I’d like to make a confession. I cannot do a roll up.
A little clarification: a “roll up” is a Pilates exercise where, using only your abs, you go from lying flat on your back to sitting straight up with your legs out in front of you. And I cannot do one. I couldn’t do one a year ago, I can’t do one today, and I probably won’t be able to do one a month from now. So I shouldn’t have been surprised a few days ago in my Pilates class when I failed to do a rollup yet again. And, to be fair, I wasn’t surprised, but I was angry. Frustrated. Embarrassed. “You should be able to do this by now!” a certain voice I know well said. “This is pathetic!” it continued. “And look how much one-on-one time the teacher is giving you because of it. I bet everyone else is annoyed with you for hogging attention and slowing the class down!” Now, I don’t know if that is what the other students in the class were thinking, but I do know a thing or two about the voice speaking to me for, you see, it has lived with me a long time. It is my inner critic or, as I like to call it, simply “mean voice.” Mean voice loves to tell us that we’re not good enough or smart enough or strong enough. I’ve got one. You’ve got one. And you better believe that success coaching students have one.
My “mean voice” incident during Pilates class reminded me just how pernicious this inner critic can be, especially when a student is struggling to overcome real obstacles to their college goals. Mean voice is quick to take any small setback as proof that- “see? I was right! You can’t do it after all!” The problem comes when students are unable to see mean voice as just one of the contributors to the ever-convening city council meeting in all of our heads. When we see mean voice as simply “reality,” we don’t realize that there are other valid perspectives to consider.
I had a student a few years back whose academic struggles during her first semester at school seemed insurmountable. “I just can’t do the work,” she would tell me time and time again. And she was not wrong. But I also knew that she had come from a high school that had not prepared her very well for college. Because few of us understand things outside our realm of experience, she didn’t realize how poorly her high school programs had served her. So when she got to college and found herself underwater, she just assumed it must be a fundamental problem with her own brain, with her mean voice always including a dangerous (and dangerously convincing) because at the end of the sentence. “You can’t do the work because you’re not smart enough,” it told her, when in reality she was fighting uphill against a lack of preparedness that was largely not her fault.
So how do any of us, including success students, deal with our mean voices? All but the few truly enlightened among us lack the power to completely eliminate them, so how do we live with these voices without giving them the power and influence they crave? The first step, I tell my students, is to recognize the voice for what it is: one perspective of many. Once you’ve recognized your mean voice, give it a good sizing up. That way, the next time you get a poor grade on a paper and that same old refrain comes along…”of course you failed! You always fail! This just confirms everything I’ve told you about how worthless you are.”…you can say, “Hey, Cool it, okay? I’ve heard this song before.”
Once you’ve quieted the mean voice, listen for the other voices in the room. In that space you might find Logic, who says, “well, we failed that one, but we’ve got to admit we didn’t study as much as we probably should have.” Or perhaps Gentle, who reminds us, “hey. This was a bad one, but this stuff is hard and we’re making progress, even if it’s slow.” You may even find Real Kindness in there somewhere, I tell them. And once Real Kindness’ voice is heard, you’re really on the road to positive change.