Mental Training – How Negative Thoughts Can Become Like MRSA
There’s a phrase, “it’s 90 percent mental.” I’m coming to realize that the more experience you gain. the more time you spend on a single, focused endeavor, the closer that 90 percent goes toward 99.9 percent. Or maybe it’s even all mental and we can escape the body in some kind of Nirvana-state of Muay… I don’t know yet.
The other day an Instagram post from Mental Coach, Kara Loewentheil came up on my feed. I needed it. I have needed it: yesterday, today, probably a bunch of tomorrows. It’s an important lesson, and one that I’ll likely have to learn many times over before I really know it. But here’s the super short version: anything you feel is caused by your thought. Period. So, to feel differently, you have to change your thoughts. Kara warns her followers that you cannot just think a new thought once and expect grand changes. That’s not how anything works. You don’t do one pushup and then win an Iron Man competition. You don’t even do one pushup and then necessarily ever do another one. You have to maintain your mind. Two, the way we think is comfortable, so we go back to homeostasis of our most regular thoughts, simply because they’re regular. They’re familiar. They’re comfortable, even if their awful. She compares this to “making out with your ex,” because it’s familiar and easy, even if that ex is a fucking awful thing in your life. And three, which was the one that really hit me: “You expect this to be easy or comfortable or feel natural. It’s not. It’s going to feel super awkward and weird and uncomfortable.” Mental Training is hard for this reason. Because it doesn’t feel comfortable or natural or even very “positive,” even though that’s supposed to be the result we’re all after. How fucked is that?
A couple years ago I wrote a blog post on how confidence isn’t natural. It’s something we perform. I compared it to being patient or being polite, which we choose to do every time we express those qualities – and every time we express them it’s because we are reinforcing or honoring a value. If you’re very practiced in being patient or polite, it can feel natural. But it’s not. They’re social and cultural constructs; you’re just very practiced in them or not very practiced in them. It’s not natural vs unnatural, it’s trained vs untrained. In the article, I point out that there are times when being polite is very hard and might not, in fact, be your first or even desired response. Someone is being impolite and something in you wants to be harsh back; but you bite your tongue or “be the better man,” or whatever and choose politeness in that moment. Why? Because you value it. My point is that if your manners aren’t confronted regularly, you might confuse the ease with which they’re carried out as being natural. When they are confronted, suddenly it’s telling someone to fuck off that feels so natural. The reason I’m bringing this up here is that Kara’s point about the discomfort of thinking new thoughts – even if they’re the thoughts you’re intentionally trying to think now and will have a positive impact on your life – proves that no thoughts are natural. The thought, “I’m a shitty fighter,” is no more natural or real than the thought, “I’m a good fighter.” And they both cause feelings, so go ahead and try them both on to see how you’d prefer to feel.
I’ve been working pretty hard on my Mental Training work for the better part of 5 years now. At times, it feels like I’m sliding down a sand hill or getting sucked into a tar pit. Like it’s getting harder, which my mind likes to interpret as meaning that I’m getting worse. Because those thoughts are comfortable and familiar. Even though they’re a gross, life-destroying ex… but, like, he’s there, you know? It’s mad because you can’t logically work out how thoughts that make you feel like shit about yourself are something you enjoy; but there’s a part of it that you like and that part is the familiarity. It’s comfortable, even if it’s painful. Think of your nasty thoughts as being like ski tracks down a hill. You’re going to go into those grooves pretty easily, because there’s a tendency toward them. I call it “throwing gutter balls,” like in bowling. But if you can get a nice big snow and lay down some fresh powder, then you can wear new grooves and it will become easier to fall into those thought patterns instead. Great! What I’ve found, however, is that you can’t always wait for it to snow. You have to wear those grooves even across the pre-existing, shitty-thought tracks you’ve already got.
Today I was working with Kevin in the ring at my home gym, Petchrungruang. It started out pretty good. I felt pretty neutral, a little excited. There are a lot of grooves worn into this here slope, folks. They’re not natural, they’re the result of years of going down that hill. Some grooves are my relationship with my husband; some are my relationship to the space; most are just super well-worn thoughts about myself that don’t help me change… they keep me nice and still, like curling into a ball at the back of a cave keeps you safe from every other option besides 1) miraculously being rescued through your passivity, or 2) starving to death in a ball at the back of a cave. Kevin reminded me, over and over, of the game plan for how to get through those old thoughts. Let them play in the background like a radio you’re not really listening to. Sometimes it grabs your attention, but just keep moving and don’t get sucked into the sound of the radio. But man… I was really struggling. It was really. really hard and in my mind the harder it got, the worse I was doing and the more comfortable the lips against my ear saying horrible things to myself felt. Afterward, Kevin said how proud he was of me for being brave, for pushing through what he knew was a truly difficult and trying situation. For not stopping. And I couldn’t even hear it because I was sinking into that big, stinky self-hatred couch that’s got my shape already pressed into it. So comfortable. So easy.
And it occurred to me that Kara’s first point about just thinking and new thought once and then expecting your world to change is actually one of the bigger points I need to register for my own process of managing my mind. Not only is it that you have to rewire your thoughts through frequency of thinking new thoughts, but you also have to go through the whole movement. You have to have the unhelpful thoughts, consciously move toward the thoughts you’re trying to have, allow the negative counters from your brain (because they are going to come, it’s ok), and then make your way back to the better thoughts again. I’ve noticed a pattern in myself where something external will trigger a thought that makes me feel good: Muay Siam names me Greatest Female Fighter in the Central-Eastern Region. Fucking awesome. Good thought, good feeling. But then there’s this thing where my brain will argue against the positive thought/feeling. Like when someone says, “you look beautiful today,” and you immediately say something like, “really? I hate how my hair looks.” And then you have both rejected the compliment and reinforced a shitty thought. My brain does that, all the time. The result is that feeling good actually makes me feel really terrible just a short while later. Truly like a roller-coaster: if it goes up, it’s a deep plunge back down. Because I’m way into arguing with myself for the negative, I’ve become hesitant to use affirmations and “positive thinking” as a tool because it actually just makes me feel worse a bit down the road. Which is how I came to this realization today about my process involving a whole movement of going from the negative thought, to neutral, to positive, which will lead back to negative and then I have to continue again to not end on that point. I realized that not going through the whole movement, or the whole course cycle, has made my negative mind a bit like MRSA – antibiotic resistant Staph. You’ve got an infection, take the appropriate medicine that has worked before, but you stop taking it when you feel a little better and those little bacteria that didn’t die are now stronger and harder to kill. Thoughts are like this. I’ve made my negative mind effectively resistant to the medicine (mental processes) that I’ve previously utilized to smash them. Holy shit. I’m not getting worse, I’m getting stronger, but not in the way that I want to be.
The stage I’m at now, I’m trying to become way less verbal. (You can read the Inner Game of Tennis or watch our reading group videos on it, on Patreon). I’ve always been rewarded for my verbal skills, even as a young kid, because I’m good with language or writing or whatever. That’s not bad. But Muay Thai isn’t verbal. Being mentally tough isn’t verbal either. The way I beat myself up is with words in my head, but not really. Thoughts and feelings are actually sub-verbal in a lot of ways. So I’m trying to undercut my own tendency to use words as a crutch and focus more on images and feelings. Don’t tell myself to bend my knees – see it in my head and then leave it alone. Let my body do it or not. If not, see it again. Feel what it feels like to bend my knees. My body will repeat the feeling or not. If not, feel it again and keep going. This is, hopefully and likely, my super antibiotic for that fucking MRSA negative bias in my brain.
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If you enjoyed this article, you can read my other articles on Mental Training for Muay Thai and life here. I don’t have all the answers, but this is my search for them. You are invited to come along.