Taming your brain rats

Negative self-talk is a signal that you’re on the verge of learning something new.

Swimmers at Lincoln Park swimming pool, 1925 | Photo via Seattle Municipal Archives

You are about to take a big risk, inhabit your true power, or speak your mind. Just as you step up, you hear them. Brain rats.

Their squeaky, scratchy voices whisper dreadful things, ”Sit down.”
“Who do you think you are…somebody special?” ”Be quiet, for goodness sake!” ”Someone’s going to notice you’re a complete fake.” ”Why not just give up?”

A few years ago, I wrote a song about my own brain rats:

I wrote the lyrics by transcribing the wretched messages in my own thoughts. Then I wrote them into a dramatic and very silly song. Of course, they were about relationships, money, insecurity, and the rest of those topics that prey on most of us in our doubtful moments. Much to my surprise, “Brain Rats” has become the most popular song in my repertoire.

Listening to the terrible things our brain rats say is so uncomfortable that we think the best approach to them is….well….pest control. We want them gone. We yearn for a utopian state when they will disappear forever, leaving us confident, nonplussed, and radiant with self-esteem.

Yeah, right.

Twenty years as a voice coach has given me the opportunity to listen in on hundreds of brain rats. Nothing stirs them up like inhabiting your full voice, visibility and power. Though our gifts and talents are unique and intriguing, our brain rats all sound pretty much alike. They are dramatic, convincing, and persistent in doing their best to convince us that we are—as the last verse states—“the piece of crap around which this whole world revolves.”

I recently came to a surprising conclusion about brain rats: They mean well.

Our brain rats represent that part of our psyche whose job is to keep us just the way we are right now. It’s vigilant about killing off anything that doesn’t fit our current identity much like antibodies rush to kill off viruses in our bodies. The trouble is, we can’t learn anything by staying exactly the way we are. Any new learning lies beyond the boundary of the familiar.

Brain rats aren’t a sign of failure or insecurity. On the contrary, their presence in your internal dialogue is a sure signal that you are on the verge of learning something new. Why not roll out the red carpet and welcome them in?

The great Sufi poet Rumi has a wonderful poem to this effect. It begins,

“This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and attend them all
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture, still,
treat each guest honorably.”

(Translation by Coleman Barks)

Here’s one more suggestion for making brain rats less painful: Lighten up about them. These messages get more powerful and toxic when they are kept secret and taken seriously. I think that’s why my song has had such success: People feel a palpable relief when they get a chance to laugh at the ridiculous exaggerations of their own negative self-talk. Sometimes they even sing along….

Next time you step outside your comfort zone, listen for the brain rats. Then crank up the song and serenade them while you take the next step… and the next… toward the life you most desire.

By Barbara McAfee

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About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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