The longer I exercise, the more I believe that physical well-being is largely determined by mental well-being. Admittedly, we all must build the necessary strength and endurance to participate in any athletic pursuit. However, our minds are the first organs that must function properly in order to excel.
A friend recently told me that humans have up to 60,000 thoughts a day and that – on average – 80 percent of those thoughts are negative. If this statistic is accurate, it is a wonder that most of us make it to our morning coffee, let alone the gym.
Though a decidedly positive person, when I began running my negative thought quotient far exceeded this bleak national average. Back then every stride was a struggle for dominance between my intentions and my internal critic.
“Oh, my knee! Something is moving in there and it pinches. That can’t be good. Look at the size of that hill! I can’t run up that on this bum knee? I’ll just walk.”
“No, if I stop, I’ll feel like a failure. I’ll have to admit to everyone that yet another attempt to get fit has gone down in flames.”
“Given the choice between failure and knee surgery, I choose failure! If I turn back now, I can rest my knee and get a solid half hour of sleep before work.”
“This hill sucks! I am not up to this! My body wasn’t meant to run. I am too old, too fat, too out of shape! Why am I running anyway?”
Who can win against such pervasive negativity? Even my motivational side – that tiny part of me that really wanted to be running – argued in the negative. The worst part of it was that I couldn’t blame anyone other than myself. I was the only naysayer who threatened my success.
If we are so inordinately disposed to the dark side, how can we tip the scales to the light? There are many, many ways to beat back the defeatist within who thrives on fear, the need for approval and the accumulated and unchallenged critiques of others.
The first step is to tune into your brain and really listen to what it is saying. If a thought is negative, question it. It probably isn’t true and by exposing the lies, they will evaporate. The truths you do find can then be addressed directly by your actions.
Try to turn any downbeat beliefs into uplifting ones. Begin to tell yourself a different story…a story in which you excel. Visualize yourself crossing the finish line, hitting a home run, sinking an eagle putt. The brain does not discern between imagined scenarios and reality. To the mind, both are equally real. Visualization trains the brain to succeed, to do the task required, to see the positive that is possible rather than the negative that limits achievement. What you believe you can do is what you will do. Isn’t it preferable to choose a rosier outcome?
If your reproachful thoughts are particularly resistant to change, there are numerous strategies to employ. One of my favorites is to encourage other people. Most of us are less critical of others than we are of ourselves. We are also quicker to recognize and cheer their improvements. Helping others feels good and can improve your own outlook while you are learning to think more positively. If you cultivate your belief in others and choose optimistic friends, the increased exposure to upbeat thinking is bound to bring more self-acceptance and joy into your own mind.
If fear of failure still turns your thoughts from gold to brass, try to redefine failure. Grab a whip and a chair and tame the beast that craves external validation into a soft kitten of personal achievement. Remind yourself that the only failure that exists is to fail to try. Detach from the outcome of medals or even personal bests and focus on the benefits that every stride, lift, bend or swing is bringing to your life. Remember that gratitude is the only proper attitude. Count your blessings and be thankful for whatever ability you have to move and play.
If undermining self-talk is out of hand, drown it out with a calming mantra or music that makes you happy. Interrupt pessimistic thoughts by changing your focus. If inner demons are winning, look outward to appreciate the beauty in what surrounds you. See nothing inspiring on the horizon? Focus inward and take stock of the subtle improvements in your performance or rejoice in whatever is going right at the moment.
There will always be an excess of external challenges to overcome, why add to them subversive voices within? Turn your critic into a cheerleader and you’ll be amazed not only at what you are capable of, but how much better you feel.