• Dr Lottie Miles

It doesn't have to be that bad!

Rationalise Your Thinking and Dispel Your Destructive Beliefs!


Last week I wrote about finding motivation and maintaining it to exercise at home. This week, I'm going to look at how you can make activities you would normally dread, just a little more bearable.

We feel more motivated, confident and enthusiastic about performing activities when we believe we are capable of being successful. Unsurprisingly, we also tend to try harder and perform better too. However when failure, high exertion, pain or social embarrassment are likely, we feel a lot less excited about the prospect.


This issue boils down to a mental balancing act - the demands of the activity vs your ability to cope with those demands. If your 'coping resources' outweigh the requirements of the activity, you're golden. However, if the activity demands are greater, you experience stress, doubt, reluctance or avoid the activity all together.


I'll discuss how you can build up your coping resources in a future post, but for now I'm to going to focus how we can rationalise and reduce the effect of the activity demand to make it all a little more tolerable.


"But the demand of an activity is surely fixed... a 10mile run is still a 10mile run, right?"


Not exactly. Even if you have the necessary physical and technical ability to do your run at a prescribed pace (for example), there are several psychological factors that will change how you might view the activity and the level of difficulty it presents:


Your perception of the activity's demands are built up by:

  • Uncertainty - what could happen / what could go wrong?

  • Effort - how hard do I need to work / will it be painful?

  • Danger to esteem - what happens if I fail / how will I be judged if I appear to struggle?


It's easy to look at a challenging activity such as a long run and see the uncertainties (steep hills, bad weather, uneven or boggy surfaces, etc). You might feel intimidated by the significant physical effort required, the potential of pain, stiffness or injury. Maybe you're concerned about the threat of embarrassment if you struggle or have to give up.


These factors build up in your mind to make your run seem a whole lot harder than it should. But it isn't the run that is hiking up the demands and making you feel unable to succeed. The run after all, is still just a run.


So, how do we make the prospect of a tough workout feel a bit easier?

A situation, activity or person does not directly impact what you feel: a run doesn't 'make you' feel anxious, intense physical exertion or pain does not 'make you' feel unmotivated or afraid, a spectator doesn't 'make you' feel embarrassed. Your beliefs and views are a crucial 'mediator' that dictate how you feel about an activity (or a situation or person). This is great, as you can control your beliefs and with a little work, exchange destructive views for smarter and more positive alternatives.



You can change how an activity makes you feel.

Now don't get me wrong, changing your beliefs about running isn't really going to make a run any less physically challenging, but we can hopefully make it more bearable for you at least on a mental level.


Keep reading, because this next bit shows you how to make these changes...



Destructive Thinking

Destructive thinking consists of views about an activity that are irrational, illogical and unpragmatic (Turner & Barker, 2014). These thoughts are exaggerated by a negative mindset, and are actually pretty far from reality.


An example of a destructive thought is, 'I have to succeed at this.' In sport, thoughts such as this are all too common, especially when the stakes are high. Another example is, 'I have to do this.' Again, a common thought when approaching a workout, but it's not true and it's certainly not rational - you will not be struck off this earth if you don't workout!


When truly believed, destructive thoughts are unhelpful and can actually be very dangerous to your mental health. A belief that you 'must succeed' or 'must workout' is drastic, and it heaps the pressure and negativity on you, without giving you an alternative - it's really not surprising you're miserable or unmotivated with beliefs like these hounding you.


So what's the alternative?

Give yourself options. You need to find compromises in your beliefs that you can accept. You don't 'have to' succeed, but you would like to. You don't 'have to' workout, but you would like to try. These changes can be subtle, but they can make a world of difference to how you feel about an activity.

Here are four ways Turner & Barker (2014) suggest to turn 'destructive thinking' into 'smart thinking', (and more of my examples of how to use them):


1. Exchange any rigid demands with flexible thinking:


  • Rigid Demands (destructive): I have to be successful, I have to feel motivated, I have to push myself as hard as possible, I have to appear cool, calm and collected.

  • Flexible Thinking (smart): I'd like to be successful but I might fail, I'd like to feel motivated but I can't always be, I'll try to push hard, but I might have to ease back, I'd like to appear cool calm and collected, but that's not always going to be the case.

2. Don't awfulise the situation, be pragmatic:

  • Awfulising (destructive): Failure would be a disaster, low motivation means I can't do it, this is going to be complete agony, embarrassment would crush me.

  • Anti-Awfulising (smart): Failure is bad but not awful, low motivation isn't helpful but it won't stop me, this will be hard but it won't be agony, embarrassment is not nice, but it isn't disastrous.

3. Have a higher level of tolerance for frustration:

  • Low Tolerance (destructive): I can't stand failure, I can't exercise if I'm not motivated, I can't bare letting myself ease back, I can't tolerate being treated that way.

  • High Tolerance (smart): I don't like failing but it could happen, I'd rather feel motivated but I can manage with what I have, I want to push hard but that doesn't mean I always can, I don't like being judged, but that doesn't mean people won't do it.


4. Don't judge yourself based on the consequences:

  • Downing (destructive): Failing makes me a failure, low motivation means I can't do it, easing up makes me lazy, embarrassment means I'm a fool.

  • Acceptance (smart): If I fail I'm not a failure, I might feel unmotivated but I can still do it, easing up is sometimes necessary for me to succeed, feeling embarrassed doesn't mean I'm a fool.

You will notice the word 'but' features heavily in my examples of smart thinking. This handy word gives you a bit of 'wiggle room' when it comes to your beliefs about an activity. Now your beliefs are more rational - 'I want to succeed but it is not a life-ending disaster if I fail'. At the end of the day, there are far worse things that could happen then you spluttering to a stop mid-run, or even if you miss a penalty in the world cup final. If you miss, it sucks - I'm not saying it won't, but you will be OK.


Hopefully these examples show how you can reduce the mental demands of an activity by making a few smart adaptations to your beliefs about it. If you actually like running(!), you can use a different example to put these ideas into context. Remember, always be rational, logical and pragmatic about the demands of an activity and consider the actual evidence available to you. Don't forget to share this post with your friends and teammates!!

Next week, I take a look at boosting your mental coping resources to help you further outweigh the activity demands - you'll be wanting to go for that run by the time I'm done with you! In this next post we're going to look at your self-efficacy (confidence), your perceptions of control, and your goal orientation - are you trying to get better, trying to succeed or just trying to avoid failure??? Make sure you subscribe to my blog (bottom of this page) for email notifications about future posts.


Reference Turner, M. & Barker, J. (2014). Tipping the Balance The Mental Skills Handbook for Athletes, Bennion Kearney Ltd. p 21-54.


#sportpsychology #mentaltoughness #motivation #taskdemands

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by dr Lottie miles