Eliza was five when she challenged me to race her to the top of the climbing wall. Despite surpassing her by over three feet and decades, I was not convinced that odds were in my favor. As the climbers ahead of us began to descend, Eliza got quiet. She caught my eyes and performed a series of hand gestures whose meaning was clear…I was going down. Now it was my turn to be quiet as I tried to comprehend what had just happened. I started laughing in disbelief – perhaps a bit nervously – and remarked, “I’ve just been trash signed by a five-year-old!”
Trash talking may have been new to me, but this was a good kind of non-verbal challenge. In throwing down her gestilcular gauntlet Eliza taught me that if you are going to call it a race, you better bring everything you have.
Trash talk – when done with the wrong intent – is cruel. But Eliza helped me realize that most trash talk is playful. It is a means of upping the stakes. It is a way one athlete provokes another to make them both perform better.
I have a friend I have known since we were both in our early double digits. Though we weren’t competitive back then, his trash talk now makes me go that extra mile…literally. I don’t know why it started. One day our spin instructor set a task, and my friend dared me to join him in adding extra resistance. In return, I prodded him to kick up the speed. Once we started, we couldn’t stop. We were hooked on trying to find the level of difficulty that would make the other cry, “Uncle!” Now, that friend and I smile eagerly whenever we happen to arrive at the same class. We know our brand of trash talk will guarantee us both a great workout.
But there is an ugly side to trash talk. The worst negative speech doesn’t come from our friends, or even our rivals. The most hurtful brand of trash talk comes from ourselves.
There are the obvious verbal self-saboteurs. These are the folks who speak streams of negation without seeming to notice they are closing doors of possibility by simply pairing an action verb with the word no.
But at least those who say, “I can’t” are responding to an entreaty. The very worst trash talk happens when we run ourselves down without any impetus to do so.
I heard a women proclaim, “I ran a mile!” I was happy for her and was about to share my enthusiasm. But before there was time, she added, “If you can call it running. I mean, I’m really slow…and I did walk a few steps, so I guess I shouldn’t say I ran-”
“How awesome that you ran a mile! Where did you run?” I cut her off, feeling empathy for her self-abuse.
I was hoping to interrupt her compulsive redaction of success. I wanted to return her mind to that moment of pride and let her enjoy her achievement.
Self-negating talk disturbs me because I used to be a great at it. I hear someone talk down their abilities and I remember all the years of work it took to stop trash talking myself. You can shake the Etch-A-Sketch, but if the buttons still only move side to side and up and down, it takes a great deal of work to draw circles.
A very simple phrase spoken by Siddhārtha Gautama Buddha made me see the necessity of learning to draw those circles. The Buddha said, “What we think, we become.”
Trash thoughts lead to trash outcomes. To become better, we must think better thoughts. We must say no to the internal and external trash talk that limits our growth and say yes to the trash talk that winks while challenging us to break through old limitations to become who we really want to be.