Illustration by Kelly Blair
I have the most fabulous conversations when I'm alone. Driving, exercising, flossing my teeth, I offer opinions and advice that would change the world, if only the people I'm talking to were actually there. One day I'll laser-focus on a particular client, telling her exactly how to dump her awful boyfriend and develop some self-esteem. The next day I'll masterfully elucidate how a friend should raise his children, or help the president better handle the media. So great are my powers of persuasion that I can go back in time, intercept Virginia Woolf as she heads out to drown herself, and help her resolve her issues so she wants to live, live, live! Also make her subsequent novels a little less weird!
I think most people engage in this sort of mono mano a mano from time to time. I've spent countless hours listening to clients explain what a loved one or coworker needs to hear—so many, in fact, that I finally had to make a formal policy: I don't coach anyone who isn't in the room. Yet when a session is over and my clients leave, I frequently go right on coaching them in my head. Recently, I discovered a way to turn these hypocritical solo conversations into a self-improvement tool. I find it surprisingly powerful. I'm hoping you will, too.
Psychologists call it perseverating: "To repeat or prolong an action, thought, or utterance after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased." Our subconscious minds cause us to obsess—perseverate—about people who mirror something in ourselves that needs our attention. I often marvel as clients bewail the very things in others that reflect their own actions. For example:
"I can't believe my kid has been smoking pot—I'm so upset, I've had to double my anxiety medication."
"My boss is incredibly secretive. It's so unhealthy—she's creating a culture of concealment. But don't tell anyone I said so."
"I wish I could get my sister to stop tearing herself down. I mean, she's not a total freaking loser like me."
From the outside, it's obvious these statements are masterpieces of self-referential thinking. But when we're the ones perseverating, we don't realize we're looking at human mirrors. So I devised the following exercise, which I call Epistles of Perseveration. It can help puncture denial and make the changes your subconscious mind knows are most important for you, right now.
Step One: Choose A Negative Perseveration Person (NPP)
Think of a person who's been on your mind, someone whose misdeeds really chap your hide, and who could benefit—but plenty!—from your awesome insight. Get a pencil and paper and prepare to perseverate in print.
Step Two: Unleash Your Inner Bitch
I first tried this on a day when my mind was a storm of advice for an acquaintance I'll call Glinda. Since trying to confine my inner judgmental bitch wasn't working, I decided to let her burn off some energy on paper. At the top of a notebook page, I wrote, "Dear Glinda, here is what I really think about you in my lowest moments." Then I scrawled out all the things I'd been trying not to think.
"You're so two-faced!" I wrote. "You fawn over people until their backs are turned, and then you criticize and undermine them. You're sneaky and manipulative and insincere. It makes me sick!" Writing this down felt horribly liberating. I could practically hear the hormones gushing from my adrenal glands as I scribbled.
Now it's your turn. Write a letter to your negative perseveration person—not to send, but to capture the harsh thoughts howling through the darkest caverns of your mind. Enjoy this step; most people do. The next one's kind of a buzzkill.