When your emotions are intense and your brain is spinning, it can feel like you have no control. Thoughts are flying all over the place, the thoughts hurt, your body is so uncomfortable, all you want to do is get away… This is where the practice of self-coaching comes in.
Self-coaching is a practice of holding neutral space for yourself in order to get clarity on a situation. Self-coaching is about listening to your upset brain instead of always telling it what it’s doing wrong. Self-coaching is a tool for processing emotions and being intentional about what you want to think.
Today, I want to share with you a super simple journaling exercise that you can do to coach yourself.
I want you to think of it as wearing two different hats. Or being two different people. The one version of you who is hurting, confused, freaked out. This is your primitive brain. The person who is getting coached. And then there’s the version of you who is doing the coaching. This is your prefrontal cortex. The evolved part of your brain that can think logically about the situation.
The most important thing to remember when coaching yourself:
Coach-You loves Client-You. Client-You is not bad, wrong, or stupid. Coach-You’s job is not to judge Client-You. This is two people sitting on a couch together, looking at a situation, and being curious about what’s going on.
So, grab a pen and paper, and let’s get coachin’!
Step 1: Thought Download
The absolute first thing we need to do is listen.
Give your primitive brain a chance to speak. Hear it out. Ask questions. Don’t judge. Be completely open to hearing what your brain has to say about this specific situation. Set a time for 5 minutes or so, and then just write.
Ask yourself the following questions to get going:
- What’s up?
- What do you think about that?
- How does it feel?
- Why is this a problem?
- What are you afraid of?
- So what?
- Then what will happen?
- What are you making that mean?
- What do you want to do?
You can ask yourself these questions over and over again until you feel like you’ve gotten everything out on paper. Once your thoughts are downloaded, we can move on.
Step 2: Separate thoughts & facts
Your thought download is a mish-mash of thoughts, feelings, actions, and circumstances. In order to make this coaching session effective, we need to get clear on what is factual and what is not.
Why is this important? Because the things that are factual are out of your control. Those are the things we can’t just change in order to feel better. We coach on the things that aren’t factual, so therefore we need to separate the thoughts from the facts.
- Objective, not subjective
- Everyone knows what it means
- You can prove it in a court of law
- It contains no judgment of good, bad, right, or wrong (it’s neutral)
- Stating the fact doesn’t give away how you think or feel about it
- What other people say is factual as long as it’s quoted exactly
So go through your thought download and pull out any facts that you can find. Collect them and make a new list of the factual circumstances in this situation.
Fact: My partner works at _______. Neutral.
Fact: My ex said, “I cheated on you with a coworker.” Neutral.
Fact: My partner is going out with colleagues tomorrow. Neutral.
Fact: My partner has female colleagues. Neutral.
Fact: My partner said, “I really like hanging out with my colleagues after work.” Neutral.
Thought: I don’t like when my partner goes out with colleagues. Subjective.
Thought: I always worry that my partner will find them attractive. Your thought/feeling.
Thought: My partner has a crush on a coworker and wants to be with her. Your meaning.
Thought: I might get cheated on again, just like last time. Your thought.
Step 3: Complete the sequence
Now that you have one list of subjective, coachable thoughts and feelings, and one list of neutral facts, it’s time to drill down. We want to end up with a complete sequence that looks like this:
So pick one thought from your thought download. Usually, it’s easiest to pick the one that feels like the biggest problem or that is the most uncomfortable for you to think.
Write this thought in the “thought line” of the sequence and then ask yourself “About what facts am I thinking this thought?” This will give you the circumstance/fact line as well.
You can write it out like this:
Facts: My partner said, “I really like hanging out with my colleagues after work”, my partner has female colleagues, and they will be going out together tomorrow.
Thought: My partner is having an emotional affair. Keep this short and sweet. Not if’s, and’s, or but’s.
Next up, ask yourself “When I think that thought, what feeling does it give me?” Pick only one feeling. If you have multiple feelings associated with it, they are coming from slightly different thoughts. So make sure you find the feeling associated with this exact thought you picked. Add it to the feeling line of the sequence.
To fill out the actions line of the sequence, I want you to ask yourself “When I feel [insert chosen feeling], what does that make me do? What does it make me not do? How does it make me do it? What is my brain doing when I feel that way?” In this part of the sequence, add as much as you can come up with. We want to see clearly how this feeling is making you act and show up.
Finally, we want to look at all those actions and inactions and try to figure out what the consequences or the result of them are for you. A common mistake when defining the result of a sequence like this is including your partner’s thoughts and feelings. But they are not in your control. Your results come from your actions, so what does this behavior result in?
Example of complete sequence:
C: My partner said, “I really like hanging out with my colleagues after work”, my partner has female colleagues, and they will be going out together tomorrow.
T: My partner is having an emotional affair with a coworker.
A: Get really upset and grumpy when partner brings it up, show no support for partner going out and having a good time, ruin the time we have together by being mad, snap at partner about completely unrelated things, try to show partner that I’m not okay with them going out, try to make partner choose to stay home instead, constantly imagining partner flirting with coworkers, imagining partner cheating on me, mentally preparing for the relationship to end.
R: I am not having an “emotional affair” with my partner that I love.
Step 4: Own it
Now you can see clearly what the result or consequence of your thought is. You might think that you’re thinking and feeling this way because of the facts. Because your partner said those words or because your ex cheated on you. But that’s not true. You need to take responsibility for the thoughts you choose to think and how those thoughts make you feel. The only reason that feeling is in your F-line is because of what is in your T-line. Not what’s going on up in the circumstances/facts.
You might feel a strong urge to just swap out your negative thought in order to feel better. And you can try. Sometimes, this awareness exercise is enough to let go of an unproductive thought and move on. But don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work right away.
The main thing I want you to do with this complete sequence is to hold space for it. Explore it. Go up and down and really let it sink in that you are choosing a subjective interpretation of a neutral fact. You don’t have to choose that thought. Your feeling is coming from the thought, not from the fact. If you want to act differently or create a different result, you are going to have to choose a new thought.
Explore what new thoughts you might want to think. Explore how you would like to show up and act differently. What would the kind of girlfriend you want to be, think, feel, and do in this situation with these exact facts?
We don’t have to change the FACTS to feel better, because our feelings aren’t coming from the facts. We need to change our THOUGHTS if we want to FEEL differently. And this is really great news because we can’t change the facts. But we can change our thoughts. Sometimes, we need a little help and some hard work to change what we believe… and sometimes, a lightbulb comes on and we can immediately see things from a new perspective.
This is not just a regular journaling exercise or gratitude practice where you write some stuff and then you’re done. This is a self-coaching exercise. Self-coaching is intentional, it’s intellectual work, and it requires a lot of self-awareness and 100% compassion. If you take this practice seriously, you will start seeing major shifts in your relationship and how you feel.
Learning how to coach yourself is a great first step. Working with a coach, however, will not only speed up your progress a lot but will also allow you to be a full-time client. When you come to a coaching session with me, I’ll do the heavy lifting in terms of coaching. I’ll ask the questions, I’ll guide you, and I’ll make sure we stay on track. All you need to do is show up and let the content of your primitive, grumpy, sometimes crazy brain pour out.