The words you put after ‘I am’ determine the quality of your life.”
It’s so simple and profound, yet many of us don’t realize how much of an impact our internal dialogue has on us.
Sometimes, even believing we have positive qualities can keep us from taking the action we need to in order to build the type of life we want to live.
Growing up, my parents and teachers always complimented me on my intelligence.
“You have so much potential.”
Wow — I’m bright and gifted.
You’d think hearing those compliments over and over again would motivate me and lead to a life filled with accomplishment.
Everyone around me thought I’d breeze through elementary and high school, go to one of the top universities in the country, and get some cushy six-figure job as a lawyer or an engineer.
Being told how smart I was all the time actually caused the opposite to happen. I was so tied to my identity of being “the smart kid,” I never wanted to do anything to challenge it.
When it came to a situation that required effort — a situation where I faced the possibility of failure and loss of my identity — I never stepped up to the plate.
It was better to be the smart kid with potential than to find out whether or not the things people said about me were true.
Psychologist Carol Dweck tackles this phenomenon in her book Mindset.
She found that when kids are praised for their intelligence it, “give[s] them a boost, a special glow — but only for the moment.”
She also notes that, “The minute they hit a snag, their confidence goes out the window and their motivation hits rock bottom. If success means they’re smart, then failure means they’re dumb. That’s the fixed mindset.”
The fixed mindset permeates many of our minds. If you weren’t praised for your intelligence, you may have been told the opposite. Studies also found that students who believe they aren’t intelligent underperform in school.
The way you’re taught to view yourself during childhood is just one of the many ways you can form either negative or positive traits after the words “I am.”
If you think you’re an underachiever, you’ll always be able to find examples to confirm your belief. If you think you’re shy you’ll subconsciously act in a way that repels people through your body language and behavior.
Once you put a trait behind the words “I am,” and believe it firmly, everything that happens in your life becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
When I look at my own life — during both the ups and downs — my circumstances are usually tied to those two words.
You try to fix your situation over and over again with no success, and it’s because you’re focused on the wrong thing.
What if the current you simply isn’t capable of making that change? Until you address the stories you tell yourself about yourself, your situation will stay the same.
I used to be so lazy that at one point I paid my friend to wash my dishes for me. Yes, you read that correctly.
After the dishes got dirty again, I threw them away and bought paper plates.
If anyone knows what it’s like to be extremely lazy, it’s me.
Now, I wake up at 6 a.m. every morning and write. I’ve written more than 300 blog posts and am nearly finished with my second book. How did I make the transition from depressed pot head who barely got off the couch to prolific writer?
By changing the words that come after “I am.”
During that time, the actions themselves weren’t the major problem; it was the idea that I was lazy.
See, there’s a big difference between saying you’re being lazy, and saying you’re lazy.
The latter weaves whatever negative trait you identify into the core of who you are as a person, and it feels more difficult to change something about who you are as a person than it is to change your behavior.
So What Should You Do?
All of this information is great, but you still don’t know what to do about any of this.
To let go of and re-frame the stories you tell yourself about yourself and about the world, you can start with identifying them. It seems easy enough, but some of the harmful stories you tell yourself aren’t as apparent as others.
They hide in the dark. They’re almost invisible. They need to be dragged into the light.
So, drag yours into the light.
What are the stories you’ve been told about the way the world works? Here are some common ones:
· Money is scarce/ the economy sucks
· Only gifted people deserve success
· Without education you’re screwed
· The only way to make an income is through a job
· Entrepreneurship is risky
· You can’t make money as an artist
· Thin is beautiful
· You have to keep up with the Jones’s
· All authority figures are trustworthy
· The news is all true
· Being different is bad
Most of the stories you’re told by society are fear based. It has good reason to keep you believing the world is a scary place — fear fuels the economy, materialism, and institutions depend on it.
Next, lets talk about the stories you tell yourself about yourself. These are stories you learned from other people and through your environment,
· I’m not talented
· I’m lazy
· I’m shy
· I’m not artistic
· I’m right/left brained only
· I’m intelligent (fixed)
· I’m stupid (fixed)
· I’m not worthy of love
· I’m a phony/fraud
· I’m practical
· I’m timid
· I’m stuck/my position is cemented
I’d take a day, or two, or even a week to really think about these. Take a pen and paper and write all of these stories down, because we’ll perform an exercise to help you deal with them.
The philosopher Blasé Pascal once said, ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’
It’s uncomfortable to be alone with yourself and think about what lies deep below the surface of your thinking.
You might find this process brings a rush of emotions, maybe even some unpleasant ones.
You might want to kick yourself or kick someone else because the influence of these stories is subtle, yet powerful enough to have led your life to the point you’re at now. But in the end, knowing these stories gives you the power to change them.
How do you change them? By questioning them.
When you think about these stories, ask yourself “Are they really true?”
Is the economy so bad no one can succeed? In the connection economy we’re living in now, it’s possible to succeed in ways that aren’t tied to the economy like nine to five jobs are.
Are you lazy? I bet you can find examples where you’ve been highly motivated.
Things you’re interested in motivate you, and you’ve definitely gone out of your way to satisfy at least one desire in your life. Finding that example disproves your theory.
Once you have all of your stories identified on a sheet of paper, I want you to find an example that disproves each statement.
After you’ve done that, we’ll move onto the final phase and flip these stories on their head.
How to Rewrite the Script of Your Life
What if I told you that a few subtle changes in phrases could completely change the way you feel about yourself?
As we discussed earlier, the phrase “I am,” wields a lot of power. We can change those “I am,” statements to “I’m working on,” statements.
When I think about the times where I made real changes, it always came down to the decision to begin to work on whatever I once believed was set in stone.
I changed my mindset from believing I was lazy to believing I could work on becoming more motivated. It’s subtle, but instead of my laziness being irrefutable, it became a challenge to overcome.
Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to take all of the “I am,” statements you wrote earlier and change them to “I’m working on,” statements.
For example, if you said, “I’m not creative.” I’d like you to change it to something along the lines of “I’m working on finding creative outlets that suit me.”
I’m a big believer in the power of writing things down. Writing has a way of ingraining what’s on the paper into your mind.
Also, I’d like you to keep these notes somewhere prominent where you can look at them often.
You Can Change
I know what it feels like to have little hope for the future. I know what it feels like to look in the mirror and see nothing but a person who’s destined for nowhere.
If I didn’t experience such a change for myself, I wouldn’t believe it was possible for you.
I know your circumstances feel inescapably real. I know you feel the traits you have right now are set in stone, but they’re not.
“You,” is just a concept — a patchwork of stories — that can be changed.
It won’t happen overnight, but the more you question whether or not the way you are is fixed, the more your eyes will open to the fact that it’s all in your mind.
Reality is in the mind. Self-image is in the mind. Deep know we know this, but it takes constant reminding because it’s so easy to fall back into the traps of our own thoughts.
Questioning your thoughts and who you think you are pushes you two steps forward. You might go backward many times, but eventually, you’ll be further along than you’ve ever imagined — just like I am now.