help achieve your goals. To take action and grab life by the horns!

As James Allen put it: “Act is the Blossom of thought, and joy and suffering are its fruits; thus does a man garner in the sweet and bitter fruitage of his own husbandry”

To grow less anxious, start acting and achieving your goals. You need to change the underlying narrative.

Now I can chant something dreamy, like: ‘think positive!’ but we all know simple things like that won’t really work. You’ve grown into the habit of negative thoughts. Simply willing to think positive, doesn’t change anything. But what does? Well, these 4 codependent techniques will help:

  1. Recognizing and interrupting your thinking habits
  2. Rephrasing your habitual thoughts
  3. Exposure to positive thinking
  4. Creating your own rules and permissions

These techniques will activate positive neural pathways. Training them, making it easier to have uplifting thoughts. Neglecting the more negative ones. So your brain is actually slowly programmed in a more positive manner.

1. Recognizing and interrupting thinking habits

Most of what we do often and without a second thought is a habit. You do it once and get a biochemical reward. Do it again, it’s easier, and the reward is there.

All habits and routines consist of three elements. A cue, an action, and a reward.

The cue sparks an action which is rewarded. This is linked through a physiological process, where you get a nice shot of dopamine. Nom nom nom. Feels good! (it is literally the feel-good hormone) This feedback trains you to do it again, again and again. Without realizing it, you blow through all kinds of routines, for good or bad.

Cue, Action, Reward – Wake up, open smartphone, see new message, dopamine reward
Cue, Action, Reward – Get ready to go to bed, brush teeth, dopamine reward
Cue, Action, Reward – See cute girl, keep your head down, feel shame, dopamine reward

The more often you do something, the easier a pattern forms. These habits can be very beneficial. Like how automatically cycling to work every day. Or very detrimental, like lighting a cigarette whenever you feel anxious.

The same process applies to your thoughts. Something triggers your negative thinking, and it is rewarded. So how do you alter your thinking patterns? The trick is to disrupt the patterns. How? Start practicing ruthless awareness of your thoughts. Be brutally honest about your thinking. Get to know your mental habits.

  • Analyze and write down what sparks negative thoughts.
  • If you have a negative practice, try to cultivate a mental pause
  • Act in a different way: do 2 pushups, go for a walk, sing a song – do something different

It takes some effort. And it might be uncomfortable to analyze yourself like this. But it is the first step in breaking down negative patterns. Whenever possible – simply stop doing what starts your negative thinking. But very often, that is not an option.

Next, write your patterns down. What prior thought, action or event sparks your negative self-talk? Revisit your writing to stay aware. As you learn, consciously learn to pause, and act in a disruptive manner. If you still catch yourself having gloomy thoughts, try also implementing the following technique.

2. Rephrasing your habitual thoughts

how to change your negative thinking patterns

So you catch yourself thinking unfavourably. Try to pause again. Now, actively try to rephrase your thoughts. First by transferring the subject of negativity. If your inner narrative is: “Man, I am so stupid, why did I calculate in kW instead of kWh?” , then try rephrasing it to emphasize that your action may have been stupid, but you aren’t. “Huh. I did something stupid. Next time I’ll do it better.” 

Distance yourself from the negativity. Only the action was a mistake. Not you. Then allow yourself room for improvement.

So step back, rephrase by shifting the negativity. Finally, add room for improvement.

Not: “I am just a shy guy.” But: “I acted shy, next time I will do better.”

The second step is reiterating your thoughts. Change from demand to choice, from destined to freedom, from negative to positive.

As you try to do the right thing, your mind can be very set on terms like have to, should, can’t and must. These verbs constrain you. All these demands only freeze you up. It is a static way of talking to yourself which can only serve to induce anxiety and tension.

If you catch yourself thinking like that again, rephrase it in a more liberating manner. In a style of choice and possibility. I choose to do this. I can go wherever I want. Actively saying you choose to do is liberating. Taking back control, instead of living by preset rules, even if those are your own rules.

As you free your mind, you will be more open to possibilities. Start by telling yourself you are making the choices. This cognitive habit will be easier and effective over time, because you learn that you create your own story.

3. Exposure to positive thinking

Let’s do an experiment. Do not think of a pink elephant. Do NOT think of a pink elephant. I repeat: DO NOT think of a pink elephant.

You did it anyway, right? Because you read the word pink elephant, you activate the associated neurons. You will experience the corresponding concept or image in your mind. In this case, you see the elephant. The more often you practice this, the more easily you will visualize it. Consequently, the more easily the image will arise spontaneously.

What you hear or read pops up in your head.

So actively reading, listening to, or imagining positive images helps evoke more positive thoughts.

So what are you waiting for? Start reading positive blogs and books. Read stories about people who overcome setbacks, or who are still pushing. About wonderful places or lives. Biographies of fantastic upbeat role models. Or for that matter, watch your favourite feel-good cartoon! Immerse yourself with positive frames of mind.

Furthermore, practice visualizing yourself in a positive manner. This sounds very new age-y, I know. But as said, immersion stimulates your mostly involuntary thought processes, so we can take advantage of this fact for good. It’s all about training your positive neural pathways. The better trained, the more easily activated.

Mere exposure and visualization help achieve an upward spiral of positive thoughts and well-being is achieved. Make this a habit , and in time you will reap the benefits.

Try to do this every morning. Think about what the best version of you would do that day. How would BEST YOU act? Think it, see it… and you just might act that way as well.

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”
Henry David Thoreau

4. Creating your own rules and permissions

create your own rules

Our negative thoughts are a manifestation of certain rules, our paradigm of how the world ‘just works’. These beliefs are often very limiting – especially as they pertain to social and emotional reactions. Most of them formed through classical conditioning.

Certain rules you learn to be true. If you throw something up, it will fall back down because of gravity. A useful rule to live by, in anticipation of future events.

But inner doubts like: I am just the quiet guy. I am not cool enough; are just learned scripts. These aren’t necessarily true. This is just like the bell that got Pavlov’s dogs salivating. There was no actual guarantee of food –  it was simply a learned correlation.

Your inner rules work a bit different than natural rules because thoughts dictate your behaviour.  They become self-fulfilling prophecies. In truth, there is no reason why you can’t be a very social person. Or why you can’t be super cool. No one is keeping count if you are cool enough in life, just you and your arbitrary rules.   

Give yourself permission to be who you want to be. And to do the things you want to do, despite your emotional and cultural conditioning. Define your own rulebook. Set your own socio-emotional decrees.

For example:

I am allowed to say ‘no’ to requests
I don’t have to give a reason to excuse myself
I am allowed to walk up to anyone and talk to them
I choose my own hobbies, whatever popular culture may think

What else do you want to do? What rules need to be overwritten in your head? Write down your new statutes in a notebook. Revisit them every week. Step by step, start living by them.

And when your inner doubt creeps up again: “I can’t ask a stranger for directions, that is rude.” Your SELF MADE rule will pop up, “I am allowed to walk up to anyone and talk to them.” Doubt may still be there, but you have ammunition to counter your inner negativity. You have given yourself permission. You don’t need anyone else’s.

You don’t have to be anchored by previous limiting beliefs. You are your mind, you make the rules. Be creative, set up your guidelines in an empowering style.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”
Henry Ford

Wrapping up

So that is where we stand. Four interdependent techniques to make your involuntary thought process more positive: disrupting thought patterns, actively reiterating your thoughts, exposure to positivity and setting your own rules.

Your circumstance won’t define you but show who you really are. You are who you believe you are. As you develop yourself, and WILL yourself in who you want to be, you will take action where it’s called for.

Start today by getting yourself a notebook. Become super aware of your mind. Analyze your inner thoughts. Find that habit process that makes you doubt yourself.

Finally, use the wisdom that you obtain. Begin using these tactics to get yourself in a positive frame of mind. Use it to achieve your goals and realize your personal purpose.

This is a Guest Post written by Timon Klip, a former socially awkward engineer. Now he helps highly analytical people to be socially confident. Using psychology and humor to help fellow nerds make new friends and deep connections. Read more at Techlecticism to be confident, charming and yourself.

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