Have you ever called yourself names after making a poor trade? Ever say things like “You idiot!” or “Damn it you always screw up like that!” or similar? Well this is probably no surprise to anyone, but that’s known as “negative self talk” and it is massively destructive in ways that I suspect not too many people spend time thinking about. Fortunately for this blog, I spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about this kind of thing! And so you get to benefit(?) from all that time I will never get back.
Quick disclaimer. I may very well not know what I am talking about. I may very well be talking out of the opposite end of my torso from where I would normally be expected to speak. However these are the conclusions I have come to after decades of observation and experience in myself and others, as well as lots of reading and studying of this general topic and subject. So let’s get into it.
Firstly I think it’s important that we talk a bit about the conscious and subconscious minds. I’m sure I’m grossly oversimplifying this but the goal here is to keep this simple and easy to understand. There are two basic functions that I like to divide these “parts” of the mind into: Filtration, and Acceptance.
The conscious mind is what we’re aware of. It’s the things we actively are thinking, realizing, figuring out, etc. It’s also the place where we judge and qualify things that come in from outside of us. Stuff we see, stuff we hear, feel, taste, etc. Everything objectively experienced is the realm of the conscious. It’s also the conscious mind’s job to filter out things we believe to be harmful and not let them in. Ideas we want to reject, experiences we don’t want to repeat because we remember what happened last time, etc. Think of the conscious as our protector, standing by during all our waking hours to keep out negativity.
The subconscious by contrast, has no filter. It doesn’t need one because it has its guard dog – the conscious mind! The subconscious just accepts everything that gets in. Which, thankfully, is only the stuff the conscious mind (being the good bouncer that it is) has decided is OK to let behind the velvet rope. Once past that entrance, the subconscious mind embraces everything equally, no judgement, no question. It is incapable of those things. “You made it past the bouncer so I know I can trust you!”
This system generally works pretty well. But there are some really glaring holes in it. For starters, you aren’t always awake. And when we’re asleep our conscious mind no longer guards the door. Anyone and anything is allowed in! This is why for example it’s a terrible idea to fall asleep in front of the television with the sound on even a little, since you have no idea what’s going to come on or what your subconscious mind is going to hear and accept as simple reality/truth. Imagine the news or an infomercial coming on while your subconscious has no guard dog to decide what’s valid and what’s not!
Secondly, the conscious mind is actually not all that bright. It’s easy to trick, and it misses things. Thing is, it also thinks it’s incredibly smart and misses nothing. It’s like the Dunning Kruger poster child! This is why subliminal advertising is so effective for instance. It’s relatively easy for an advertiser to slip past the bouncer and get into the club to hang out with the subconscious and make it believe whatever they want! It’s also why subliminal advertising has been “officially” banned – because it’s that effective. It still happens though… ever notice how popular product placements in TV and movies have become?
Lastly and potentially the worst of all, is that our conscious mind knows us. It knows our voice, and it trusts anything we say implicitly. We’re like the VIP with the all-access pass to the club. The moment we show up at the door, the bouncer instantly pull aside the rope and lets us in, no questions asked. Ever. And it’s easy to think this could only be a good thing, after all why would we be on guard against ourselves!? But that’s precisely the problem – we need to protect against ourselves more than probably anyone else! Because of what I began this post with – negative self talk.
So here’s the mechanic as I have decided it works. Conscious mind is there, listening and filtering as it does. If someone else says something nasty like “Hey you’re an idiot!” we will simply block them and their hurtful remark out. It’s not too likely to do any damage unless they’re someone extremely important to us (and that’s another topic).
But as soon as we say something like that, we get into trouble. Because the words leave our mouth, re-enter our ears, and now are being received by the conscious mind as external and therefore to be considered for potential entry to the subconscious. And what does the conscious mind see, but the VIP! The ropes are pulled aside, and that comment – that you’re an idiot – walks right on through the door and into the subconscious. Now the subconscious greets this visitor who tells it what an idiot it is and the subconscious’ response? “Oh really? I am? Oh! I had no idea. OK then!” And the idea that you are an idiot, is now planted into your psyche. You now identify as an idiot.
Here’s where things get really dangerous. The subconscious actually has a second job/role, which is to make certain that your actions remain congruent (in keeping) with your sense of self. Now, if your sense of self is “I am an idiot”, then your subconscious now has the job of making sure that your actions reflect who & what you are – an idiot! And what do idiots do? They make poor choices/decisions and generally do idiotic things. And so you must generally do idiotic things in order to remain congruent with your self identity as an idiot.
Whew! Who’s still with me?
It’s of course much more complex than just a single remark to yourself once. But that’s the thing, we don’t just do this once. We do it over, and over, and over again. So much that we may not even notice it. To make things worse, what if we have surrounded ourselves with people whose opinions we care a great deal about, but who also tell us things along these same lines. That we’re stupid, or a loser, or are never going to make any money, or can’t do anything right, etc. etc. This is going to be absolutely devastating because they are going to be considered VIPs in the club inside our psyche, and let right past the front door. And with enough repetitions of this, the stuff becomes set in the firmament and is incredibly difficult to dislodge or remove.
However – it CAN be removed! It takes time and effort but it can be done, and it starts with two simple things:
- No more negative self talk!
- Positive self talk!
Yep that’s right, this cuts both ways. If negative self talk can get in, so can positive self talk! This is why “affirmations” are a thing. There is actually something to them. However this is not the whole “I am rich, I am beautiful, people love me” type of self-help hocus-pocus that is supposed to magically transform you into this thing you are just saying that you are. No, this is simply the exact opposite of the negative self talk. Things like recognizing when you read a trade well, or had a good day, executed properly, cut a loser before it got out of hand, etc. It’s essential in these moments that you say out loud something to acknowledge them. “Nice! That was a great read!” “Good job cutting that one before it did any damage.” “You did well this morning, no sense in risking giving any of it back. Enjoy the rest of your day.” These are the sorts of positive messages you need to reinforce into your subconscious a little bit every day. And obviously, this can apply outside of trading as well.
But it’s absolutely imperative that you say this stuff out loud. It doesn’t work just thinking them, because the words don’t leave your body and come back in via the air vibrating against your ear drums. There is a physical, physiological component to this as well as mental, so don’t try to shortcut it by just thinking the words. They must be spoken. “Think Positive” will not cut it. It’s about speaking positive, as well as not speaking negative. They can even be muttered under your breath, so long as YOU can hear them, then the process will take effect.
I encourage you to first take note of anything negative you say about yourself, and put a stop to it. And second, to try this process of vocally speaking positively to/about yourself, to yourself. If you can do both of these things, I’m confident you will see an improvement in your trading and likely all areas of your life.
Oh and do let me know how it goes for you, I’d love to hear back.
Until next time, good trading!
Jonathan van Clute
Community Manager, Trading Research Group