This is a modified version of Michelle's talk from NZIPP’s Exposure Conference 2018, on the lessons she has learnt, and the techniques she uses to regularly retrain her negative/self doubting thoughts and gain confidence.

Michelle Phillips | overcoming self-doubt and building confidence

This talk was born out of a bunch of conversations I repeatedly have with myself. It's like a soundtrack that plays in my head whenever; a couple emails with negative feedback; or I’m culling/editing; or when I’m asked to speak at a conference.

It’s a conversation many of you might be familiar with and it goes something a little bit like:

“I can’t do this”
”I suck”
“I don’t know what to do”
”I want to give up”

This is my brain on Autopilot — I’m here today because I’ve learned how to push against this kind of negative self talk and it's changed everything.

My hope for this post is that I can encourage you and show you that if I can change my negative thoughts and habits and gain confidence, so can you.

Everything you have in life is a manifestation of your inner conversations — Lisa Nichols

Photography is more than just a technical skill, it's also a mental game. The biggest thing I’ve learnt over these past few years of being in business is that your photography skills, gear, & editing will only take you so far. But even more so: your mental health is important. If you want to value yourself; be more inspired; or worry less and take more opportunities then it all starts with what you think and believe about yourself, and the decisions you make as a result.

So the first thing you have to know is that your thoughts become your reality.

I like this quote from Lisa Nichols.

“everything you have in life is a manifestation of your inner conversations”

In other words, whatever it is that you are constantly thinking about, and telling yourself… will affect your productivity, income, relationships, body, health - everything. You become what you think about most often.

This works because your life is actually a product of a series of millions of tiny tiny little micro decisions that you are making all day long, whether you are aware of them or not. These little decisions stack on top of each other, eventually forming habits and your identity.

It's not like anyone wakes up one day and decides not to value themselves and their work. Rather; we hold a belief, such as “I’m not good enough”, so when an opportunity comes along, such as a friend wanting a photo-shoot, we undersell ourselves… we send them our “cheap” price list.

And this all happens subconsciously - it’s our brain is on autopilot.

By changing my belief about myself I changed everything: health; relationships; business; photography.

A thing I used to believe was that I am not cool enough, that no photographer would want to hang out with me.

A couple of years back we were photographing in Hawkes Bay, I was looking at who had shot at the venue before and what it would be like. I stumbled across this amazing photographer’s work, Natalie McNally. Because of this belief about myself - I decided by default, NOT to contact her. “Why would she want to hang out with me???” While I was having a little pity party, what I didn’t know was that Hemi had also seen her work and had already contacted her to meet up for coffee.

We’ve gained so much from this connection:

  • Bookings (which even lead to some of our favourite portfolio images).
  • Second shooting opportunities.
  • The chance to stay with her.
  • Friendship.
  • Advice and support.

Imagine how much we would have missed out on, if Hemi hadn’t contacted her. Hemi and I had the same opportunity, but because we valued ourselves differently - the outcome, our realities, would have been totally different.

Everything in life is an opportunity and your mind is always deciding how to respond.

So what you really want to do, is to be able to interrupt your autopilot process before it becomes your reality. From my own experience, I've identified two mains steps to interrupt this negative self-talk process.

  1. Become aware of what you are doing.
  2. Make a conscious effort to replace your default decision with a positive decision.

Become aware of what you are doing

A lot of the time you want to improve your life but don’t know where to start. Because we so often run on autopilot, many behaviors and habits are subconscious. You’ve done them so many times, you don’t even know that you do these things. Somehow, we first need to become aware of those subconscious things we do.

It’s like when you have a block of Whittakers chocolate - it's so delicious, so you have the first piece. And then get lost watching cat videos. And the next thing you know, you’re yelling “who ate all the chocolate.” I mean, I sort of did make the mini decisions to have ‘one more piece’ until all 18 pieces of that creamy delightful chocolate were gone, but it happened so naturally and subconsciously.

Once you become aware of a negative subconscious habit and what it is that you are doing, you can begin to look at the situation differently. You can then decide that this default behavior doesn’t work for you anymore and you can start to think - “how am I going to change this?”

Replace it with a positive decision

If you want to break a habit - you need to replace it with a positive one. We now know, our reality is made up from lots of tiny decisions all stack on top of each other. Once you are aware of these little decisions you are making. You can start to make a conscious effort to replace them with little positive decisions.

I re-framed my apology as a thank you

I had a subconscious habit of saying sorry all the time, that I wasn’t even aware I was doing. Until one day someone yelled at me and said “Stop f***cking saying sorry! You do it all the time! And you’re not even sorry!” I was shocked - I didn’t even realize I was doing it. So it made me think about why I was doing this? What I realised, was that it came from a place where I was thinking “I am an inconvenience to people”.

So I decided to replace my default habit of saying sorry. Instead I would make a conscious effort to re-frame my apology as a thank you. People seemed to respond really well, so I applied this to our business too.

One season we were running really late one year in delivering weddings to couples. Instead of focusing on the late delivery and how I was inconveniencing them, I tried to imagine that they were patient and kind and happy to wait - that they would value the end result, and the wait would be worth it.

So I emailed every couple, and where my autopilot response would have been, “I’m sorry your images are so late,” I instead said, “thank you for your patience, kindness and understanding”. Our couples actually responded really well! They didn’t get angry, or passive aggressive - almost every one said they understood and were happy to wait.

When I framed things in a positive way, people were more likely to respond positively back... it was contagious! In becoming aware of this subconscious habit of saying sorry. I was able to replace the default decision with a new positive one. Even just this one example had a big impact on my life and business.

Tools + Tips

I’ve now started to build up a whole series of tools that I use to empower myself to keep positive and to keep making positive decisions even when I get tired. I’ll cover what I do briefly, in case there is something here that gives you an idea for you to try for yourself. But if there is anything you would like to know more about, please ask in the comments and I will do my best to help!

1. Control 1st hour of the day

Many of us spend the first/best hour of our day scrolling on our phones - maybe looking at what someone else ate last night, or checking our emails.

“As soon as you open your eyes [...] you have an opportunity to steer your thoughts and your emotions in the way that you want them to go.” — Steve Rizzo

I’ve developed a morning routine for myself and filled it with things that set myself up for a positive mental state:

  • Set phone to ‘do not disturb’.
  • Listen to something positive as soon as I open my eyes (e.g. encouraging words, upbeat music etc.).
  • Stretch + do a yoga video from youtube.

2. Hourly walks

Hemi and I wear these Fitbit bands, that buzz to encourage us to go for a walk every hour. We’ve found it a great way to keep track of your time, and to give your mind a break. But also it has been amazing for our communication and to keep us feeling like we are working together as a team.

3. Five second rule

This is a concept by Mel Robbins; basically, it's just a way to shortcut your brain and make a decision quickly. Count back from 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1. and when you get to one you need to make an action. I have find this idea really useful:

  • To motivate myself to get started on a task.
  • To catch myself before I snap at someone or something.
  • When I need to re-frame something positively.

4. Mantras

I’ve also started to develop some positive mantras or things to repeat to myself when I slip back into autopilot mode. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • “The secret to getting ahead is getting started”
  • “What’s my end goal here?” - this brings me back to rational thinking
  • “Everybody gets the face they deserve at 50” - this one always reminds me not to frown and enjoy life
  • “You can’t hug all the cats” - this reminds me that I can’t do everything and please everyone all the time

5. Surround yourself with great people

I once read; “you will become like the 5 people you spend the most time with,” because their habits will rub off on you. So I’ve also started to surround myself with people who I respect, even if they intimidate me. And I can attribute so many of things that I now know and do, to some of the wonderful people I’ve made friends with.

6. Gratitude

The last but important thing I want to share is actually one of the things that I do as part of my morning routine; I write out what I am grateful for in my life every day. When I start the day with gratitude I appreciate everyone and everything so much more. It helps me remember that life is actually pretty damn good!!

This job that we have, is truly amazing;
I’m an image maker, artist and storyteller;
I get to record life, and fleeting moments that will never repeat;

What a job! What a life. And now I get to share some of the things I’ve learnt with you, I’m super grateful for this opportunity!