Every year since the beginning, in 2011, I have competed in the CrossFit Open. Every year I have battled feelings of inadequacy and I have highlighted my shortcomings as an athlete.
Except this year.
I took a course that *changed my life.* Tacky, cliché, yeah, I know. But, it’s true.
You see, I was spending a lot of time telling myself that I sucked: “I should’ve done better. I could’ve gotten one more rep. So-and-so did better than me. I suck at double-unders. I’m weak. I’m fat. I’m slow…” The list goes on and on.
It wasn’t until I was asked to look for something we call “negative self-talk,” that I started to realize how I was treating myself.
This self-talk, completely in my head, was going on 24/7. If I made a mistake: “You’re fucking stupid.” If I overate: “You’re a fat-ass.” If I missed a snatch: “You suck.” I realized that I was bombarding myself on a daily basis. And, more importantly, I realized that I had a choice: I could continue berating myself, or I could turn it around… but, how?
It helped me to think that I had two competing voices in my head: a bully (who was getting all the air-time), and a coach, or a compassionate friend. I externalized those thoughts and said them outloud:
Ok, now that sounds fucked up. When it was in my head, it was ok to be a bully to myself, but saying it out loud was gross. I couldn’t believe I had been doing this for so long! Even worse, that I thought that this type of self-talk was helpful, when the exact opposite is true (Allen 2010).
So, I made a decision: I would ban the bully, put him in a fucking medieval torture chamber and throw away the key, and I would give my compassionate, caring, coach’s voice a platform.
I have never looked back since.
So, it started like this:
Bully: “You’re a fat-ass.”
Me: “Hold up! What the fuck did I just think?” (Decapitates Bully with guillotine)
Coach: “Everyone struggles with body image, dude. And, you’re actually in great shape. You overate last night, and that’s ok. Eat until you’re 80% full at your next meal.”
Me: “Thanks coach! Will do :)”
Here’s another example:
[Misses snatch at 80%]
Bully: “You suck. You can’t even hit 80%. Get your shit together you fucking nut-job.”
Me: “Oh shit, that fucker screwed his head back on like Evil Dead. Now he’s here to torture me. Fuck you Bully. Go back to your cell! Where’s Coach?”
Coach: “Everyone misses from time-to-time, dude. You hit 9 out of 10 today–that’s really good! Enjoy the process and rejoice in the fact that you get to train. This is a priviledge.”
Me: “Thanks coach! You’re really nice to have around!”
These are real-life examples. Absurd? Of course! That’s the whole point. The bully in your head is the most absurd fucker around, and he/she will tell you lies and twist the truth to make you feel like shit. And guess what, all of these lies and twisted truths don’t make you better, they make you WORSE! The negative self-talk adds stress to your life. Stress is a killer. It poisons performance, and it creates a negative chemical cascade that will ultimately shorten your life and kill your performance (Sapolski 1992).
Here’s how you can start to turn around the negative self-talk in 3 easy steps:
Step 1: Recognize when the bully is talking.
This can be the hardest step. You have to really focus, and keep your mind open and aware of your self-talk. Think about how this talk operates in your life. What purpose does it serve? How does it make you feel? Write these things down, if you wish.
Step 2: Banish the bully. Invite the coach/mentor/friend.
This *thing* that you are criticizing yourself for… how would a compassionate coach/mentor/friend respond? What is the most supportive message you can think of that aligns with your desire to be healthy and happy? Say that shit out loud, or think it, as deliberately and clearly as possible.
Step 3: Repeat steps 1 and 2.
From this point forward, every time you catch yourself being critical of yourself, notice and name the pain it creates in you (Wow, I feel really bad that I did x,y,z). Replace it with the compassion for yourself you just identified (It’s okay, this kind of stuff happens, everyone struggles sometimes). And, reframe the inner dialogue to something more supportive and encouraging (What would a coach or good friend say?).
“But, Michael, this is uncomfortable and feels fake. This negative self-talk is who I am. Positive self-talk sounds like some woo-woo hippy shit you thought of when you were a farmer and has nothing to do with my health/performance/weight-loss/etc.”
If this is the case for you. I feel you. You’re in a deep rut right now. Life fucking sucks, and it seems like your negative self-talk is the only thing that’s real. Right now, it’s your reality, and anything outside of that is untrue woo-woo, sugar coating a shit sandwich.
I FEEL YOU. YOU ARE NOT ALONE.
YOU HAVE A CHOICE. THIS STUFF MATTERS.
If this is you, feeling shitty is okay. It’s a part of life. If you fuck up, or feel like a fuck up, or identify 100% with being a bully to yourself, just “notice-and-name” when the bully comes out. Sit with those feelings. Maybe you don’t banish him/her to the gallows. Keep him around. Maybe he/she serves a purpose for you right now. Just do me a favor and start feeding that little coach, friend and mentor inside of you. Let him or her out for a little bit.
Maybe this little coach and mentor starts to make more sense after a while. I get it. You’re not going to go from “I’m a shit-bag,” to “I’m a super-star,” overnight. This stuff called self-compassion is a skill you have to practice and hone over time. If you are at a 0, on a scale from 1-10, shit-bag to super-star, get your ass to a 1 or 2. Start feeding that little coach/mentor/friend inside of you, whenever you get a chance.
So, as you go through the CrossFit Open, or life, or work, or your weightloss journey, or whatever, remember that how you speak to yourself, even if it’s just your thoughts, matters––A LOT. Remember that you have a choice. Get your ass off of auto-pilot, notice when the bully is talking, banish that fucker to 9th circle of Dante’s inferno, and invite the friend in your head to help and support you, whether it’s at work, or #InTheOpen, remember that life is too short to be giving that bully more airtime than the friend who deserves it most.
For more info on self-compassion, and how to practice it, check out:
Joanna J. Arch, Kirk Warren Brown, Derek J. Dean, Lauren N. Landy, Kimberley D. Brown, Mark L. Laudenslager (20014). Self-compassion training modulates alpha-amylase, heart rate variability, and subjective responses to social evaluative threat in women. The Official Journal of the International Society of Psychoneuroendocrinology. Volume 42, pp. 49-58
Kristin Neff (2010). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. The Journal of Self and Identity. Pp. 85-101.
Sirois, Kitner, Hirsch (2015). Self-compassion, affect, and health-promoting behaviors. Health Psychol. 2015. Pp. 661-9.
Ashley Batts Allen and Mark R. Leary (2010). Self-Compassion, Stress, and Coping. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. Volume 4(2): 107–118.
Robert Sapolski (1992). Stress, the Aging Brain, and the Mechanisms of Neuron Death. London, The MIT Press.