When a coworker or boss makes a remark that implies you’re not good enough, smart enough, or educated enough to get that raise or be part of a team, what do you tell yourself? That’s the question posed by Nectar Consulting CEO Michele Molitor, a presenter at the IEEE Women in Engineering International Leadership Conference held on 22 and 23 May in San Jose, Calif. Her Atlanta-based company helps women develop leadership skills.
When Molitor heard unkind words at a previous job, it kept chipping away at her self-confidence, and ultimately her performance, she said, leading her employer to fire her. Trying to recover from that experience was challenging, she said, and she came to realize that self-criticism is as hurtful as what others might say. She noticed she wasn’t the only woman experiencing what she calls LCS (lost-confidence syndrome), especially in the tech field. She turned to science to help her regain her self-esteem.
By incorporating lessons from neuroscience, Molitor helps women rewire their thinking to feel more confident and productive, and in the process become more successful.
YOUR BRAIN IS ALWAYS LISTENING
“Women often tell themselves they’re not ‘something’ enough,” Molitor said. “Fill in the blank.” Such thoughts come from the amygdala, a part of the brain in charge of your emotions that also protects you from danger and risk, she explained. She calls it Amy, for short. “While you can’t get rid of Amy,” she said, “it behooves you to figure out a way to manage her.”
Here are four steps to take:
Pay attention to your thoughts, Molitor says. The more you focus on a thought, the more it builds a synaptic connection in your brain. That’s how we form habits, she says. Also observe where in your body you are feeling emotions such as fear and guilt, or other sensations such as being overwhelmed. Take deep breaths and try to let the feeling go, and become more mindful of how your thoughts impact you physically.
Come up with a new thought. Our thoughts can be changed any time—and actively doing so can mean the difference between success and failure, Molitor says.
If you’re asked to take on a project with which you have little experience, your limiting belief, as she calls it, might be that you can’t do it because you’ve never done it before. Instead, rephrase that thought to another such as: “There’s always a first time for everything,” “I will learn as I go,” “I can take a course or partner with someone to help me,” or “I have what it takes.”
That last statement made some of the attendees cringe. The flip side of a negative thought can still make us uncomfortable, Molitor told them, so instead focus on a positive statement that feels true to you.
It’s important that your core values match your current role, she says. Your values could include making a difference, being creative, and being authentic in the workplace. “If your core value is not showing up in your work,” she told the audience, “you may want to consider incorporating more of it in your current position or recognize you’re not in the right job.”
Your amygdala is trying to tell you things to protect you, such as it’s not worth risking your current position for a new one, but those statements likely are not true, Molitor says, adding: “Give Amy a new job.” Instead of believing that you can’t take on an ambitious project, for example, break down the tasks into small, manageable goals—which is likely to make you feel more confident about accomplishing them.
Moreover, release happy chemicals in your brain, such as serotonin, which boosts confidence, and oxytocin, which builds trust. Simple actions that have nothing to do with your job can release those chemicals. Try sitting in the sun, meditating, exercising, reflecting on what you are grateful for, giving hugs, and practicing empathy.
Those activities all help to rewire the brain to make you feel better about yourself and be kinder to others, while also reducing stress and increasing productivity and motivation. Incorporating those steps is a win-win for you and your employer.