Perfectionism is increasing and is causing a spike of depression, anxiety, and suicidality across the world as an APA study showed. Harsh self-talk is causing an epidemic of mental health issues that is, at the very least, keeping people from accomplishing their goals and, at the worst, causing crippling self-doubt and emotional pain.

Procrastination, perfectionism, all-or-nothing thinking, putting everyone else first, and feeling like a failure – these affect us all to some extent as a natural part of our human condition. But chances are that you have experienced how these unhelpful coping mechanisms can wreck your day, your mental and emotional health, and even stop you from achieving your goals.

Are you tired of the constant negativity from your inner critic? Does it keep you from trying new things or getting tasks done in a timely fashion?

You aren’t alone and there is good news: you can learn to change the way your brain handles stress and greatly reduce these forms of self-sabotage.

Many of the people I work with assume that they are just born with these characteristics of self-doubt, people-pleasing and other forms of perfectionism. But it’s not just a function of our personalities – let’s explore the survival brain response.

You’ve heard of fight, flight, or freeze, right? Those are three ways that the human survival system engages for self-preservation.

The survival system is in the right brain (let’s call it the survival brain). When it senses a threat, it gets you ready to fight or flee from a wild animal. It sends a signal to the left (logical/rational) brain that it won’t be needing rational thought for the time being. Also, non-essential systems in the body are geared down (reproductive, digestive, immune) and essential systems are revved up (circulatory and respiratory). 

Unfortunately, the survival brain can’t tell the difference between being five minutes late for an appointment or being chased by a wild animal.

Hence, our major stress symptoms that happen in the body when the pressure is on.

Now, take that one step further…the survival brain is set up as soon as we enter the world and is strongly shaped by the first ten years of messages we received. So, if you learned in childhood that performing poorly in school was a threat to your acceptance from your caregivers, the survival brain would read that as a potential rejection, which could lead to abandonment, which could lead to facing potential threats alone, which could mean death. 

That escalated quickly, right?

Straight from “I got a B” to “I’m gonna die.”

So now do you see how it’s not your fault when you are afraid to take on a project in a timely fashion in case you get it wrong?

There is self-worth and value at stake. It is about survival.

So, how do we overcome these self-sabotaging survival responses? Here are 5 steps to overcome negative self-talk and self-sabotage:

  1. Start with self-compassion. These unhelpful patterns are the natural outcome of the hardship you have been through. Take a deep breath – the survival brain responds well to deep breathing – something you couldn’t do if you were ACTUALLY running from a wild animal.
  1. Understand the purpose. Your survival brain response helped you survive whatever you needed to survive. It isn’t trying to harm you, it is trying to make sure you get your needs met.
  1. Practice retiring the inner critic voice. Begin to introduce the idea regularly into your day that YOU can make sure all your needs get met and you do not need the survival response of self-sabotage to keep you from being excluded or unaccepted in society. 
  1. Introduce kindness into your self-talk. Identify what your real fears are and then speak to those fears the way you would calm a child who is afraid her needs won’t be met. Let your inner self know that you will prioritize your needs and that you will keep yourself safe – from stress… AND from wild animals.
  1. Reduce your negative self-talk. Pay attention to your physical stress symptoms that show up when the negative thoughts are appearing. This is a sign your survival system is activated. Then, create a pattern interrupt – say ‘Stop’ out loud, get up and move your body, do something that creates a different path for your thoughts. Do some self-nurturing to calm the nervous system, and then connect with someone who cares about you. This last part is important because your survival brain will understand connection as safety.

As you practice these steps, your brain will begin to rewire and understand that your needs will be met.

Once you calm your body and right brain, your left brain will come back online and you will have access to all your higher thinking, logic, and decision-making processes, thus enabling you to move toward your goals and pursue your dreams effectively. One step at a time!