Shirzad Chamine: Five Strategies to Challenge Negative Thoughts

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Shirzad Chamine: Five Strategies to Challenge Negative Thoughts

Break out of this self-destructive habit to become more productive in work and life.
Learning to meditate could help calm your brain in times of crisis, says executive coach and Stanford MBA Shirzad Chamine. | Reuters/Carlo Allegri

Stop for a moment and think about this: What do you actually think about yourself?

There’s the shiny, confident exterior you show the world, but at the end of the day, when you’re alone with your thoughts, what do they say to you?

Executive coach and Stanford MBA Shirzad Chamine asked more than 100 CEOs at a seminar this question, which they answered anonymously on flashcards. During a recent talk at Stanford Engineering’s eCorner, he read some of the answers aloud.

  • “I’m rarely at peace with myself.”
  • “I’m self-destructive and I don’t know why.”
  • “I don’t love myself very much.”
  • “I'm feeling very sad and lonely, and the anti-depressants I’m on don’t seem to be helping.”
  • “I battle with constantly ranking and judging everyone around me, in all settings, all the time.”

Chamine has spent the majority of his career trying to understand the drivers behind our most critical thoughts and whether it’s possible to escape them. Over time, he developed an analogy of how the human mind works that he uses to help others break out of self-destructive mental loops and become happier and more productive at work and in life.

At his recent talk, he shared five strategies to help people who want to challenge their negative thoughts.

Strategy #1: Learn How to Meditate in Stressful Situations

Everyone listens to a private, running inner monologue of positive and negative thoughts. Chamine says if you pay attention to your inner monologue, you can begin to understand what triggers your negative thoughts and consciously put yourself on a more positive mental track.

Shirzad Chamine | Cynthia Smalley
Shirzad Chamine | Photo by Cynthia Smalley

Meditation is a good first step; it allows you to focus on that voice and shift your inner perspective. The majority of people who meditate do so early in the morning, when things are quiet and they’re preparing themselves for the day ahead. But one long commute, four harried meetings, and six urgent deliverables later, those calming, positive thoughts are long gone for most people.

“You need to learn how to activate that brain in the middle of war, in the middle of challenges, in the middle of crises,” Chamine says. “Most meditators don’t learn how to activate that brain when they really need it.”

He shared a practical tip to spark mindfulness and calm in any situation: Slowly rub your index finger against your thumb, so that you can feel the individual ridges of your fingerprint. Try it for 10 seconds at a time. Focusing on that sensation can help ground you and break a negative mental cycle.

Strategy #2: Listen to Your Mental Criticism, but Don't Dwell on It

In your worst moments in life, you likely heard your inner voice turn dark, preying on your insecurities and anxieties, causing feelings of anger, disappointment, shame, guilt, and regret. Those reactions are valuable, up to a point, in that they provide feedback about a mistake to avoid in the future.

But left unchecked, negative inner monologues can stretch out, taking days, weeks, or even longer to work out. It’s important to recognize constructive internal feedback at the moment it happens, but not allow those thoughts to run rampant in your mind.

“Is it good to feel pain? Of course!” Chamine says. If you put your hand on a hot stove and you don’t feel pain, you’ll burn your hand to the bone, he says. Feeling pain is a good warning. “The question is, how long would it be good for you to feel the pain before you remove your hand from the hot stove? And the answer, hopefully, is a split-second. Just long enough to know that there is a problem here. It’s the same with negative emotions.”

Registering negative emotions as feedback, and then consciously returning to a more positive frame of mind is crucial for achieving your full potential.

“Your highest performance comes from the brain that is calm, centered, focused, able to see possibilities and be creative,” Chamine says. That’s not possible when you’re stuck in a negative feedback loop.

Strategy #3: Recognize All the Forms Your Mental Criticism Comes in

In the course of his work, Chamine identified a handful of types of negative voices that are capable of sabotaging your happiness, productivity, and positive feelings of self-worth — a group he calls Saboteurs. The dominant Saboteur everyone carries with them is the Judge — the voice inside you that judges your own actions and the actions of everyone else.

Armed with the power of perfect hindsight, your inner Judge berates you for mistakes you should have seen coming and criticizes you for falling short of your goals. Some people allow their inner Judge to become such an integral part of their life that it becomes their dominant personality trait.

Hiding behind the Judge is a host of smaller Saboteurs — the Controller, the Restless, the Stickler, the Pleaser, the Avoider, the Victim, the Hyper-Vigilant, the Hyper-Achiever, the Hyper-Rational.

Chamine examines each in detail in his bestselling book, Positive Intelligence. He says an easy way to understand which Saboteurs rule your life is to complete the following sentence: “To survive and succeed, I should _____.” Your answer can provide insight into what actually motivates you.

Your highest performance comes from the brain that is calm, centered, focused, able to see possibilities and be creative.
Shirzad Chamine

Chamine says some of the world’s most outwardly successful people are ruled by their various Saboteurs. Using negative emotions as fuel to push them, they’ll ultimately fall short of their true potential, he says.

“So long as the Saboteurs are pushing you to your level of success, you will never be happy, because every step of the way is littered with negativity,” he says. “Your path to highest performance is not through the Saboteurs.”

Strategy #4: Listen to Your Inner Sage

The counterbalance to each person’s cast of Saboteurs is a calm, positive, optimistic voice that Chamine calls the Sage. Rather than picking apart every mistake you make and every shortcoming you find in the people around you, your inner Sage instead tries to see the positive in every negative.

“One of the number one tools that high performers use, every time life throws [challenges] at them, one of the ways they quickly recover to a positive place … is to ask the question, ‘How do I turn this into a gift and opportunity?’”

Looking for the gift, no matter how small, in each negative experience helps reframe the thoughts associated with the experience.

In his work, Chamine describes five attributes, or powers, of each person’s inner Sage: the power to empathize, explore, innovate, navigate, and activate.

Together, these powers work to create a more positive internal worldview, and allow you to focus on what’s in front of you, rather than worrying about what’s next.

Strategy #5: Take It One Step at a Time in the Right Direction

Your path is fundamentally yours to chart, Chamine says. There’s no map to self-actualization; it’s a process that’s done one day at a time, and more granularly, one thought at a time.

In his lecture, he described charting your path like standing at the edge of a dark forest, with a lighthouse in the distance. Getting to the lighthouse is a goal taken one step at a time.

“At any given step, take the step that has more light in it,” he says. “Only after you take that step, the step after that will reveal itself.”

After each step, he says, you will get “closer and closer to the lighthouse, to your true self, to your final self-actualization.”

But nobody ever gets to the lighthouse, Chamine says. The value lies in the journey to improve how you think about yourself and your world.

“You begin to run into people around you that are on a similar path that can help you with that path, and you begin to discover amazing things because you’re paying attention to every step,” Chamine says. “Self-actualization ... and following your calling is not about one destination that one day you’re going get to. It’s about every step.”

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