Hacking your way to positivity and success

Dr Ivan Joseph
August 17, 2020
7 min read


As we discussed in my last blog post, self-confidence is what I call a master skill. We acquire it when we practice and become proficient at five supporting skills:


  • Positive thought
  • Team building
  • Grit
  • Higher expectations
  • Focus


This week we are going to focus on the skill of positive thought so we can learn how to think more positively and experience less negative self-talk.


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We all have an audio track playing in our heads. A quiet little voice that repeats messages over and over again. And when that voice comes from the dark part of our heart, it is invariably negative. 


When I ask audience members at speaking engagements to share their negative thoughts, I hear women tell me they think “I am not ready for the promotion I have been given” or “I’m not good enough to get ahead.” And I hear men say they think “My hairline is receding” or “I don’t have enough money” or “My car isn’t cool enough.” These thoughts are similar to ones we are all familiar with: “I’m stupid,” “I can’t do that,” “This is too much for me,” “I’m boring” and on and on. 


Negative thoughts plague us. And, more importantly, they are a significant problem for our performance.


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Imagine someone whose opinion you value, like your boss or your spouse, saying you’re not capable of doing something. It’s a constant assault. And that’s exactly how the emotional core of our brain experiences it—as an assault. 


When someone hurls negative comments at us, we experience them as an attack that threatens our sense of self. Our stress response is triggered, our fight-or-flight mechanisms engage, and our bodies fill with cortisol and adrenaline. Those chemicals are helpful in rare moments of actual crisis, but damaging to our health in the face of life’s typical stresses. 


When negative comments come from inside our own minds, this “self-assault” triggers a stress response that hinders our problem-solving capacity and reduces our ability to perform. 


In a new or difficult situation, negative thoughts can grow so deafening that we become overwhelmed and slip into anxiousness: sweaty palms, high blood pressure and visions of worst-case scenarios.


So what can we do in tough situations, or when we’re not certain, or when we place too much pressure on ourselves? Learn to control our thoughts and create a positive outlook. 


If we can do this, we can capitalize on the enormous boost in performance that comes from having an optimistic mindset. The idea is simple: if we feel good, we perform well. And so by changing your thoughts, you change your game. 



There are several effective ways to improve your ability to think positively.


Here are the two I would start with: 


  • Stop negative thoughts with physical gestures.
  • Use positive affirmations to reclaim personal power.



Positive Thought Builder #1: Stop Negative Thoughts with Physical Gestures


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In sports psychology, the ability to shut out negative thoughts and replace them with the belief that you can succeed is called “thought stopping” or “centering.” 


For example, when you see a professional soccer player clap twice after they miss the net or point at an opposing player who just beat them, they are using a physical cue to snap out of self-doubt and be reminded that they are skilled and capable. It’s the same process basketball and volleyball players use when they tap hands with each other on both good and bad shots. And why baseball pitchers take one deep breath as they mentally prepare for every pitch. These athletes have been trained to routinely replace thoughts about mistakes (either actual or possible) with messages about their ability, which they cue with physical actions.


When I coach soccer, I often give my athletes a rubber band and tell them to move the band from one wrist to another or give it a light snap whenever they have a negative thought. This develops an awareness of their thought tendencies so they can learn to shift to a positive outlook. The process becomes automatic and their performance improves. 


You can do this too. Decide on a simple physical gesture and repeat it every time an “I’m no good” or “I’m not up to the challenge” thought intrudes. You may, in fact, be in a tough situation at the time, but negative thoughts won’t take you anywhere but down. Learn to recognize any mental habit that undermines your belief in yourself and take action to address it.


You can accept the negative thoughts and let them control you, or you can change your thoughts and perform at your best.


Positive Thought Builder #2: Use Positive Affirmations


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Simple affirmative phrases can change the negative thoughts that undermine your confidence. 


I have about 10 affirmations that I’ve developed over the years. I keep them on a written list posted at home and use them whenever I face something new.


I quietly say to myself, out loud, phrases such as “You got this, Ivan”; “Nobody outworks me”; “I choose to be happy.” And my favorite, which was inspired by a poem called “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley: “I am captain of my ship. I am master of my fate.” 


These statements help me reclaim my personal power so that I don’t walk into a situation and allow someone else to determine how I feel or perform. 


They are also expressions of my belief in myself that calm me and help me channel my energy and anxiousness into my performance—just like elite athletes under immense pressure in the final play before time runs out.


Affirmations are more than a warm and fuzzy technique used by coaches (a lot of whom are not so warm and fuzzy!). They are a proven method of shaping and controlling our thoughts. 


Researchers at Carnegie Mellon  University found that affirmations combat stress and can lead to positive effects in performance. The study showed that self-affirmation boosts the ability to solve problems under pressure and reduces the negative effects of chronic stress.


Another study published by the Association for Psycho- logical Science indicates that self-affirmation  enhances our performance by making us more aware of our errors and more emotionally comfortable with accepting and correcting them. 


That’s an interesting finding. Affirmations don’t give us that false confidence where we deny we make mistakes at all and pass ourselves off as awesome or perfect. Instead, they make us strong enough to say, “Okay, I got that wrong, and now I’m going to fix it.” That kind of thinking improves our performance.


An effective affirmation reminds you of your values and beliefs—of who you are. 


That is why I say, “You got this, Ivan.” I am reminding myself of my belief that I can succeed even when nothing is handed to me. It’s shorthand for “Ivan, you have what it takes to do this because you have done it before and you are the kind of person who will make it through the storm.” 


Your affirmations are brief versions of deep beliefs about yourself. For example, Muhammad Ali’s famous statement “I am the greatest” is shorthand for his belief in hard work and toughing it out against the odds. 


I want you to go develop affirmations for yourself. Focus on creating phrases that emphasize your best beliefs about yourself or your cherished values. 


These will remind you of what makes you unique, strong and capable. And use them every day, especially in the morning and right before any task that makes you anxious or anticipate the worst. 


Just remember, it’s not a magic button. You can’t just start affirming yourself and hope that negative thoughts or stress will disappear. You have to repeat, repeat, repeat and ensure that the phrases are your actual beliefs and values, not things you wish you cared about. Repeat until you are so practiced at genuinely (not just wishfully) replacing fear and worry with belief in yourself that you don’t even notice you are doing it. 


If you practice deliberately and often, you can rewire your brain until you think and feel different, simply because you made yourself do it.



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