The new Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House” follows four long-shot congressional candidates taking on veteran Democratic politicians in the 2018 primaries.
At least one of them may already be familiar to you. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is a household name now, but the film begins when she held a bartending day job and her political future was uncertain. We see her doing the less glamorous campaign work of knocking on doors, handing out fliers and trying to convince disinterested people why she is the best person for the job.
In one vulnerable moment, we see Ocasio-Cortez give herself a pep talk at home before heading to a televised debate with powerful incumbent Joe Crowley.
How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez prepares for a big moment in her career ―and how you can, too
“I need to take up space,” Ocasio-Cortez repeats as she waves her arms to fill the room. She takes a deep breath, puts her hands to her face and centers herself. She then makes a number of self-affirming statements to remind herself she is ready for this big moment in her career.
“I am experienced enough to do this. I am knowledgable enough to do this. I am prepared enough to do this,” she recites. “I am mature enough to do this. I am brave enough to do this.”
She then anticipates how Crowley might attack her.
“This whole time, he’s gonna tell me I can’t do this. He’s gonna tell me I’m small, I’m little, that I’m young, that I’m inexperienced,” she says.
But she’s ready. She exhales loudly and pushes her arms forward, as if to physically push away the negativity of those statements and reclaim the space.
How to motivate yourself when you feel doubt at work
Ocasio-Cortez’s pep talk is effective because she challenges the doubt in her own abilities with thoughts she knows to be true. In this case, it was the belief that she had done the research and work necessary to succeed.
This is consistent with cognitive behavioral theory, in which you have to replace a self-defeating thought with a more positive thought that you actually believe in. “The positive thought must be 100 percent true, or it won’t help,” psychiatrist David Burns writes in his book “When Panic Attacks.” “Rationalizations and half-truths won’t change the way you think and feel.”
Jacqueline and Milton Mayfield, researchers who have studied motivation language theory in corporations, found that all good pep talks contain three elements of vocabulary: language that is uncertainty-reducing, empathetic, and meaning-making. Ocasio-Cortez uses meaning-making language when she links her success at the debate with a higher mission: “I am debating on behalf of the movement tonight,” she says. “This is not about electing me to Congress. This is about electing us to Congress.”
To reduce uncertainty, remind yourself how you can accomplish the challenge. Self-determination theory holds that you feel more motivated when your autonomy and competence are supported by your environment. And a 2017 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance found that pep talks to people with “autonomy supportive” language, like “You are free to do this,” helped participants feel less pressure and more perceived choices, as opposed to controlling language like “You ought to do this.”
To feel more secure about an uncertain future, give yourself a pep talk that emphasizes your personal agency. Remind yourself of what you have power over, such as your own experience, knowledge and maturity. You may not be able to control your critics’ reactions, but if you can control your own actions, you can feel more motivated for the challenge.