When my kids were in elementary school, a new technique was unveiled by the staff to intervene and prevent antisocial and bullying behaviour on the schoolyard, specifically at lunchtime and during recess. This was a pretty chill school to start with, so it’s not as if they had to screen for firearms or drugs but still…children can be cruel and teachers didn’t want their task made any more difficult through added trauma. Plus, they mostly really liked the kids and didn’t want them to be harmed. Part of the technique was, of course, intervening in bad behaviour, documenting it and escalating it as required. But the innovative piece was to hand out slips of paper which included the child’s name and the positive activity they had been “caught” performing. It wasn’t just teachers and playground monitors who could hand these out; kids themselves could request a form from a staff member and cite their friends and colleagues, or even their enemies, for doing something nice for someone else.
In the process, though, there was an unanticipated side effect of this campaign and I noticed it amongst my own children who would bring home, with great pride, the little chits where they’d been caught being kind, considerate and caring. It became a personal goal for each of them to go out of their way to bring home more and more of these laurels, to the point where I seriously considered buying a second refrigerator, not for the required capacity, but for the real estate another door would provide to affix the various paperwork.
In my work as a presentation and interview skills coach and trainer, the most common experience people bring to the training is anxiety about being tested, revealed and judged. No matter the eventual skills that are unveiled, almost everyone comes with a pit in their stomachs and a flutter in their hearts. As adults, we are often paralyzed by anxiety and a fear that we will fail, or disappoint, or embarrass ourselves. We can take a page from the playground book and, rather than endlessly running mental loops where we tripped, fell, s**t the bed, we could start to notice ourselves doing things well. We can save those memories, even write them down, and go back to them as a way to self-medicate with positive memories, rather than poison our confidence with the negatives. It’s a sad fact of human nature that we dwell on the negative influence and experiences of our life. One study asked people to write down the 12 most influential events in their lives. The vast majority cited illness, death, accidents and failures in far greater abundance than they did happy times and achievements. Try this yourself: ask people to write down a dozen adjectives describing themselves, or their work habits. Chances are, most people will write down at least as many negatives as positives, if not more. We are hard wired to be self-critical.
Getting out of the mental trap of insecurity and self-doubt is hard work but small steps make it manageable. It can’t be “fixed” overnight but if you start to take note of the things that went well in your day, the compliments (that you probably tried to kill) you received, and the progress you made AND you write it down or, better yet, share it with someone at the end of the day, it will start to change your brain to hang on to the good things because they give you dopamine for satisfaction, rather than cortisol for stress.
It’s not unlike keeping a gratitude journal, but the things you are being grateful for are in yourself.