Your Brain is Designed to Eff You

On March 11, 2011, I was in New York City sitting in Tory Johnson’s Spark & Hustle workshop for women entrepreneurs. Between airfare, registration, and my hotel, I had spent a lot of money to be there so I was trying to pay attention, but my mind was somewhere else. It was firmly planted in a Fox Business studio, where I was scheduled to be that evening. I had been booked for a segment on job search tips for new grads and – even though it was my third national interview to date – it’s safe to say I was terrified. Every time I envisioned myself answering questions on live television, I literally pictured the worst-case scenario.

What if the host asks me something and I don’t know the answer?

What if I freeze?

What if I forget my train of thought and ramble until I have to be cut off?

What if my points don’t make any sense?

All morning my mind had been racing between thoughts of “Don’t worry – you got this!” and an equally present “Runnow!” I had barely gotten any sleep the night before as I tossed and turned, thinking of every possible question I could be asked about college seniors on the job hunt and how I would answer it. Over and over I would record myself on my phone and play it back in an effort to memorize the responses I wanted to give word by word. On the morning of the interview, I had been ruminating over it for so long I was mentally and physically exhausted. Hoping Tory’s conference would prove a welcome distraction, I made a point to sit as close to the stage as possible to avoid my own head for a while. No luck. All morning I was interrupted by a series of well-meaning texts and emails from family and friends, promising to tune in or record the segment. Some were even planning to watch in groups. “Fabulous,” I thought. “Why did I post this on Facebook?” I desperately wanted to be excited and energized at this huge opportunity, but each message only deepened the panic.

My interview was scheduled to take place at 5:30pm in downtown Manhattan. Even though the conference didn’t end until late in the afternoon I was planning to leave before lunch so I could go back to my hotel for one more round of preparatory torture. At the last minute, though, I decided to stay and listen to one final speaker. It was Mel Robbins, a brash, in-your-face kind of gal who was just about to release a new book called Stop Saying You’re Fine. Though we would go on to bump in to each other at various events down the road, at the time I hadn’t heard of Mel and I wasn’t sure what to make of her cutout black jeans and leather jacket. As she approached the stage, Mel took a few measured steps, scanned the crowd, and then blurted out eight words that changed my life.

“Ladies, your brain is designed to fuck you.”

Mel went on to discuss two distinctive mind patterns, emotional thinking and strategic thinking. Emotional thinking focuses on the “what ifs” that are almost-always catastrophic. It’s the voice in your head that immediately goes for the car-drives-off-the-cliff scenario. If you’re giving a presentation, for example, it’s the one that says you’ll choke. If you’re up for a promotion, it’s the one that says you’ll not only be passed over for the job, but everyone will mock you for even applying. Mel compared emotional thinking to a death spiral. “Once you get sucked in,” she said, “it’s almost impossible to get out.”

It was unquestionably the perfect message at the perfect time.

As I sat there, literally with my mouth open, listening to Mel talk about the dangers of “what if” thinking, it was as if she had lifted my head open like the hood of a car and diagnosed my problem instantly. I was deeeeeep in a mental death spiral, and I didn’t even realize it until that very moment. Fortunately, there was a cure: Strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is the literal opposite of emotions – it’s the positive affirmations that serve to reduce our anxiety and build our confidence. Too often, however, our strategic thoughts get steamrolled by our insecure, emotional ones. Mel said those who win in life must first win the mental battlefield by diffusing emotional thinking and replacing it with strategic. As first, she warned, this would feel like an internal game of whack-a-mole (the emotional thought pops up and the strategic thought must jump in and beat it to submission), but she promised it would get easier over time.

I had exactly four hours.

I did go back to my hotel room to pull myself together (again), but in that time I banished “what if” from my mind and consciously replaced it with “I will.” So whenever I thought “What if I freeze?” I would stop and say outloud, I will be confident, poised, and amazing.” This went on for a few hours and then, for the first time since I arrived in New York the day before, I took a break to look out the window. I watched delivery vans being unloaded, people walking by, cabs coming, going, honking… and I genuinely felt better. Lighter. Regardless of what happened in those four minutes on air, I knew I would be confident, poised, and amazing.

As it turned out, my interview was canceled at the last minute due to a horrific earthquake in Japan. It did take place about a month later and, while I’m proud to say I didn’t choke, freeze, or ramble, I will always remember the real breakthrough I made that spring. I found a tool that worked to help me control and direct my own thoughts – and that changed everything. So if you’re stuck in your own crisis of confidence, remember this: You are only as limited as the gunk in your head. Whatever emotional thinking keeps swimming around your mind telling you that you’re not smart, strong, talented, or (fill in the blank) “enough”, the time has come to tell that voice to shut up. Find the affirmation that works for you and – when you feel the emotional death spiral start to percolate within – stop immediately and repeat it to yourself. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

Thank you Mel.

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