How Exercise Helped Me Curb Negative Self Talk

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By Gabrielle White


Negative self talk nearly ruined my life. I’m not being dramatic, I’m just being honest.

It’s like having a perverted sense of humility: "they’re only giving you compliments because they want something," you tell yourself, or "they haven’t seen you fail yet," or "they don’t know some key fact that invalidates you," or "they’re just being nice (insincere)". "You only got the grades because you got lucky", or "the professor just liked you." And so on. It's the opposite of the Midas effect, where every good thing you touch turns to dust.

The strangest part, in my experience, is that I didn’t know this was a habit I had formed. Not when I was depressed, or anxious, or sabotaging my romantic relationship because I felt unworthy of great love. And that’s precisely the fuel and the fire of it: you are not aware the things you tell yourself are lies, so you believe them. This causes you to feel inferior to pond scum, which makes you do things that confirm your worthlessness. Cognition and emotion affect each other in both directionsFrom there it’s rinse and repeat, basically.

I had no idea I was giving myself a toxic emotional IV drip of negative self-talk. And I did this for years. 

On a whim last year, I decided to make fitness a serious hobby. My motivations were shallow: I wanted to feel better, and I envied the endorphin-induced glow I saw in 6am runners and obsessive yogis. If I had known how hard it would be, I probably never would have gotten started. But therein lies the magic: sometimes naivete is your friend. 

When my motivation started to sputter a few weeks in, I felt mystified as to how so many people stay committed. So, as with most things in my life, I went on a research binge. I found that over and over, athletes affirm how important it is to acknowledge and celebrate your each and every step. I wanted to reject this on grounds of sheer corniness, but I was desperate to make the habit stick. I couldn’t afford not to try.

I thanked myself for every set of jump lunges that made me want to scream profanities. I cheered myself on for every few seconds I gained in a plank hold. I repeated positive affirmations in my head. It felt incredibly unnatural, but for the first time in so many years, I took moments to be proud of what I’d done. I literally congratulated myself in my head each time I did something hard - a radical departure from years of never feeling my efforts measured up.

Late one night, several months into my new habit, understanding swept me like a tidal wave. In no other aspects of my life did I ever make deliberate attempts to be proud of what I was, as I was. To decide I was good enough. What would happen… if I did? My body felt electric at the thought, the understanding was so strange and so new.

I definitely don't have this all figured out. But as someone who has mostly recovered from the feedback loop of self-induced suffering, I am completely aware that anyone struggling with this issue who happens to read this will default to the assumption that speaking positively to themselves, as I describe here, would be to lie to themselves. 

As desperately as I want to shake anyone who believes that and plead with them not to buy into that idea, I know that this change must happen on its own time. And that’s okay - that’s part of the journey. I have faith that you will have an exit ramp, a moment of clarity that shatters the glass ceiling you've built yourself; but there’s probably no great way to predict what your exit ramp will be. 

Mine happened to involve grungy sneakers and a lot of cheesy pop music playlists, and I'm still working at it. But yours? It could be anything. I only hope you’ll take heart that it’s there.

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Gabrielle White

Gabby is a Contributing Editor at Mend. Her ultimate heartbreak cure is a repeat cycle of rooibos tea, puppy snuggles, and salted dark chocolate.

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