Changing the Tapes

This morning, I completely missed a call with a founder. I always look at my calendar the night before. But for whatever reason, I skipped it last night and thought my first call was at 8:30. My first thought was, “Geez, Pat. I’m such an idiot for missing that and should have checked my calendar.” And I beat myself up all morning for it.

And last night, as I was pulling into our garage, I hit the side of the car against the wall and made an awesome white mark. The first thought that ran through my mind was, “C’mon Pat. Why didn’t you take your time? I know that I should slow down when coming into the garage.”

You see my pattern.

I made a mistake both times. But, I also immediately chastised myself—and who I am—for those simple mistakes. My first response, fairly often, is to beat myself up.

The Danger of “Should”

I recently sat down with a CEO who was struggling with her company’s finances—they weren’t looking good. As we were talking, what kept coming up for her was the fact that she “should” have known how to manage them. She “shouldn’t” have gotten herself in this situation. She “should” have called for help earlier. My wife calls this, “When you ‘should’ all over yourself.”

This CEO believed she was a bad person simply because she hadn’t learned certain tools yet. She wasn’t saying to me, “I’ve never had finance training and I’d love some help understanding some things.” Or, “I’m really struggling with our financials because I’ve never had to manage something this large before.” Instead, her talk track was all about how much better she should have been doing and how she isn’t very smart. Which, of course, is entirely untrue.

Shame Has No Place Here

I’m with startup CEOs all the time. It’s a very fortunate and fun part of what I do.  But unfortunately, it also means I see how often our initial (and, in most cases, sustained) reactions to mistakes and weak spots are to blame ourselves and who we are as people. Said another way: We’re shaming ourselves for our minor mistakes.

And, truthfully, we do have things we need to learn. There are things we need to improve. But it’s how we’re labeling ourselves in the process that’s the problem.

There’s an important distinction between shame and accountability. As Brené Brown says, there’s a difference between “I did something bad,” and “I am bad.” Far too often, we’re telling ourselves that we’re not good people or that there’s something wrong with us as individuals. And that’s where we need to make a shift.

Rewriting the Track

This kind of shift is important for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that we’re missing out on an important opportunity when we play these kinds of negative mental tracks. They keep us stuck, tired, and ineffective as leaders. They keep us from making progress that helps us—and our companies—grow.

So, as I’ve worked to change some of my own thought patterns, there have been three key practices I’ve learned that help me move beyond self-shaming:

First, when the situation happens, I ask: What is really true?
Is it true that I’m an idiot for missing a meeting? No, it’s not. In taking on a ton of extra load while Dani (our COO) has been out, things were inevitably going to fall through the cracks. When you aren’t sure how to run your company’s finances, are you stupid? No. You simply haven’t learned that skill yet. So why should you be expected to do it well the first time around?

Second, I try to live out of that truth and take action.
While people might give themselves grace, they don’t often make an actual change. You actually need to learn how to run your finances. Continuing to tell yourself that you’re stupid or ignoring the fact that you need to change does nothing. She actually needs to embrace the truth that there are things she must learn in order to run her company well. And it will likely require mentors and additional education. Because if she just allows the shame to sit in her brain, she can’t learn how to grow her business.

Finally, I have to keep “changing the tapes” over and over and over again.
Our brains are programmed to stay in their typical lanes. (A simple Google search will show you how science has proven this repeatedly.) So you have to “change the tapes” all the time. You’re not an idiot. And you’ll actually have to remind yourself of that fact that about 20 times a day. Maybe even 20 times an hour. Because one day of reprogrammed thoughts isn’t going to instantly erase 15 years of self-shaming.

The Bigger Bonus

There’s a benefit for shifting out of negative thought patterns that goes beyond rewriting your own story. If you actually make progress on changing your tapes, you’ll not only have more energy and be a better leader, but you’ll also be much more graceful toward those around you. And our relationships, our companies, and our culture at large could stand more of that right now.