Let me tell you a little about how having “invisible scripts” can really mess up your life.
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The Nutty Professional
Way back in the day, I was a young 25 year-old crisis counselor in Tacoma, Washington. One of the things they don’t tell you when you’re starting out in any field is that the new guy gets all of the grunt work. As a new graduate, I was working evenings, nights and weekends and flying LITERALLY by the seat of my pants.
My job was to answer the crisis phones as people called and enter information afterwards into the computer. This was before the days of Windows 95, so our ONLY computer was located on the far opposite end of the building from the phone lines. You can start to work out the problem here.
(Cellphones were a luxury – the one our office had was the SIZE OF A BRICK – and expensive to boot, so there went that option).
A crisis call would come in; I’d answer the phone and take down the details, dispatch whomever needed to handle the situation, and rush over to the other end of the building to enter the data into the computer.
This was a bit like a three-legged race in that if I didn’t answer the phone, it would end up being auto-transferred downstairs to the front office, which I was told in no uncertain terms was not to happen. So I’d dutifully answer a call, take down the information, head towards the computer room…
And then… RRING! Another mad dash back across to the other end of the building to answer it. I’d finish up and get halfway down the hall to enter the data…, and then…
RRING… RRING! Another mad dash back down the hall again.
Everyone working there must have thought I was NUTS. Here was this young guy, fresh out of school, frantically running around from one end of the building to the next. It never even OCCURRED to me that I could just collect the information on paper and enter it into the computer at the end of my shift.
Regardless, after one too many RINGS and rushing back and forth, and back again, I frantically ran down the hallway to answer the phone and… MISSED IT. The phone had rung long enough to be automatically sent down to the front office. I was aghast. My mental thoughts were going something along the lines of CRAP, CRAP, CRAP! With my tail tucked behind my legs, I continued my frantic pace and ran downstairs, fully apologetic.
“I’m so, so sorry! I was running back from the other end of the hall before another call came, and I missed it, and…”
AND THAT WAS THE MOMENT MY LIFE CHANGED.
The secretary sized me up, took one stern look at me, and announced with enough volume to fill the entire building: “DAVID – YOU’RE AN ARROGANT ASSHOLE.”
I was shocked speechless. This was the last thing I’d expected. “What…” I tried to mutter out, but the words wouldn’t come. I sheepishly started back up the steps, confused beyond understanding. Before I got far, I hesitated and went back downstairs. I needed to understand, and to set things right.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding…” I began to say.
The secretary cut me off and never even missed a beat. “DAVID, I TOLD YOU: YOU’RE AN ARROGANT ASSHOLE. GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE.”
I returned back upstairs to my lair, my head spinning with doubts and insecurity. Had I really done something wrong? What had I missed? I felt betrayed by this new community I had called home, and couldn’t see any path towards fixing things. I pondered on this for days before my next shift. I dreaded returning to work. It ate me up inside just thinking about it.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that the situation was actually playing out more like this:
- David rushing back and forth upstairs. TRANSLATION: “THAT SMART-ASS. HE THINKS HE’S SOOO GOOD.”
- David working with people 15+ years older than him. TRANSLATION: “THAT YOUNG SNOT-NOSED KID. WHO DOES HE THINK HE IS?!”
- David showing hurt feelings after being yelled at. TRANSLATION: “WHAT A WHIMPERING BRAT.”
But I didn’t know any of this back then. I lacked the context of life experience. As a result, all I knew is that something clearly didn’t add up. I could feel it, but I just couldn’t see it clearly.
In the realm of reality, if someone’s version of the truth doesn’t match, it’s rarely reality that is wrong. So I simply decided: “I AM NOT AN ARROGANT ASSHOLE.”
This bought me about three weeks of sanity, but admittedly it was a hard sell. Ultimately, my doubts started plaguing me again. This time, I tried a different tactic: “I AM A GOOD AND VALUABLE PERSON.”
In reality, this only earned me four hours of feeling better, at most. Ok, bad idea. The problem was that I didn’t REALLY believe this, and given what had just happened, I wasn’t ready to change my point of view. With a single sentence, this bully of a secretary had knocked me flat. But I didn’t want this to become how I thought about myself, so I kept trying.
Finally, I settled on a version of the truth that I not only believed, but one that didn’t feel at all like a lie:
YOU CAN HANDLE THIS.
I’m not certain how I landed on this, but it WORKED and the change was instantaneous. This new script I was telling myself had all of the essential elements necessary for change:
- It was encouraging and supportive
- It was true
- I didn’t find myself trying to talk me out of it
Despite all of the chaos I had encountered, in the end IT DIDN’T REALLY MATTER why things had turned out the way they had. I didn’t have to UNDERSTAND what had happened, but I could CONTROL how I reacted to it.
(By the way: Asking “why” is a great way to waste years; it rarely ever rewrites the past. But changing our response CAN).
YOU CAN HANDLE THIS. It felt honest. Not lying, but taking a chance, and committing to the outcome. A gamble that while I was just some kid out of school, I not only meant to do well, but could succeed and deal with whatever was thrown at him.
Angry Little Spells
Statements like these are called Invisible Scripts. They have one job, and one job only: To fill our head with words that are played over and over. Some are helpful, and some are up to no good. They’re like angry little spells or incantations that color the very fabric of the universe. We gather them up like a collection of seashells as we go about our lives. Like secret agents, they have a singular mission: To alter the course of our lives.
There are essentially three types of Invisible Scripts:
- BAD invisible scripts LIMIT US. They cause us to keep ourselves small, hesitant, and to only reach so far in life. The goal of bad invisible scripts is to CONTROL US.
- MEDIOCRE invisible scripts don’t really do anything for us. We say the words (such as, “I’m a good person”) but we tack on an extra ending (“… but it’s not really true”).
- GOOD invisible scripts PROPEL US FORWARD in life. They give our lives momentum, are as strong as concrete, and encourage us to be the best version of ourselves.
However, finding your invisible scripts is only half of the equation. If you are also still using your bad invisible scripts, you won’t survive by just adding a good one into the mix. You must voluntarily EXCHANGE the bad ones for the good ones. And it’s a lot easier to do that with Good scripts that you believe, as opposed to Mediocre scripts which are pretty useless.
The danger is that with enough practice, Invisible Scripts become CORE BELIEFS:
- I’m just unloveable
- I’m pretty worthless and can’t do anything right
- People always reject me
- The world is a dangerous place
- The future is hopeless
It can be difficult to filter out our own invisible scripts (or core beliefs). Back then, I didn’t know what mine were, and it took me several months of soul searching just to get started. But there’s an easier method I wish I’d known about.
Elicit your Inner Dialogue
This simple, straight-forward method works by eliciting your inner dialogue of unhealthy and damaging phrases. Here’s how to do it:
- Think of one thing that you DESPERATELY want for your future. Snd say it out-loud and with determination. For example, “I want to be a brilliant artist,” or, “I want to find love.” Pay CLOSE attention to your gut feelings as you say this.
- Look for your own “inner cringing” as if you’re being hit in the stomach, followed by the words, “YEAH, BUT…”
- The immediate statement or phrase that follows is your invisible script. You can tell if it’s a bad script because it SHUTS YOUR DREAM DOWN. For example, “Yeah, but I’m too old to start being an artist, and I’m not really that good,” or, “Yeah, but I’ll never find love because I’m unloveable.” Hint: It will FEEL like a fact; that’s HOW you can identify them.
Take the statement you’ve just discovered and ask yourself: Do I believe this 100% of the time? If the answer is yes, then your invisible script has been around so long that it’s festered into a Core Belief and will require some dedicated attention to change it. If not, then your work will be slightly easier. Either way, you now know at least one way in which you (and not others) are holding yourself back in life.
Let’s pause for a moment and look at how to do this in a more detailed way.
Daunting and Frustrating
Learning what our negative scripts are can be one of the most daunting and frustrating tasks that anyone could undertake. It requires a willingness to be brutally honesty with yourself and an openness to being uncomfortable in order to gain access to the answers you seek.
First, you have to make a conscious choice and be willing to embark on this difficult journey. It’s easier said than done, as it will be uncomfortable at times.
Next, you have to have the right attitude.
The essayist Joan Didion once said about the world:
I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it.
You have to have this same approach in discovering your negative scripts; being willing to see the lies we live by without reacting to them or judging ourselves.
You are now ready to begin to cultivate a list of your own negative scripts. All of them.
To do this, spend some time in reflection, preferably when you don’t have a lot of distractions around you and you aren’t going to be rushed. Let your mind clear of the busywork that occupies each of us as we go about our day.
Digging in the Dirt
Without thinking too much, look at the list below and write down the first answers that pop immediately into your mind, as fast as you can, before you have a chance to overthink or rationalize your responses. This is called, “Digging in the dirt” because it’s done as quickly and as fast as you can.
- What do you complain about?
- What agitates you?
- What makes you anxious?
- What you try to control?
- What do you fear losing?
- What you are afraid you won’t get enough of?
- Where do you keep getting stuck?
- What makes you feel confused?
You can download a copy of the Digging in the Dirt list here.
This simple exercise can give you INVALUABLE access to previously hidden and buried invisible negative scripts. Some of them might be unsurprising and immediately recognizable. Others will be more meaningful and will be directly related to the answers you’ve just written down.
The answers to these questions aren’t your scripts; instead, the answers explain the rationale for having a script. Now that you know your Pain Points (that’s what this list is called), you can work backwards to discover what scripts allow you to prevent feeling or experiencing these Pain Points.
It can be tempting to jump ahead and try to figure out how to replace these negative scripts. I tend to do this when I read novels; skipping chapters, reading ahead and getting lost as a result. Trust me: Figuring out a solution to something before you actually, really know what the problem is – that’s a recipe for disaster.
Now, it’s your turn. Take a moment, breathe deeply, and write. My challenge to each of you is to use at least one of these techniques to discover your own Invisible Scripts. Think of at least three “Bad” invisible scripts that have ruled your life. Transform each of these into a “Mediocre”, and then again into a “Good” invisible script. Remember:
- Bad invisible scripts make us feel BAD; it doesn’t matter if they are true or not, and they always feel like FACTS.
- Mediocre invisible scripts make us feel NOTHING; we usually don’t believe them anyways.
- Good invisible scripts make us feel HOPEFUL; they must always, always be absolutely, 100% true.
Bonus points if you do this right now. Find a piece of paper or start a note on your phone and write these down RIGHT AWAY before your invisible scripts fade away into the background noise of daily life.