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Self-talk and your survival

During one of the first times I heard Dave Smith talk about peak performance in his “Winning Mind” seminar, he asked the audience to participate in a little exercise. He told us to fold our hands and put them in our laps, close our eyes, and then tell ourselves not to think about what our hands were doing. Of course, all I could think about were my hands, folded in my lap; no matter how hard I tried, no mater how many times I ordered my brain not to think about my hands, my brain failed to follow orders. I was so frustrated until Dave explained to us that our brain doesn’t recognize the word “don’t.”

Who knew?

That was my first introduction to what would become years of studying brain function and physiology and how they relate to communication, survival mindset, and officer safety. That was when I began to understand that one of the most important factors to look at is how you talk to yourself. Back in 1986, Dr. Shad Helmstetter wrote What to Say When You Talk to Yourself, a guide to using positive and negative “self-talk” to optimize your outlook and improve your chances for a successful life. At first glance, Helmstetter’s book is a typical 80’s self-help manual full of peppy, new age phrases and a step-by-step guide on how to become “your own best friend.” Like most cops, I’m a little too cynical for that kind of nonsense, but when I combined Helmstetter’s theories with those of Dr. Louann Brizendine, Steven E. Rhodes, Dr. Deborah Tannen, and even Malcolm Gladwell it all began to make sense.

Admit it, we all talk to ourselves. Sometimes in words, other times with feelings, a general impression, or even just a physical “gut” response, like that clutch in your stomach when you pull over a carload of bad actors that you just know are up to something criminal, you’re just not quite sure what. That’s what author Gavin BeBecker calls our “gift of fear.” The problem is, we often ignore what our gut is trying to tell us, and that can get us hurt.

The first rule of using self talk to help keep you safe is to listen to the truth. Learn to trust your gut and your instincts, they are usually right.

Not all self-talk is silent and unconscious. Most of us have spent years saying something negative about ourselves over and over without understanding how this can affect us. Think about it; do you ever say things like “I’m just lousy with names,” “I can’t read a map to save my life,” “I just can’t resist chocolate,” “I’m no good at math,” “I hate to talk in front of a crowd,” and so on. What about at work? Do you ever find yourself saying “I’m only an average shot,” “My sergeant doesn’t like me,” “I’m no good at speed-cuffing,” “I hate shooting the shotgun,” “If only I were in better shape,” “This job is wearing me out.” Any of those sound familiar?

Like a computer, the more we hear this negative self talk—conscious or unconscious—the more it becomes a programmed part of our brain. The information is stored and easily recalled just like it is on your computer. Think about how your PC would perform if you didn’t protect it from viruses, spyware, and other cyber-garbage: what a mess!

Rule number two is to protect yourself from the negative. Like most things worth learning, this is easier said than done. You can walk into the range and tell yourself, “I’m going to love shooting the shotgun today!” But if you don’t change your behavior, your technique, or your attitude, you’re probably still going to hate it. Examine why you hate the shotgun. Is the recoil painful? Is the particular model too big for you? Have you been reluctant to ask for help from the range master? Have you gotten some bad training? Work on fixing what’s wrong on the outside, and then change that negative self talk into a positive. “I’m going to do great with the shotgun today because I sought out some new training.” “I’m going to rock the shotgun today because this model fits me so much better!” Self talk isn’t just about words, it’s also about behavior, attitude and actions.

How do you talk to yourself when something goes right? When you pull over that carload of bad actors, conduct your investigation, and come up with two warrant arrests, a gun, and a trunk full of stolen property, do you tell yourself “Great job man!” Or do you just say “Wow that was lucky.” When the sergeant compliments you on your great piece of police work do you say “Thanks Sarge!” or do you just say “It was no big deal, I just happened to stumble upon them.” This is called your “self speak.”

Rule number three is to consciously improve your self-speak. When someone compliments you on something good, learn to follow it up with something positive; saying it out loud will help you believe it. So when your firearms instructor says “You did really great with the shotgun today” reply with something like “Thanks! I’ve been working really hard to improve and I think its working” instead of “I think I was just lucky today.”

It’s no secret that old habits are hard to break, so if you’ve been full of negative programming for years and years, and most of us have, a few kind words to yourself aren’t going to fix the problem overnight. What you have to learn is how to make a concentrated effort to have some daily “self-conversation” to start overriding the negative.

Rule number four is to use visualization to literally see yourself removing those bad programs from your brain just like you remove obsolete or damaged software from your PC, and then replace them with positive self talk. Every day (or night) while you’re on your way to work, tell yourself: “I’m ready for anything. I’m confident in my ability to survive, to use the appropriate force, to make the right decisions, to win every encounter.”

Let’s face it, talking to yourself might seem a little bit crazy at first, but learning and understanding how your conscious and unconscious mind works is just one of the many ways you can gain that mental edge that all crime fighters need to perform at their peak. Stay safe!

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