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Like so many people, my father considered himself a victim of fate. The stress of his constant anger is probably what killed him at 52 – as did his lack of exercise, lack of self-discipline, deplorable diet and aversion to doctors. It would never have occurred to him that his ineffective, frustrated life was nothing more than the result of cultivated habits of negativity. It would never have occurred to him that he could have coached himself out of those bad habits.

Like him, you may sleep badly and feel cranky too much of the time. You may have bouts of panic, depression and out-of-control spiraling. Those might be big problems requiring counseling or psychological evaluation. Or they might just be things you can work out on your own, given the right guidance. The five essential steps of self-coaching can provide a useful road map for breaking the bad habits that prevent many people from living happily and spontaneously. Here’s a brief guide to instilling a can-do fire that will enable you to live the life you want:

1. Chart Your Weaknesses

Creating your best life begins with an appraisal of how you get trapped by reflexive thinking – those automatic thoughts that hammer you with doubts, fears and worries. Control strategies, such as black-and-white thinking, protect you from the vagaries of life, which your insecurity has convinced you that you can’t handle. Other common tactics include guilt trips, doubting, name calling, not caring, hostility, lying, manipulating, doom-and-gloom thinking, as well as:

Yes, buts … which allow you to sidestep responsibility. If you’re impervious to criticism, you’re in complete control.

Have-tos … which help you control yourself and others. When you’re convinced you must do something, you eliminate all doubts.

What-ifs … which soothe you with the belief that if you can just figure out what’s going to happen, you can adequately prepare for it.

Can’ts … which excuse you from possible failure. If you avoid failure, you’re in control.

2. Separate Fact From Fiction

My private-practice work during the past 30 years has convinced me that most people don’t think about thinking, especially the habituated kind of reflexive thinking that gets them in trouble. They simply react to their thoughts.

It’s time to infuse some consciousness into the picture. Simply look at any struggle, conflict or intense emotional experience, and ask yourself: “Am I reacting to facts or fictions?” Facts are objective, observable, here-and-now phenomena. Fictions are based on interpretations, judgments and prognostications about the future. Once you make this distinction – fact or fiction – scrutinize the thought. For example, if you think, “I doubt I can handle this job,” ask yourself, “Is it a fact that I can’t handle this job?” Since you don’t know whether you can or can’t handle the job unless you risk trying, you have to conclude that this is fiction. Only if you attempt the job and fail can you say it’s fact. This simple act of scrutiny casts a light of consciousness on your habits of insecurity. Habits prefer the dark. Once exposed, however, they begin to wilt.

3. Stop Listening to the Noise

Self-coaching teaches you that healthy thinking is a choice. Once you’ve figured out that fictions are steering your thoughts, you need to learn to stop listening. When my grandmother would catch me worrying about something, she’d say: “You can’t stop a bird from flying into your hair, but you don’t have to help him build a nest.” Grandma was right; you can’t stop a reflexive, insecure thought from popping up in your mind, but you don’t have to feed it with a second thought and a third and so on. Recognizing the simple truth that you don’t have to be victimized by your own thoughts can be an eye-opening experience.

4. Let Go

After you’ve learned to separate fact from fiction and to shut down reflexive, insecurity-driven thinking, it’s time for the prize: Eliminating struggle from your life. “Changing the channel” is one simple, yet powerful practice that will help you learn to stop, separate and let go. Try this exercise:

  1. Think about something negative that happened to you (an embarrassing moment, a frightening experience).
  2. Next, think about something emotionally positive – a memory, aspiration or vision for the future – anything that evokes good feelings.
  3. On one side of a piece of paper write the negative experience; on the other side write the positive experience.
  4. Now, for approximately 30 seconds, look at the negative statement and allow yourself to think only about this thought. Think anything you want, as long as it focuses on the negativity of this experience.
  5. At the end of 30 seconds, turn the page over and force yourself to think only about the positive experience.

At first this may take a little practice and patience. Once you get the hang of switching from negative to positive, try this: Look at the negative statement and allow negatives to fill your mind. Then, at any point, impulsively flip the page and switch to positive thinking. As you progress with this exercise you will find that, in an instant, negatives can be flipped into positives.

Once you realize how easy “changing the channel” can be, you’re on your way to understanding the true meaning of empowerment. It’s as simple as switching stations on your radio. If you don’t like what you’re thinking, change the channel.

5. Motivate Yourself

If you sense you’re losing ground – whether on the job, in your relationships or in your ability to reach a particular goal – you may also feel you’re losing your emotional grip and be tempted to just give up. Once you start grappling with doubt and insecurity, you’re just one step away from asking, “What’s the use?”

Motivation and momentum are two vital components to following through on your self-coaching practice. To sustain your efforts to break the habit of reflexive thinking, you need to maintain an empowered attitude and sufficient energy. Start collecting some small, early victories against reflexive thinking by accepting less risky challenges, such as ignoring a neighbor’s rude remark. Rather than being a pleaser or yes-person, try being more honest, starting with the people you know best. The key is to safely begin building your trust and confidence with “small wins,” so that you feel more competent about taking on larger trials.

In each of my own therapy experiences (and I’ve had a few), I expected to find answers, and I expected my therapist to have those answers. Years ago, my training analyst put my weekly session of chronic whining and complaining into perspective with an offhand, sarcastic, “Yes, dear.”

Mortified, shocked and embarrassed, I left his office in a huff. But in the years that followed, I came to realize that he was absolutely right. I really had been acting just like a child: whining, complaining week after week, looking not to take responsibility for my problems but to be rescued from them. That “yes, dear” remark became the seed that eventually led me to formulate three basic self-coaching truths:

  • You must challenge the myth that anyone else can “rescue” you. Professional help can have huge value (and is essential for many struggling with severe depression), but you have to do the work.
  • You must accept responsibility for personal change.
  • You must be convinced that you really have a choice.

Whether you’ve had your own “yes, dear” experience or you can’t (or won’t) spend the time and money on therapy, self-coaching is a simple, straightforward practice you can begin on your own, right now. Rather than mindlessly feeding your fears, why not learn to starve them by liberating yourself from insecurity’s reflexive thinking. Once you do, you – not your insecurity – will be steering your life.

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