Let’s take out some head trash

by Suw on February 15, 2023

Stock Image Woman has yeeted her head trash so far into deep space she needs a telescope to see it. Well done her.

The most important stories in all of the world are the stories we tell ourselves and, particularly, the ones we tell ourselves about who we are and what we’re capable of. Although some people’s inner monologue is full of affirmations of how awesome they are and how they deserve success, most of us are a bit less positive.

It’s not that it’s just easier to dwell on the negatives, it’s that we’re hardwired to feel loss more deeply than we feel gain. ‘Loss aversion is the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains’ says Wikipedia. ‘Some studies have suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.’

We also pay more attention to losses and to situations that could cause loss. Indeed, ’loss attention may be more robust than loss aversion’.

Although the discussion of loss aversion and loss attention seem to focus predominantly on the loss of physical objects or money, we humans don’t much like any sort of loss, whether that’s loss of status, loss of time, loss of skill, loss of our good name. It all hurts. And we kick ourselves for it.

A lifetime, however long or short, of experiencing all these different types of loss means that it’s only too easy to develop a defective understanding of the world and our place in it. We take our losses as indicative of inherent failings, rather than treat them as a transitory experience.

There’s a gendered aspect to this. Girls take failure harder than boys and are more likely to ‘blame academic failure on a lack of talent’ than boys, according to a large study published last year.

In 71 of the 72 countries studied, even when performance was equal, girls were more inclined to attribute their failures to a lack of talent than boys, who were likelier to blame external factors. The sole exception was Saudi Arabia.

Contrary to what one may expect, the differences were most pronounced in wealthy nations.

And in my experience, the biases that exist in girls’ minds also exist in women’s minds.

We take loss hard and we believe failure is an indictment of our talents, and then we craft that into narratives that we carry with us every day, and which affect how we respond to other people and to situations, often with negative effects on the outcomes of our interactions and experiences.

In his book, Start Finishing, Charlie Gilkey uses the term ‘head trash’ to describe these ‘self-limiting stories’ which are ‘based on our own personal experiences, histories and contexts’.

‘Head trash’ has been one of the most useful phrases I’ve picked up in a long time. Naming something gives us power over it and being able to say to myself or my husband, ‘OK, I’m going to take out some head trash now’ has allowed me to articulate and, more importantly, discard some of these false narratives.

In psychology, and in particular sports psychology, head trash is called ‘negative self-talk’ and if you do a quick google you will find dozens and dozens of articles about how to combat it. There are articles and scholarly papers about everything from reframing to affirmations to using cognitive behavioural therapy to try to deal with negative self-talk. And sometimes a robust approach is needed. Gilkey suggests a three-part approach to stubborn head trash:

  1. Be aware of ‘self-defeating beliefs and patterns’.
  2. Have the courage to challenge and mitigate those beliefs.
  3. Take responsibility for the change.

But still, sometimes, all that’s needed is to say the thing aloud. Says Gilkey:

Head trash always looks absurd when you state it directly because you see it for what it is. It’s the adult version of the monster under the bed; its power over us rests upon it remaining in the darkness.

I find the term ‘head trash’ better than ‘negative self-talk’ because it’s so much less formal, less medicalised, and that makes it much more approachable. More than that, ‘negative self-talk’ feels rather like it’s blaming me for not being kinder to myself, whereas ‘head trash’ focuses on the nature of the mistaken beliefs that I carry around.

It’s easy, when I’m walking in the park with my husband, to say ‘Can I throw out some head trash? I’ve been stressing about the fact that my newsletter subscriber numbers have dipped and I’m scared that means that no one wants to hear what I have to say.’

As soon as I say that out loud, its ridiculousness becomes immediately apparent, not just to my husband but also to me. Starting any newsletter is a marathon, not a sprint, and lulls in sign-ups are to be expected. They say nothing at all about the quality of my writing and they say less than nothing about me as a person.

As soon as I’ve said it, its power over me vanishes.

Whether our head trash is self-deprecating (‘I’m a terrible writer’) or catastrophising (‘No one will ever read my newsletter’), naming it allows you to get rid of it. Taking out the head trash has become an almost daily occurrence in our household and we’re getting so good at it that it takes hardly any time. We identify what’s worrying us, we articulate it, we explain why it’s head trash, and then we throw it out and move on.

Like dealing with life admin, which I talked about in an earlier post, dealing with head trash frees up space in your mind for more creative work. But more than that, we internalise so many negative stories about writing that there is a whole subset of specialist head trash that we need to deal with in order to be effective and happy writers.

So learn to recognise your head trash, find a way to articulate it (even if it’s just talking aloud to yourself), and bin it. You don’t need that rubbish in your life.

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