If you spend anytime on Social Media, I’m sure you’ve seen the flurry of memes and pep talks that makes up the current fitness industry. As a professional, I find it frustrating that ‘fitness’ has become more about hollow affirmations and platitudes than anything meaningful. Not only do I find it lame and phony, but it’s also ineffective. It is simply not necessary to wait until you are in a positive-thinking-good-mood to exercise. In fact, the right approach to using negative thoughts can be what finally gets you started and keeps you going when it gets tough, and believe me it will get tough. Using these powerful negative emotions to your advantage can keep you accountable, and drive your progress when you really need it. Here are two ways you can harness the power of negative thinking to your advantage.
The Negatives of Thinking Positive
Here are just a few quotes that have taken up residence on Facebook pages and framed office photos across the country:
All of these quotes feel good. They encourage us that we have the power even when it feels like we don’t, and nothing is required other than the current moment to get started. It feels good doesn’t it? I feel better already. The only problem is that they are hollow and empty and our inner cynic sees right through it. We know deep down that these affirmations are just a warm, fuzzy blanket that won’t last forever. Motivational quotes are a quick hit of dopamine that bursts and fizzles just as quickly. This is not the stuff that motivates champions or anyone with a supremely difficult task. And no, a case of the Mondays do not count as a difficult task.
The Negativity Bias
The human mind works in certain predictable ways, and taking advantage of these loopholes and biases can bridge the gap between the thoughts that say, “It would be nice to have X”, and “I will work ridiculously hard for X”. One example is the Negativity Bias. It means we are hardwired to avoid bad things way more than we seek good things, and weigh the consequences of bad things more heavily. Since we overvalue pain over pleasure and loss over gain, that means that AVOIDING pain or loss is a stronger motivator than seeking pleasure and gain. This applies to fitness by noticing the thoughts that say ‘You can’t do it, prove me wrong,’ rather than the ones that say ‘You’re already great, keep going’. It’s OK to use the fear of loss to keep you going. This could be the shame of letting down your trainer who is expecting you for a session, or embarrassment at showing up to the house when you told your family that morning you were going to the gym. Both are examples of ‘negative’ thoughts that can be motivating to get you going, provided that they prompt action. And that is a big point here, it is not the negative thought (I can’t do it, I’m just a failure) that is inherently bad, but what you do with it. You can listen to your inner critic and then do something to prove it wrong. Using these negative thoughts to spur action can be good and desirable. Some of the strongest people I know have a healthy dose of self loathing, and they tap into it right before a heavy lift. They use these negative thoughts of shame, guilt and weakness to drive them to do things they wouldn’t be able to do without this hard adrenaline spike. Adrenaline, and it’s chemical impact on the brain takes the brakes off of muscle activation and is how mother's can lift cars off of their babies. This fear of loss is the ultimate example of the negativity bias in action, combined with the adrenaline dump that leads humans to do things that they simply could not do otherwise.
Doing it for yourself doesn’t work
Positive talk can also fail under pressure because it doesn’t frame our experience properly. Reframing is a mental technique meant to change your relationship to an experience to your benefit. Was a boss/teacher hard on your because they hated you, or expected a lot from you because you showed potential? Is it a hardship or an opportunity? How you look at an experience impacts how much pain or discomfort you are willing to tolerate for furtherance of the goal. And make no mistake about it, hard training and nutritional attention do involve pain and discomfort. If the motivation comes from “do it for yourself!” there isn’t much motivation to tolerate any discomfort at all. If I’m doing it for myself, isn’t eating ice cream in my sweatpants more pleasurable than going to the gym when I’m already tired? I’ve said it as a joke to clients during hard workouts, “Do it for you!” They laugh and say, “Well in that cause I’m going home.” Then I say “Do it for your kids!” Their expression changes and they get down to business and all it took was some re-framing.
We do this all the time with our jobs. It is not supposed to be fun, it is a sacrifice those who rely on us and a necessary evil. Reframing your training the same way means your training doesn’t need to be fun either, it can just be effective. Good training is always hard, and sometimes fun. Dumb training is always fun, and sometimes hard because it isn’t framed properly. We all do things we don’t like because we need to, that’s adulthood. No one would ever go to work if it was supposed to be all fun all the time. Having a workmen-like attitude let’s you get the job done without needing to enjoy it.
So you want me to hate myself?
No I don’t. But I did want to suck you in with a click bait title :) What I want is for us to be honest with ourselves about what motivates us, and that can be either positive or negative thinking depending on the situation. Positive thinking has been shown to influence our actions over the long term, and telling yourself how much you suck in the mirror every morning is a quick ticket to depression. But boosting yourself up with dopamine hits from tag lines also isn’t a solution. Using the negativity bias works because humans are in fact more motivated by avoiding loss than seeking gain. Reframing your training to be more like a job, or a sacrifice for those you love lets you better tolerate it’s pains and discomforts. I’m not saying don’t ever think positively, but I am saying you can use negative thoughts to your advantage in certain situations to drive yourself to levels you haven’t been to before. And that is something to feel good about.