I still remember the first time I went to the circus. It was the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Nassau Coliseum.
I remember how exciting it was to watch the acrobats and the tight-rope walkers showing off their skills. I even remember how puzzled my sisters and I were as we watched 25 clowns get out of a miniature Volkswagen Beetle.
But, what I remember the most was the lion tamer.
Here was this average looking guy, albeit with a strange mustache, controlling not one but several of the most ferocious animals known to man with just a chair and a whip.
To an impressionable 8-year-old, this was amazing. Even today, some 24 years later, I still find it fascinating that lions and tigers can be trained to do some pretty amazing things with some very simple tools.
Clyde Beatty and the Chair
While I wasn’t able to pinpoint when the whip and chair were first introduced to lion taming, one of the pioneers who helped to popularize the style was Clyde Beatty.
Beatty, unlike many of his colleagues, was not born into a circus family. He grew up on a farm in rural Ohio. In 1921, after graduating high school, Beatty got a job with the Howes Great London and Van Amburgh’s Wild Animal Circus as a cage cleaner.
Over the next few years, Beatty would learn from animal trainers and develop his skills until he became part of the show. Beatty would go on to perform for over 40 years in the ring. He is most famous for his “fighting act,” where he’d be alone in a cage with over 25 different animals including lions, tigers, and hyenas.
You may think the whip was the most important tool used in training the circus animals, but the key to Beatty’s ability to train the animals was the use of a chair.
When the chair was held in front of a lion, it would confuse the lion and keep it from attacking. Instead, the lion would try to split his attention between the four legs of the chair, which distracted and confused the animal. With the lion’s focus split, he would begin to back up as a way of trying figure out what’s going on. With the lion’s attention on the four legs of the chair and not on the man holding the chair, the lion tamer is then able to train the lion to do all kinds of tricks safely.
Attacking the Problem from Multiple Angles
You and I may not have to fend off lions in our daily life, but the negative thoughts that we often deal with can be just as dangerous to our well-being.
Consider how many times you didn’t go through with something because you thought it would turn out bad. Think about all the times you didn’t speak up, the connections you didn’t make, or the experiences you missed out on because your mind convinced you that the outcome would be negative.
What Beatty teaches us is that instead of succumbing to our personal lions or negative thoughts, we can actually subdue our opponents with some simple tools.
Just like the 4 legs of a chair divided the focus of the lions, we too can attack our concerns from multiple angles to overcome our negative thinking. The key is to find something that works. If you try something that doesn’t work, try something else. Just don’t give up.
Here are four ways we can push our minds into doing what we really want it to do.
Challenging Negative Thoughts
The main problem with social anxiety is dealing with negative thoughts. Those of us with social anxiety often have skewed negative perceptions. All of the bad things that could happen go through our heads well before anything positive, if positive thoughts cross our minds at all.
Many of these thoughts are deeply embedded in our minds. Some of them are so deep that it’s hard to believe that they can ever be changed. But change is absolutely possible if you’re willing to do the work.
All of our negative thoughts are simply bad habits that we’ve cultivated over time. Habits that can be changed and replaced at any time with practice and determination.
In order to combat these negative thoughts, we have to challenge them. By challenging our thoughts we prove to ourselves that things aren’t as bad as they seem.
Here are the three basic steps to challenging negative thoughts:
1. You must first be aware of your thoughts.
The best way to take notice of your thoughts is to review them objectively. One of the most popular techniques is through mindfulness. We’ll discuss this more in the next section.
2. Find evidence for and against your negative thought.
For example, when you think, “Everything always goes wrong for me,” is it actually true or are you saying or thinking that out of emotion? I’d bet it’s the latter.
Many of our thoughts are emotionally driven, which is OK. However, it’s imperative that we keep appropriate perspective as to what the facts are versus how we’re feeling at the time.
Challenging negative thoughts requires you to be brutally honest with yourself, even if that means accepting that your feelings, while valid, may not necessarily be true.
3. Create an alternative and more realistic thought.
The goal here isn’t to just think the positive opposite of your negative thought, as that thought may not be true either. For instance, “Everything always goes right for me,” isn’t a true statement for anybody. The goal here is to be realistic, honest, and optimistic.
For example, stating “Everything always goes wrong for me,” is a negative thought with no truth to it. A more realistic thought may be, “This event didn’t go the way I wanted it to go, but I’ve had success in the past and I will again in the future.“
As previously stated, becoming aware of your thoughts is the first step to challenging your negative beliefs. Truth be told, it’s also one of the first steps to overcoming social anxiety. In other words, you have to see the problems before you work the problems.
In this case, one of our problems is automatic negative thinking. That is, having negative thoughts before considering any other factors. The best way to become aware of our negative thoughts is through mindfulness.
There are plenty of definitions for mindfulness floating around the internet. It’s become a very popular and buzz-worthy word. But, for the sake of simplicity and our conversation today, mindfulness means becoming conscious of the things that you think.
Thankfully, it isn’t difficult to learn how to become more aware of your thoughts. It just takes some practice and the discipline to be objective.
One of the most popular ways to practice mindfulness is through writing out your thoughts.
By writing them out, you detach yourself from them and can objectively observe them instead of trying to balance experiencing your thoughts and objectively reviewing them in real-time.
Studies have shown that writing out thoughts has helped people overcome traumatic events faster than not writing them out, even if no other form of support was offered.
In addition to writing, my favorite tool for mindfulness is Headspace. It’s a free app that helps you practice mindfulness meditation. It just takes 10 minutes a day and will teach you how to be more mindful of your thoughts and surroundings. I tend to do it in the morning before I write in my Journal.
Test Your Assumptions
I’m an avid listener of the Tim Ferriss Show. It’s the number one business podcast hosted by Tim Ferriss, the author of The Four Hour Work Week and several other best-selling books. I enjoy the podcast because Tim interviews people from all walks of life and does his best to determine the little things that helped his interviewees become successful.
One of the most common themes across all of his interviews is the testing of assumptions. Nearly every guest on Tim’s show talks about having beliefs about their future, whether they were positive or negative, and working to find out the truth.
This simple strategy can help you and I determine the truth about ourselves and takes challenging our negative thoughts to an actionable level.
For example, if you have the thought that you’re a terrible public speaker, yet you’ve never given a speech or have seldom spoken in front of a crowd, perhaps you should test that assumption.
The benefits of testing your assumptions is actually two-fold.
First, you will develop your skills in this area if you invest time and energy in being the best you can be. Secondly, you’ll gather actual evidence as to whether or not your assumptions are true, allowing you to make an informed decision instead of an emotional one.
Finally, it’s important to have some self-compassion. This simply means, giving yourself a break.
So many of us struggle with perfectionism. We want to say the right thing, wear the right clothes, have the right job, live in the right neighborhood. But, all this does is create unnecessary stress on your body and a long list of unnecessary and unmet goals.
Instead, simply be kind to yourself. It doesn’t matter if you say the right thing all the time, or have the right job or house or clothes. None of that really matters. What does matter is that you’re happy with who you are now and who you’re working to become.
Failure is a necessary part of life. Many of us learn much more when we fail than when we succeed.
For example, last weekend my nephew spent the weekend with my wife and I. On Saturday night, we decided to play video games.
Now I haven’t played video games in about 10 years, so I was more so watching him play. But, as I watched him play he would experience both success and failure at times. When he was successful, he’d smile and boast about how good he was at the game.
But what I found amazing was that when he would lose, he would take a moment and think about why he lost. Then he’d develop a new strategy and try it again. If that didn’t work, he’d try something else, until he was successful.
At one point in the game, I mentioned that he may have missed some kind of bonus by moving too quickly through a board. His response was a great lesson in self-compassion.
He said, “My goal is to beat the game, not to be perfect. I’m OK with missing things as long as I win in the end.”
Our goal as Anxiety-Fighters shouldn’t be perfection, it should be winning in the end. So don’t be so hard on yourself, just keep moving forward.
Next Action Steps
Over the next 10 days, practice one of the strategies mentioned in today’s post. In the comments below, share which strategy you’ll work on.
For example: For the next 10 days I’ll work on self-compassion. As you may know by now, I tend to be pretty hard on myself. I don’t claim to be a perfectionist by any means, but I could lessen the pressure I put on myself on a daily basis to perform.