That big mental logjam

If you have ever had that feeling of massive mental relief after finally dealing with something that has been lurking in your mind for a long time then you’ll be familiar with the theme of this blog.

Mental logjams are something we all face, and often don’t even realise how much mental capacity they’re taking up. For some people it’s a tax return, for others it is a piece of work dragging and overdue, it may be something inter-personal that is blocking the way, or simply a fear of failure. And sadly, it’s often persisting personal problems and fears that feel as though they will never leave.

Breaking through

When it’s finally over, the feeling is quite amazing. You feel it physically as your shoulders relax and your frown breaks. You feel it mentally, with a sudden surge of energy or relief. Other people notice it too; they see a spring in your step and a smile on your face.

Defining yourself as bad at something

The mental structure that you build up over time can make change really difficult. The worst, and most common example of this, is to declare yourself bad at something. It is such a limiting mindset as we so often deliver on what we tell ourselves. If you tell yourself that you are bad at public speaking, with an implicit suggestion that you always will be, then you will automatically find all the information that confirms this. Any ambiguous information will also be construed as confirming your viewpoint. This viewpoint really filters your environment, much more than you may think.

This dynamic can be really circular and self-fulfilling. If you nervously approach the stage in front of a full room of people that are giving neutral signals you might interpret that as them being uninterested or impatient. This makes you anxious as you begin to worry that they’ll be disappointed with your impending presentation. This anxiety causes you to falter in your introduction. After this clumsy intro you see a few people mutter to themselves – you assume it is disapprovingly. This confirms your suspicion and you just want the speech to be over, so for the rest of the presentation you keep your eyes down and rush through the notes you’ve written. At the end you look up to see a lot of people bored, checking their phones or talking to each other – and the final result is that you continue to feel awful and the group feels short-changed and unimpressed.

Now imagine what would happen if you told yourself, “I’m nervous, but I’m going to give this my best shot…”

Building a non-threatening environment

You can’t just lie to yourself and expect to instantly become better at something. Most habits take a long time to build, and a longer time to break. The best thing to do is to give yourself incremental challenges and safe zones that allow you to extend yourself without the risk of huge negative consequences. If you create a positive and skill-building mindset then the things you think you’re bad at can one day no longer be true.

Look at ways you can build skills through workshops or have a mentor or colleague you can talk to about things that are limiting your working happiness. These support structures give you the room to grow, and change your position from what it is to what you wish it could be.

Too many people continue to avoid and resist ways of improving their skills, instead sitting back and refusing to take the plunge to become better and happier. The fear of the discomfort due to change keeps so many people in an unsatisfying loop of behaviour.

Breaking through

I can’t count the amount of times that I’ve seen people take on their fears, only to have a negative first experience when doing so. It is so tough to put your confidence on the line only to have your worst fears realised. This is why it is so important to put your attention towards the ‘long-game’. You might stand up to someone only to have them shout you down and get aggressive and angry with you. You might overcome your nerves, commit to doing a presentation only to flop badly.

These are strong discouragements to trying again – which is why it is so important to keep your expectations in check when you take on these deeply personal challenges. A mental logjam is almost always focused on a single event or situation, and all your anxieties pour into this. But think about the bigger picture here – to be good at something you need practice. Along the way there will be some ups and downs, but if you pour your effort and motivation towards practising these interpersonal skills, or overcoming these fears you will begin to see the positive outcomes occur a lot more frequently, and the negative outcomes don’t feel as bad.

It never feels like there is a good time to overcome a paralysing mental block – they always seem too big to overcome. But chip away at it, give yourself a chance and make sure that voice inside your head is providing encouragement and sensible commentary!

Eve Ash is a psychologist and filmmaker. Eve welcomes participants to her next MELBOURNE HALF DAY WORKSHOP at AIM St Kilda, TOMORROW – March 13, 2013 8.30am: How to Present Yourself and Your Ideas with More Impact.

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