5 Lies Your Brain’s Telling You: How To Handle Negative Self Talk

Truth time.

My brain can be a jerk.

Sometimes it hyper focuses on everything I didn’t do.

Other times it critiques everything I did do.

And if it gets bored with those two avenues of entertainment, it offers other lies in an attempt to “keep me safe” and prevent me from doing something new.

Can you relate at all?

Does your brain ever tell you things like:

  • You didn’t get enough done.
  • You’re such a hot mess.
  • You’re so behind everyone else.

If so, then I think you’re going to love episode 112 of the I’m Busy Being Awesome podcast.

In it, I share the top five lies your brain tells you before digging into how you can question these lies, find the truth, and start moving forward on your goals with greater confidence.

You can listen to the episode below, or stream it on your favorite podcasting app here: 

Prefer to read? No problem! Keep scrolling for the entire podcast transcript.

Listen To The Podcast Here!

In This Episode, You Will Discover How To… 

  • Identify the lies your brain tells you
  • Question the negative self talk
  • Shift your mindset to move forward on your goals with greater confidence

Links From The Podcast

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Episode #112: 5 Lies Your Brain’s Telling You: How To Handle Negative Self Talk (Transcript)

You’re listening to the I’m busy being awesome podcast with Paula Engebretson episode number 112. 

Hey, everybody. Welcome to the podcast. Thanks for tuning in today. This week I’m feeling the need for some real talk. In fact, if you happened to see the episode’s title, you may have an inkling that I’m a bit more fired up today.

If you didn’t see it, I titled this episode, “I didn’t get anything done today.” and the other lies your brain tells you.” And today that’s what we’re talking about. We are getting real and we’re going to call out your brain a little bit. Because the reality is this. Our brains can be jerks sometimes. Our brains can offer us a whole bunch of different lies and make us feel pretty terrible.

And depending on how closely we pay attention to the thoughts our brain offers us. Depending on whether or not we’re aware of these thoughts and taking time to question them or not, this can really start impacting how we feel.

If we don’t hit pause and realize the thoughts we’re thinking, we can end up feeling pretty bad because we start believing these lies rather than calling them out for what they are, which are optional thoughts. They are simply sentences our brain offers us all of the time.

Now, I’ve recently noticed my brain offering a couple of the lies that I’m going to share with you today. And several others have popped up frequently during my calls with clients over the last several weeks. So I thought today we’d talk about the five general categories of lies that your brain might be telling you. And while these lies may seem like facts. They may seem like the absolute truth. I want to offer you that they are completely optional. And what’s more, you don’t have to believe them.

We are going to talk about each one of these categories and I’ll give some different examples so you can see which ones sound familiar to you. My guess is you’ll be able to relate to at least a few of them. Then we’ll explore when these stories often come up in our minds. And finally, we’ll talk about ways we can question these thoughts – these lies – and uncover the real truth.

Negative Thoughts

Because the reality is this. We all have these negative thoughts – these negative stories – that loop through our minds at different times. Some of us have them more often than others, but we all have them. This isn’t a problem. It just means you have a working brain.

The problem arises when we don’t have awareness of these thoughts because that’s when they can have an impact. That’s when they can start showing up in our lives, making us feel terrible, and creating results that we don’t particularly want. 

So let’s talk about them. Let’s bring these lies into our awareness. And let’s start calling them into question. Because when we do that, we can start shifting our perspective and choosing new thoughts that do serve us and that do create the results that we want in our lives.

I Didn’t Get Anything Done

So let’s start with the thought that inspired the title of the episode — “I didn’t get anything done today” and its best friend “I wasted the entire day.” Be honest. Your brain has offered these thoughts before. In fact, it’s possible you’ve heard this story in the past week. Maybe in the past day.

This used to be one of the most frequently repeated tracks in my mind. My brain loved to offer it all of the time. It didn’t matter if I didn’t make a to-do list. If I completed half of the things on the list. Or if I checked everything off my to-do list. It was the same story every time. I didn’t get anything done. Or I wasted the entire day. Or I should have gotten more done.

And I tell you this to let you know that I know how true those thoughts feel. I know how factual the story may seem. And I know how terrible it feels to think them. But I also want to reinforce that these thoughts are optional. 

What’s more, the reason why they seem so true is because of our confirmation bias. As we’ve talked about in other episodes, what you focus on grows. And when you tell yourself “I didn’t get anything done” or “I wasted the entire day,” your brain goes to work finding evidence for that. It focuses on all of the things that you have left to do. And even if you checked off everything on your list, your brain won’t go into celebration mode. I won’t think, heck yeah, self! Way to make it happen.” Instead, it will likely start thinking, “I should have done more. I could have been more productive.”

If this sounds familiar, then let’s pull back for a minute. And let’s start by getting super literal. Let’s say your brain offers you the lie, I didn’t get anything done today. This is simply not true. You do not need to choose this thought. In fact, you have plenty of evidence to the contrary when you pause to think about it. 

You did do something today. You stayed alive, you breathed. And depending on the time of day that you’re listening to this, you probably ate food and hydrated with water. If you have children or pets you probably fed and hydrated them, too. So even at its most basic, you did do something. 

And what’s more, you probably did a whole lot of other things too. Maybe you answered emails. Or you did some laundry. Perhaps you brought your kids to school or attended some meetings.

Now. You might be rolling your eyes at me right now thinking, “obviously Paula. That’s not what I mean. I didn’t get anything productive done.” First of all, I would argue that staying alive and feeding yourself and feeding your children and feeding your pets … that’s pretty darn productive. 

But I hear you. And when we really zoom in on these thoughts that “I didn’t get anything done.” Or “I didn’t get enough done.” Or “I wasted the entire day.” These thoughts tend to come up after we look at our to-do list that has enough tasks on it to last a person 3 months. And yet we beat ourselves up for not getting it done in one afternoon.

Or maybe you planned out your day with the things you wanted to complete, but then you had a change in schedule. Perhaps you had to pick up your kids from school early. Maybe you had an emergency meeting called by your boss so you had to change plans. Something happened and you decided to change your schedule, yet you continue to tell yourself you should have gotten everything on the original schedule completed in addition to the new schedule’s tasks that you added to the day.

Or maybe you didn’t create a schedule, and your brain goes immediately to the thought, “I didn’t get anything done.” because you don’t have a record of the things you did. You don’t slow down to reflect on the day or record what you did complete, which makes your brain’s lie that you “didn’t get anything done” so much more compelling. And because you’re looking for that evidence, you overlook the fact that by noon you had grocery shopped, meal prepped, put laundry in the machine, cleaned the kitchen, walked the dog, and got ready for the day, etc.

I know I’m really driving this example home because it is a story that I hear from my clients over and over and over. And I know that so many of you listeners can relate to this thought, too. But I’m telling you, it’s just not true. And what’s more, this thought isn’t serving you.

Seriously, let’s run it through a quick model. If our circumstance is your to-do list. And you have a thought like, “I didn’t get anything done today.” You probably feel discouraged or frustrated. And when you’re feeling discouraged, you probably show up to your work the following day with less energy. You probably ruminate on these thoughts and your brain likely focuses on other things you didn’t get done. You put your brain on a mission to find further evidence that you’re not productive or can’t get enough done. 

So because you think that thought: I didn’t get anything done today. And you create that feeling of discouragement. And you continue looking for evidence that you didn’t get enough done. You reinforce this practice. You don’t get anything done the next day because you’re not even questioning the thought. You’re not realizing all of the things you do get done each and every day.

Create Your To-Da List

So if this is a familiar thought pattern to you. If your brain likes to offer you this lie. I encourage you to take a week and record the things that you complete each day. Take this next week and make what Gretchen Rubin calls a “ta-da” list. And a ta-da list is essentially a list of all of the things you accomplish as you go about your day. Big or small, everything counts. Did you eat breakfast? Put it on the list. Feed your cat? Put it on the list. Read email? Add it to the list. Walk the dog? You know where it goes.

Start showing your brain that you do get things done each day. Start rewiring that neural pathway and recognize the hard work that you do. This may seem counterintuitive, but I’m telling you it’s a powerful practice. Because the more you start recognizing the work you do. And the more you appreciate what your mind and body do for you each day. Things will shift. You’ll start thinking about how much you’re contributing to each day. You will feel more proud of yourself. You’ll feel more accomplished. And I promise you, working from those positive emotions creates such a better experience for yourself. 

I Don’t Know

The next set of lies your brain has probably offered you at some time or another is in the family of I don’t know. It might sound like I don’t know how. I’m confused. Or I’m stuck. It’s a lot of I don’t know energy.

If you are a client of mine, you probably know that I always challenge the thought “I don’t know.” It’s not allowed during our coaching sessions. Because the truth is that most of the time, “I don’t know” or “I’m confused” is generally your brain’s natural response when it feels overwhelmed, or it needs to make a decision, or it might be stepping outside of its comfort zone.

The brain is very sneaky in this respect. Because anytime we ask a question of our brain and it doesn’t know the answer immediately, it will leap to “ don’t know.” And this answer or feeling of confusion will seem very true to you. You will genuinely think you don’t know the answer. Again, your brain really wants to convince you of this to protect you from doing something new or unfamiliar.

But if you’re willing to sit with the discomfort of confusion for just a little bit. If you are willing to pause and listen. I guarantee you that you have an inkling of what to do next. I guarantee you you know the next step.

Let’s say your brain is confused about whether or not it should start this project or that project first. It’s thinking, everything is so important, I don’t know where to start. I’m so confused. Your brain wants you to believe this because when it stays in confusion, it doesn’t have to do either project. It’s able to spin out, not make a decision, and not take any action.

But here’s the truth. You do know. You know which of those two projects will make the biggest difference. Or you know which one is due first. Or you know which one takes the most resources or time. And if you don’t know that, you know who you can ask whether that’s your boss or your colleague. 

And if you don’t have those answers, that means that you can choose either project because they’re equally as important. So why not just choose one. When you pause and sit with the discomfort of confusion. And when you stay open to finding the answer. I promise you will find it. You just need to listen for it.

Get Specific

Or let’s say your brain offers you, I don’t know how to do XYZ, whether that’s building a website or writing a book or playing the piano. and sure, part of that might be true. You might not know how to do everything. But is it true that you don’t know anything here? Is it really true that you don’t know how? Probably not. Because the reality is that you can always figure out the next step.

If you sit with that question. Let’s say it’s building a website. I don’t know how to build a website. What if you did know? Sit with that question. What if you did know what to do. What would be the next step? 

Depending on your level of knowledge, maybe that would lead you to ask Google or checking out a YouTube video. Maybe it would lead you to ask a friend who’s built a website before. Perhaps sitting with the question would help you explore the knowledge you do have about finding your hosting platform or deciding on your domain name or choosing your website templates.

Depending on where you are at, you can always find the next step. So when your brain offers you “I don’t know how,” let that be a red flag. Again, your brain is telling you an optional story. You don’t have to believe it. And in fact, when you hear the thought “I don’t know,” it’s an opportunity to shine a light on that thought. I see you! Thank you for trying to keep me safe, but I’m ready to move forward. And then ask yourself these different questions.

“What if I did know, then what would I do? If I took a guess, what would it be? If someone who’s done it before was answering this question, what would they say? And as a throwback to episode 108, who could I ask that does know the answer? How can I get some help here? Who can help me figure out the next step?” When you pause and explore these questions, each one of them will get you out of spinning and indecision and I don’t know how energy and into action.

I’m So Behind & I Should Be Farther Along

The next family of lies that loves to pop up for us sounds something to the effect of “I’m so behind everyone else. I can’t keep up. I should be farther along by now.” Again, I hear this story so often. I hear it from business owners comparing themselves to others in their industry. I hear it from people in a nine-to-five comparing themselves to their co-workers. It comes from students in college or in grad school comparing themselves to other students. And I hear it from parents comparing themselves to other parents.

Our brains love to slip into compare and despair with other people. And it might do this with specific comparisons – like comparing yourself to your sister or your neighbor or your colleague. And it might also be a more general “everyone else.” It might be a vague “they” who all seem to have a pristine level of perfection to which our brain can’t seem to measure up.

And just as we’ve seen with the other two stories that our brain tells us, these thoughts that “we’re behind everyone else, we can’t keep up, we should be further along,” lead us to shut down. 

When we tell ourselves we’re so far behind and we can’t keep up, we once again feel emotions of shame or inadequacy, or discouragement. And when we experience those emotions, we shut down. We don’t ask for help. We don’t try. And once again, we create further evidence for our brain. When we shut down, we fall further behind. Then our brain says, “See? I told you we’re always behind. I told you we can’t get ahead.” And we stay stuck.

So if you notice yourself in the compare and despair energy. If you notice yourself believing the stories that you’re so far behind and that you can’t keep up. I encourage you to really question whether this thought has any ounce of truth to it. How do you know? How can you know? Are you even making a fair comparison anyway? Is it really true that you should be farther along?

I have an incredible client who is working, raising kids, and completing her Ph.D. and when we started working together, her brain wanted her to believe the lie but she should be farther along. Her brain continually wanted to compare herself to the other people in her Ph.D. cohort who were finishing their degree faster or had already completed the work. 

But when we started digging into these stories and really question them, it became quite clear that these were indeed stories. And what’s more, they were stories she didn’t want to believe. She was not making fair comparisons. 

As someone who is raising children, is a wife, is working, and is doing her Ph.D. work, it was not fair to compare herself and the speed at which she completed her work to the other candidates who did not have kids, weren’t married, and we’re not working. Their sole focus was on their Ph.D. work, while her focus was divided amongst several important areas. We aren’t comparing Apples to Apples here. It’s not even apples to oranges. It’s like apples to sailboats. It’s not the same comparison. Yet our brains want to do this all the time.

It reminds me of a quote that I reminded myself of often when I worked in Academia, which was don’t compare your chapter 1 to someone else’s chapter 20. I remember when I was doing my postdoc work and then working as a tenure-track professor for the first couple of years, I found myself often comparing my level of productivity to my colleagues. I would think about what I had published compared to the tenured faculty who had forty years on me and think that I should be farther along. I should have several books written by now.

Again, this was just a lie my brain offered me. This was just another story it told in hopes of keeping me “safe.” Somewhere along the evolutionary line, the brain started thinking, if I reject myself and tell myself all these worst-case scenario thoughts, then it won’t feel as bad if someone else tells me them later. If I reject myself now, then I won’t have to feel the potential rejection later on.

So if you notice yourself in this compare and despair story. If you notice your brain really wanting you to compare yourself whether it’s specific people or the general “everyone else.” I encourage you to question this story. Is this a fair comparison? If your best friend came to you offering the same story, would you buy it? Is it true that you should be further along? Given everything in your current circumstances, is this the story you want to keep? Maybe it is. But I’m willing to bet it’s not. I invite you to find some evidence for that.

I Should Have Done…

The fourth family of lies that our brain loves to offer us sounds something like this. I should have done this. I should have said that. Or I should have tried this or should have been more that. Now, I won’t dwell too much here. If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, you know how I feel about the word should. It feels terrible. And it’s just not useful to move us forward.

But in terms of the stories are brain offers, these different versions of “I should have done or said or tried or been XYZ” usually brings up feelings of regret or shame or disappointment. And most often, it’s a reflection on things that happened in the past. I should have done it this way. Or I should have said that. I shouldn’t have tried this thing or that thing. Or I should have been more helpful or grateful.

And here’s the deal. When we argue with the past, we argue with reality. We argue with what is. It already happened. As I’m saying this, I am thinking of the wisdom of Rafiki from the Lion King when he says it doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.

Now, I don’t know that I agree with this idea entirely. I think we can learn a lot from reflection. But when we shame ourselves and should ourselves and beat ourselves up about what should have been done differently, that’s not useful. Unless you have a time machine — and if you do, I would love to hear from you. But unless you have something that’s going to allow you to change the past, arguing with what happened is probably not the best use of your time.

As I mentioned, I often hear this come up when clients are feeling regrets about what they said or did. I should have said no to this opportunity. I shouldn’t have said that to my boss. Or I should have been more open to this idea for that suggestion.

If you notice yourself stuck in “should” and arguing with the past, I want to offer you a different perspective. I want you to consider the question, “what if that’s not true?” 

Maybe you’re thinking to yourself, “I shouldn’t have said no to that request.” What if that’s not true? What if you SHOULD have said no? In fact, why does it make total sense that you said no? How is it happening for you because of the way things are unfolding right now?

This doesn’t mean that you don’t want to learn from the experience. It doesn’t mean that you don’t want to do it differently next time. In fact, because it did happen this way it allows you to learn and try again differently next time. But beating yourself up along the way is not going to help the process. Instead, we want to look at the experience with curiosity as we find lessons to learn for next time without all the shame of should along for the ride.

I’m A Hot Mess

The last family of lies that I want to explore today is some version of I’m such a disaster or I’m such a mess or I’m a hot mess and different flavors of that thinking. I hear this from my clients. I see it shared on social media quite often. And I really want to question this line of thinking.

Now I know that for many people the label of a hot mess is done in a way intended to help show the reality behind the perfectly curated Instagram feed. And I really appreciate that. However, I think that the brain can grab on to these labels. I think that the brain can start internalizing these labels of I’m a disaster and I’m a hot mess. I think this is especially true for my ADHDers and people with ADHD tendencies and other neurodivergencies out there.

When we have an invisible disorder like ADHD, especially those of us who were diagnosed later in life, we have often taken on these traits our entire lives. We’ve believed for years that we are just totally disorganized. We’re just a problem. We’re a disaster and a hot mess. And we make these ADHD symptoms – something we don’t have control over – mean something about who we are as humans.

Our brain offers the story that because we have a brain that struggles with organization, that means that we’re disorganized as a human. WE are a hot mess. Our brain wants to combine the symptom with who we are as people. And I really want to separate this.

Whether you have a neurodivergent brain or a neurotypical brain — meaning those of you have a brain based difference or not – I want to make this clear for all of us. Be careful of what you say to yourself. Be careful of making certain traits mean something about who you are as uniquely you.

Just because you have a hard time focusing doesn’t mean you as a person are unfocused.  Maybe it is harder for you to stay organized. And maybe your space looks a little disorganized sometimes. But that doesn’t mean that you are a chaotic person. Maybe I’m late sometimes, but that doesn’t mean I’m behind as a person. But our brain often wants to make that connection.

Instead of I’m late, it’s I am a person who is sometimes late. I’m not disorganized hot mess. I am a person who sometimes struggles with organization. This is no different than the fact that I can’t see without glasses. I don’t make that a character flaw about me as a human. I don’t make that mean that I am a disaster because without my glasses everything is a blur of color. I just make it mean that I am a person who needs glasses to see.

So if you notice yourself creating labels. If you notice yourself believing the stories that your brain offers you that YOU are a hot mess or a disaster simply because you missed a meeting or you forgot to respond to an email or your kitchen is messy, let’s hit pause there and separate the facts from the story. You are not a mess, you have a kitchen with dishes in the sink. You’re not a disaster; you double-booked some appointments. You are not a hot mess; you dropped off your kid 15 minutes late to soccer practice. 

So as you go forward this week, I encourage you to keep these five lies on your radar. Notice when your brain starts offering thoughts like “I didn’t get anything done today” or “I wasted the entire day.” Notice when your brain thinks, “I don’t know how.” Or “I’m stuck.” Question the stories that you’re “so behind” or you “can’t keep up.” Be on to the sneaky “should” of “I should have done, should have been, should have said.” And finally, be careful of the labels you put on yourself or you accept from other people whether it’s “I’m a hot mess” or “I’m such a disaster.”

Notice the stories your brain tells you. Be aware of these lies. And be ready to question them. Be ready to find the truth in your story, choose the thoughts that serve you, and continue moving forward, busy being awesome.

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