Don’t Beat the Puppy

Years ago I had a wonderful coach – a colleague and friend that agreed he would work with me after the shock of 9/11 which came shortly after I’d lost my father. He was a gift. The lessons I learned with him stuck, and I’m still practicing them, with the intention of being more masterful in my own life.

Having grown up, as many in my generation, very close to tough, hard-working immigrant roots I incorporated into my early belief systems critical, punitive and often less than kind self- talk.

As the oldest child a lot was expected of me. Early on I became an over-achiever, and began to set my own standards high and expect a lot from myself. In the past, before I knew how destructive the habit could become, I had a tendency to only compare myself to those who were more accomplished or smarter than I. So, I frequently suffered from feelings of inadequacy and depression.

As you might imagine, that makes it hard to be creative. Being creative in service of what my clients need is what I do, and do best, and so I had a problem.  My coach could hear it clearly. The voices of inadequacy and criticism in my head were so loud they were disempowering and sometimes disabling me.

Now I understand why. Gallup research has found that when someone focuses on our  weaknesses, our performance goes down 26.8%. That’s because a focus on “not good enough” usually causes a negative emotion. Negative emotions cause a narrowing of brain function in the reptilian brain so we can see more of “what’s wrong”. That tosses us into a negative spiral that’s really tough to get out of. I think it goes even further when that “someone” is yourself.

This was a habit that had to be changed if I was to get myself on the path to positivity and to success. After all, I did a lot of motivational speaking so I really needed to know how to break the habits that pulled me down and teach others to do the same.

Early on in my relationship with my coach he came up with a “code” phrase that we used when he observed me moving into that negative behavior pattern.

He asked me simply, “If you had a new puppy and wanted to train that puppy to be a loving pet, would you beat him when he did something wrong or would you reinforce him with love and treats when he did something right?”

As I recall I felt I would definitely be on the “love and treats” track.

“Then how,” he asked, “can you beat yourself up so mercilessly when you don’t measure up to who you think you should be?”

That stopped me in my tracks – the first time he asked me the question and every time he used the phrase, “Don’t beat the puppy.”

As the years go on, my self-talk gets cleaner, more positive and more supporting. I move from judgment and criticism (of myself and others) to understanding and appreciation. That adds to my Positivity Ratio and my overall happiness.

I understand now that I have to be a parent to my own happiness, and beating myself up is not getting me where I want to go. I didn’t do that to my child, didn’t do that to pets and didn’t do that to anyone else I loved in my life. Only me. Even though years have passed since I learned that lesson, sometimes my brain takes me down the old neural pathways into my old habits and old self.

Tonight, while taking a walk at the beach, I had some thought that threw me backwards into criticism and was about to toss me into a negative spiral, when I heard myself say out loud, “Don’t beat the puppy JoAnna, don’t beat the puppy.”

And so I paused, took a deep breath and long noisy exhale and thought that perhaps it’s time to train this puppy to do some cool new things.