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  • Writer's pictureSara Broadhurst

Beware the bull for high performance

Calm bull relaxing in a paddock

We’ve all done it. Let negative thoughts, self-criticism, worry and rumination rampage around like a bull in our brain, stomping on our more rational thinking and optimism. Recent research in Norway* has found that unhelpful thinking has a negative impact on people’s work ability over time, even when they controlled for other factors like gender, age, physical and psychological health. Those thoughts bullishly charging around in your brain can negatively affect your performance, unless you fence them in.

What to do: there are simple actions you can take to slow that bull to a walk:

In the moment:

o    Go to the freezer, grab some ice, pop it in a bowl and plunge your face into the bowl for 30 seconds. This works physically on your parasympathetic nervous system by activating your vagus nerve, which then lowers your heart rate and blood pressure and tells your body (and brain and the bull in that brain) that it’s ok to relax; or

o    Sitting at your desk at work and your colleagues are probably going to look sideways at you for your face ice bath? Instead, set a timer on your phone for one minute, and look at something on your desk. Not your screen! A cup, a pen, your water bottle. Now imagine that you are going to have to describe that item in detail when the time is up – size in centimetres, colours, how the light plays on the colours and more.  Every time you find your mind drifting away from the item, bring it back and just concentrate on really being able to describe the item. This forces you away from paying attention to the bull which, much like a toddler who is being ignored, tends to wander off and find something else to do.

You will find you come back from these exercises feeling much calmer.

What’s next: These are useful in the moment but remember that bull is a big beast and needs regular work if you are truly going to tame it. You’ve got to do the mahi if you really want the bull to be house-trained.

  • Identify negative core beliefs: We all have them, these fundamental and lasting beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world that we construct from meaningful events in our lives. Psychologists have found that these tend to fall into one of three categories – helplessness, unlovability or worthlessness. Check out this link for examining your negative core beliefs. By really being willing to examine what our negative core beliefs are, what is sitting at the heart of them and whether we do actually believe them, we can consider how we want to tweak them in our life going forward. Once we understand at the heart what they are, this has a huge impact on both our future frequency of expressing those beliefs but also our ability to manage them in a variety of circumstances.

  • Be prepared: By addressing our core beliefs, that frequency of bullish emotions are diminished. However, we all have moments when that bull is rampaging around triggering our imposter feelings. It’s part of the joy of being human. So, the trick is to be prepared for those moments. The in-the-moment tips above can help but we’re more encouraging you to consider what actions you can take when you’re feeling helpless about your upcoming presentation to the Board, or a criticism of your work triggers your beliefs about worthlessness or you’re not invited to that event causing you to worry about unlovability. Mindfulness practices, reframing techniques, and positive self-talk can help you effectively navigate these challenges, resulting in the bull doing nothing more than lazily raise its head.

  • Understand your Why Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning (2004, p. 84), the person “…who has a why to live, can bear with almost any how.” Having a strong understanding of what a life of value looks like to you helps people to choose the thoughts and actions that matter in challenging moments. Writing down what you want the theme of your life to be and tattooing that on your arm (or maybe just making it the screen saver on your phone), creating a vision board or revisiting your values can all help you to focus on what really matters, rather than getting distracted by the detritus of today. Essentially, it limits the noise around you so that bull can snooze.

Remember, taming that bull is an everyday practice. If you recognise and calm your inner narratives, you can focus on being a high-performing superstar at work without being distracted by having to chase that super emotional bull around the paddock inside your brain.

* Anyan, F., Hjemdal, O., & Nordahl, H. (2023). Testing the longitudinal effect of metacognitive beliefs on the trajectory of work ability. Current Psychology: A Journal for Diverse Perspectives on Diverse Psychological Issues, 42(32), 28086–28094.

Bonus Tip: Sara’s experience of working at an executive level for 15 years in a range of industries, along with her psychology training, helps her to coach high performers every day. If you think Sara may be able to help you with your performance goals, give us a call and let’s chat.

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