How long can you sit alone with your thoughts? Imagine you are sitting in a room. There’s a chair you’re sitting on and a table. And a button. No phone, no paper, nothing else.
Just you and your thoughts. Oh, and the button. The button when pressed will send you an electric shock. Yes, it will hurt. You’ll be in that room for 15 minutes. What do you do? Do you press the button? Sit there in silence?
This was an experiment done in a bunch of college students. A surprising 67% of the men and 25% of the women decided to shock themselves instead of sitting there with their thoughts. We’ve talked before about how we could be our harshest critic. So these students could have been in a room alone with their worst enemies.
It’s no wonder that some of them would rather be shocked.
Our own worst enemy
When we are alone with our thoughts, we will often focus on what is going wrong in our lives or what we are anxious about. This focus on our negatives served us well as a survival mechanism in the past. If we tried something new and survived, we were lucky. We shouldn’t push our luck.
Now the stakes are lower. That fear before a speech serves us only briefly. It reminds us to prepare, but after that just acts as a hindrance. The feeling before it is still the same. Our body screams to not do it. We regret signing up to do it. This is despite how well we know it can help our career.
Or during the preparation, we sabotage ourselves. Not work on it to the best of our ability. We do this because even practicing for it, our brain tells us that it’s not safe. We should have taken the easier path.
Focusing on failures
Focusing on our failures is similar. It is on the front of our minds because of how harmful failure could have been in the past. Imagine trying a new trail or hunting technique and almost starving. Better to stick to a tried and true method. Even if it isn’t that great.
Any type of incremental improvement was not worth it. A 10% improvement in the food you got would rarely be worth it even if there was a 5% risk of getting eaten. However, now the stakes are much lower. Yes, you can totally bomb your presentation and feel bad for a few days. But if it went well? You could get a new promotion or even more.
Retrain your brain
It’s hard to get over this fear of silence. Of being left alone with your brain. One technique that has helped me is consciously focusing on whatever was negative or went wrong. Instead of avoiding it, try to hone in on what went wrong.
Try to glean anything you can and adapt. Know that you’ll be better next time. It’ll be painful at first. The difference between that and what you did before is the intention. Before it was like a papercut, you’d avoid it and then check on it again. Yep, still embarrassing. Still feel bad about it.
Instead, you’re intentionally thinking about what happened. What went wrong. From beginning to end. What went well? What went poorly? How will I improve next time? By the time you are done, you’ll have thought so much about it that your brain will give you a break. You’ll be able to sit in silence. Satisfied. Knowing you’ll do better next time.