004A. Reframing Negative Thoughts: The Art of New Perspectives

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Key Quote

“Perfection is not a real thing. What’s going on is it’s a defense mechanism wrapped up in a nice-sounding package that makes you seem and feel like you’re dedicated to work.” – Andrew Gilley

Episode Summary

Whispers of a mysterious “goblin” plagued Andrew Gilley, seeding intense anxiety and self-doubt, compelling him to seek refuge in perfectionism. As the veil of confusion slowly lifted, he began to discern the discord between the insidious whispers and the reality that surrounded him.

Embarking on a journey to reframe the negativity, Andrew sought to unravel the enigma of his own identity, piecing together the fragments of his fractured self. In the shadows, he discovered the secret key to transcending the confines of perfectionism – an unexpected embrace of his imperfections alongside the treasures of his true self.

Dare to explore the unknown with Andrew as he unveils the art of mastering one’s thoughts and liberating oneself from the shackles of negativity. Join us in this episode, as we delve into the heart of self-discovery and the untold power that lies within.

Full Transcript

[00:00:00] Andrew Gilley: Picture this. You wake up in the morning, you’re starting a new job. You walk over to the mirror and look at yourself. You hear, “How did you trick everyone?”

You sigh. You brush your teeth. “Everyone knows you’re stupid.”

You get dressed. You’re a fraud.”

You continue onward, smiling through your job, constantly hearing these nagging questions in the background.

You go home at night and keep hearing this, your confidence is shaken. You can’t write your work. You feel even worse. The thoughts are right. You wish you were different. You wish you were better. How do you deal with this?

In today’s self-help podcast episode, I detail an internal conflict that I went through about reframing my negative thoughts, which started in graduate school with perfectionism. I then talk about how this story opened up a larger journey into mindshifts and the impact it’s had on my life. And lastly, I reflect on why the story is a valuable lesson on reframing negative thoughts and how large of a role that can play in our lives.

Welcome to Surviving Humanity: A Self-Help Podcast, where we shift your respective to help you overcome the obstacles in your life.

We’re Wes Jackson and Andrew Gilley, and we hope to foster a sense of connection and community over our common struggles while providing you with tools to overcome them.

As always, our FacebookSubreddit, and Twitter are the best places to go for community connection and support.

Let’s get started.

So there’s two people involved in this story, and both are me, in a sense. There’s who I’d call Andrew, me, the person on camera, the person who everyone sees walking around doing things. Day-to-day, andrew does his writing, goes to the grocery store, tries to be pleasant and kind to the people he interacts with – he walks around looking mostly normal most of the time.

The other side, I’ll call the goblin. There’s a goblin living in all of our heads, and my goblin tells me that I’m not good enough. It’s the voice telling us all that you know, we’re not worthy of love, that we don’t matter, that we’re letting everyone down.

Goblin gets his hooks in there and doesn’t let go. It’s always lurking in the background. Now, obviously both of these are me when we get down to the end of the day, but the goblin feels like something else in my head. It doesn’t feel like me. It feels like somebody sabotaging me, but of course it is me.

It’s self-sabotage. The goblin is the portion of my brain trying to bring me down. It’s the part of me that thinks I should fail, that I deserve to fail. I’ve always had that kind of problem with intrusive, negative thoughts in my head. I’ve always been a perfectionist ever since I was a kid, but when my obligations became professional, when I went to graduate school and began teaching, the goblin became a lot more powerful.

I was having to produce higher quality writing and more of it at more competitive institutions. I had moved across the whole country. There was enormous pressure on me and I didn’t make it any easier on myself. I compounded it. I was listening to the goblin in my head all the time, believing it was completely right. I let the goblin run the show. My doubts, my insecurities, my fears, they were the things that I was thinking the most.

They were the things that were driving me to keep going, this isn’t a healthy way to keep going. the first day of classes at graduate school, I am meant to meet with the professor that I would be assisting. My stomach was churning like it was full of live eels. I was walking through downtown Atlanta with anxiety racking my body and brain, and all I could think about was what the goblin was telling me.

“How did I get here? This isn’t me. I’m not smart enough. This isn’t something I could do.”

Those thoughts kept compounding on each other and churning away until I got physically sick and threw up in the bushes outside of the building. The anxiety just was so utterly overwhelming, and I didn’t really deal with it.

I didn’t take the time. The feelings didn’t go away, but I still had to go to class. I still had to teach. I still had to work, so I just had to suck it up. It was a sink or swim dynamic and I wasn’t exactly doing either. I wasn’t underwater, but I certainly wasn’t doing well, because it wasn’t really about philosophical aptitude at that point.

It was about learning how to be a professional, how to do academic work as a career, and that was difficult for me, because there’s a lot of ego tied up in that. Because a philosophy paper, in some sense, indicates how smart you are, how well you can think.

That’s the impression a lot of us get. So, if you fail, if you’re thinking badly, that feels like a reflection on your intellect. Of course, that’s not necessarily true; if you’re dealing with something you’ve never looked at before, no matter how smart you are, it’s going to be new to you, you’re going to have difficulty.

But, my thoughts were dominated by negativity, by the goblin telling me that I wasn’t smart, that I’m lucky or that people just felt bad for me, so they were being nice to me.

There was a disconnect in what I was being told at the university, “You deserve to be here. That’s why you’re here. Everyone struggles.”

They were very understanding about that, but the goblin in my head told me I was still uniquely bad. Everyone else felt like imposters, but they weren’t really, I was the real one. Other people had those feelings, but I was wrong to have them.

There was a double standard here that was created by the goblin because those negative thoughts kept churning in my head letting in that little bit of negativity at a time. So, I turned to what I always used to do in school, which is be a perfectionist. Perfectionism in general is the idea that if your work is perfect, then you’ll be free from any shame or judgment or criticism.

If you hand in a perfect “A” paper, whether you’re in fourth grade or in your PhD program, the idea is if you hand in something perfect, then you won’t have to deal with any feedback, and if you don’t have to deal with any feedback, you can keep your ego safe. Now, the problem is this isn’t really how reality works.

Perfection is not a real thing. What’s going on is it’s a defense mechanism wrapped up in a nice-sounding package that makes you seem and feel like you’re dedicated to work.

Of course I want my paper to be perfect, why wouldn’t I? So, it sounds good, but there is nothing perfect and it’s not about other people, even though it seems to be, because what you’re doing when you’re being a perfectionist is you’re trying to control other people’s perceptions of you.

You’re trying to make sure that people react to you the way you want them to, and that’s impossible. You can’t control people’s reactions. And, I wanted my advisors to be impressed with my work. I wanted my teachers to like it. I wanted my colleagues to like it. I wanted to do a good job teaching my students.

I felt that if I was perfect enough, then I wouldn’t have to feel bad about messing up or anything like that. But if we reality check that for a moment, my professors have seen hundreds, if not thousands of papers and given thousands, if not tens of thousands of comments. I’m a minor part of their lives, it’s not about me.

They’re helpful, they’re nice people, but like their comments aren’t centered around me or my conception of my ego. So, it’s not really about them. I’m trying to appease the goblin in my head. The goblin’s telling me that everybody knows I’m bad, unless I can convince everyone I’m perfect.

And that’s a waste of time. Perfectionism is a waste of time. It kills internal motivation because it just ramps up the anxiety even more. I was already anxious just walking around the anxiety, being juiced by my goblin, just constantly putting negative thoughts in my head about how I’m a failure, about how I’m not smart.

So, I just powered through. I used unhealthy coping mechanisms, mostly alcohol, to just power through the stress and get my papers done and get my teaching done. I wasn’t drinking on the job or anything, but alcohol was just the easiest release from all the stress that I built up by having the goblin in my head all day and doing nothing to change those thoughts. And perfectionism only ever got worse.

Because if you fail to be perfect – and you will of course fail to be perfect because perfection does not exist – you resolve to fix it by becoming even more perfect the next time, which is even more impossible, and there’s no way to the end, you just keep not feeling good enough and it just lets the goblin run away with your brain.

So, like everything I got out of this through the love and support of my wife and my friends and my family. But the thing that happened cognitively in my brain was this realization that the bad parts of me are also the good parts of me. And this helped a lot in reframing the negativity I was experiencing and shift my perspective away from perfectionism.

Because things I thought were disadvantages and that sometimes were, could also be advantages. My thinking tends to be very scattered and rapid, but also, this lets me connect varying points, which is a good thing in philosophy. Perfectionism, while it manifested negatively in some contexts, was also a good attention to detail. My fear of what people thought of me let me understand audiences better in my writing and tailor to them.

The thing that’s very hard to accept is that the goblin isn’t all bad. The messages are bad, they mess with my brain, and that’s not what I want. But the parts of me borne of insecurity also give me other things.

Being overly attentive to detail has a light and a dark side. It’s up to us to use our goblin, to treat it as one thought in your head. The problem comes when we give our goblin the power over us, when we treat those thoughts as more than they are. This is important to reframing every thought, essentially. The recognition that thoughts are just thoughts.

They aren’t real unless we give them the power to be real. Just understanding the goblin, knowing what it is, being able to identify, “Oh, there’s the goblin again, telling me that I’m not good enough, telling that story.”

That’s a powerful reframing because it separates you from the thoughts; it doesn’t have you identifying with the goblin, it’s acknowledging it. You don’t wanna ignore it. You can’t ignore it. It’s always gonna be there nagging, but if you don’t give it any more power, that’s all it is, a little bit of a nag.

Those feelings can drag you down if you let them, but they’re just feelings, just thoughts in the brain, nothing more, nothing less. And if you don’t give them as much power, they can’t control you.

Our shadow sides are reflections of ourselves. All the good we have also comes with the problems. We’re all complex, multifaceted beings. Kind people are vulnerable, strong people burn out, sad people are empathetic, selfish people can be smart and so on. I can’t create an “Andrew” that’s just the things I like about myself. I can’t just exorcise the goblin out of me, my doubts and fears are as much a part of me as my hopes and dreams.

When I understood this and started seeing myself as a more holistic individual, as a whole person, I stopped seeing a goblin as the negative part of me. It’s just one thing. One thought I have in a day, or many thoughts I have in a day, that are just part of the thousands that I do.

That’s what the brain does, it thinks all the time. So, I don’t over-identify with my goblin anymore. I don’t try to give it all that power. I hear the negative thoughts about me not being good enough about how if I’m just perfect, I can shield myself from criticism. I just have to take a deep breath and realize that is something that I think that maybe I should listen to sometimes, most of the time probably not. But, without the goblin, I don’t have myself.

Because the bad nagging thoughts of the goblin are just the shadow side of the good, wholesome thoughts that I can have when I move myself away from that negativity. And of course, it goes without saying that my goblin was wrong. Many, if not most of my colleagues, felt similar pressure.

They opened up and talked about their fears and procrastination. They felt scared and alone and insecure; and that helped. It helped to know that. It helped to reach out and see it in people instead of just intellectually understanding it. It’s not just me that had the goblin in my brain, it’s everybody.

And though I had maybe a louder goblin than many people, we all had to learn how to reframe these negative thoughts and keep going. It’s just as true as everyone else as it was of me. The good things about other people are their bad things too, and vice-versa. We’re all people, we’re all complicated, and we can all reframe our negative thoughts in positive ways.

But, what I really took away from the experience is how I approached negativity in myself. And embracing my whole self, the positive and negative, was a key step in evolving past perfectionism as a defense mechanism, reframing my negative thought patterns as just thoughts, and taking away their power.

This is how I was able to grow out of that phase and embrace myself better as a whole person. It was how I was able to understand reframing my negative thoughts as not just positive, not just negative, but as a whole person; to embrace the negative thoughts and to understand and accept all of the fears and troubles that were going to come with the territory of putting myself out there, taking feedback.

That was the important thing for me. And while all of these things still scare me, and there’s still a goblin up here in my head, he’s not quite as loud or controlling as he used to be. And when I hear those thoughts, when I feel like I’m not good enough, I can stop, say, “Oh, that’s just the goblin.”

Reframe it, and move on.

If we all practice this enough, we can all make the goblin in our heads a little quieter. We may not ever be friends with him, but we might tolerate him.

Thank you for listening, and tune in next Tuesday, where I’ll be talking with Wes about how this story is just one part of a much bigger conversation on mindshifts.

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