Nothing is more confusing or painful than when your brain takes over your thoughts, attacks your selfworth,
questions your abilities, overpowers you with cravings, or attempts to dictate your actions.

“It’s like the invasion of the brain snatchers,” says Ed, a talented Broadway performer whose career was on hold for years because of his intense stage fright and fears of rejection. Running on autopilot in a most unhelpful way, Ed felt like his “brain just took over,” filling him with self-doubt and anxiety. “It was horrible and humiliating . . . it told me all these things about me that just weren’t true.

That I was no good, a second-class citizen, that I didn’t deserve anything.” What’s worse, those deceptive brain messages about Ed were dead wrong. The truth is that Ed is an accomplished performer who is revered and loved for his wit, ability to engage a crowd, and unshakable confidence on the stage. People are always excited to see him and are moved by his performances, yet his deceiving brain would not let him accept their rave reviews. Rather than believing in his inherently wonderful qualities and impressive skills, Ed’s brain was programmed to ignore his positive attributes and instead focus on what he might have done wrong or how people might perceive his mistakes—in essence, to home in on his minute flaws and imperfections.

Where did these negative beliefs and doubts come from? Although he sees that most of his deceptive brain messages took root in childhood, one specific experience changed everything for him. It all began, he remembers, when he was standing before a famous Broadway producer at age twenty. As he prepared to run the scene, Ed became dazed and paralyzed. “I just left my body,” he says. “It was the most horrifying experience.” The event haunted his dreams and, by the time he was thirty, it began to plague his days. “I was no longer having nightmares about being onstage naked, I was having that feeling more or less whenever I went to an audition. I felt exposed and raw.” Beneath that competent and tranquil fa├žade, Ed was gripped by a fear of rejection and was in turmoil. Taking his deceptive brain messages completely at face value, Ed avoided auditions altogether, believing that his career was over—that his anxiety and fear had won.

Any false or inaccurate thought or any unhelpful or distracting impulse, urge, or desire that takes you away from your true goals and intentions in life (i.e., your true self).
Even if you are not dealing with overwhelming anxiety, you may recognize the feeling of being assailed by deceptive brain messages. Consider the case of Sarah, a twenty-nine-year-old public relations specialist who struggled with depression and perfectionism for many years before starting our program.

Like so many of us, she was afraid of not living up to expectations and questioned her abilities often. Even more troubling, Sarah was exquisitely sensitive to others’ comments and actions, which caused her to often over-personalize interactions with friends, family, and coworkers. For example, if she was talking with a friend and he “paused, even for a second,” she says, she would assume that she had said something wrong or upset the other person in some way. She would not be able to step back from her deceptive brain messages and look for an alternate explanation for why her friend responded as he did or realize that it had nothing to do with her. Instead, she would become instantly anxious and replay the seemingly botched interaction over and over in her head, hoping to come to some sort of resolution. Her brain would run in endless loops, asking numerous questions and envisioning various scenarios in a desperate attempt to control her anxiety.

No matter what she did, Sarah couldn’t figure it out or make the terrible feelings of anxiety go away. Inside, she felt like a failure and somehow ended up believing she was the problem. She hoped and pleaded with herself: If only she could figure out what had happened, she could prevent a similar situation in the future and avoid this uncomfortable feeling and the associated negative thoughts. Unfortunately, she never did. Instead, she would get more anxious and continually overanalyze the situation until she was exhausted.

What Sarah didn’t know at the time was that her brain was sending her the destructive message that to receive love, acceptance, and adoration, she had to be perfect and take care of everyone else. In essence, she had to ignore her true self and focus on others, no matter the cost to her.

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