I have a student who I would describe as brilliant. When this student gets a question incorrect, he regularly declares emphatically, “Oh, I'm so stupid!!!” Every time I hear this, I ask, “Do you really believe that? Is that the message that you want to be telling yourself?”
I hear many other such exclamations or self-deprecating explanations from my students. “I can't do algebra.” “I'm just not good at taking tests.” “I'm lazy.” “All my friends do so much better on the ACT than I do!”
We all tell ourselves stories about ourselves. Our minds use language to explain to ourselves who we are and why things are the way that they are.
However, we can learn to notice the stories that we tell ourselves, and we can even choose the stories that we tell ourselves.
One possible and well-known way of changing our stories is with affirmations; for example, someone might tell themselves, “I am a great test-taker. I am a great test-taker.” Some people tell me that affirmations work well for them. However, because affirmations are a way of convincing ourselves of something that parts of ourselves may not believe and may not even be true, I prefer an approach that is grounded in assessing the accuracy of our stories and changing them to be more realistic and action-based. I teach my students a “cognitive-behavioral” approach to this.
“Oh, I'm so stupid!” might become “I made a mistake, and I think that I'm capable of solving this question correctly, so I feel frustrated with myself. Whether I got this specific question correct or not doesn’t actually mean much about my intelligence.”
“I can't do algebra” might become “I have some holes in my algebra knowledge, and I haven't yet learned it as well as I want to learn it, but I'm practicing a lot so that I get better at it.”
“I'm just not good at taking tests” could be turned into “I'm spending a lot of time studying and working to improve how I do on the SAT, and I believe that taking the SAT is a learnable skill because my score has already improved.”
“I'm lazy” could become “In the past, I often haven't done very much work, but there have also been times that I have done my work. I'm going to make choices in order to do my homework more often.”
“All my friends do so much better on the ACT than I do!” could become “It doesn't matter how my friends do on the ACT because I only need to do well enough to get accepted into college. I'm just focusing on practicing my strategies and doing the best I can in each moment.”
I want to be clear that my recommendation to be conscious and choiceful about the stories that we tell ourselves is something that I recommend in SUPPORT of doing the real and hard work necessary to achieve improvement on the SAT or ACT or whatever else we are working towards. Trying to achieve something simply through affirmations or changing our thinking might be called magical thinking, and that is not at all what I am recommending.
If students change their stories about themselves and consistently choose to take the actions necessary to make their new stories true, by the time their tests are over, they might discover that not only did they achieve the scores they were hoping for but they also became a version of themselves with more positive stories in general. They might even feel happier and more confident, with their great scores or without.
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