Mental Fight Club

This weekend I met Natalie. Negative Natalie, that is.

This isn’t my typical training story, recounted mile-by-mile. Instead, it’s about a valuable lesson I learned. It’s about the importance of strengthening your mind as well as your body. It’s about shutting down those inner voices that try to tell you that you’re not capable of achieving what you want to achieve.

First, some context: Tyler and I had another limit-pushing weekend of Ironman training. It was the kind of weekend that you anticipate with both excitement and dread. Our goals were twofold: Log lots of hours, and train with tired muscles to prepare for a long race day.

Friday

  • 1-mile swim
  • 120-mile bike ride

Saturday

  • 2.25-mile swim
  • 15-mile bike ride
  • 6-mile run

Sunday

We had great adventures and met inspiring people (like the man with one leg riding in the Challenge Ride, and the woman on the side of the highway whooping and cheering for riders all by herself). There were blisters and saddle sores, stinky shoes and sweat. There were tacos (lots of tacos). And there was Negative Natalie. I’ll get to her soon…

It was an amazing weekend, but the 120-mile bike ride broke me. 30 miles in I felt awesome. 50 miles in I started questioning whether I could make it. 70 miles in my mind was screaming, “This is so hard. This shouldn’t be so hard. What is wrong with you?” 100 miles in I was broken. Tears…cursing under my breath…battling a constant mantra of, “I can’t do this. I can’t do this…”

I did do it (you don’t have much choice when your car is still 20 miles away), but I lost the battle against that voice of self-doubt. I’ve read about athletes’ strategies for staying positive and getting through dark moments, but none of them have worked for me. Tyler’s support is usually the only thing that gets me to the finish line when times are tough. (I swear training is usually fun and rewarding. I love it and crave it. It’s just that hard work often comes with both highs and lows.)

The next day I shared this experience with my friend Jen, a clinical mental health counselor*. Her response was eye-opening.

“I often ask my clients to name their negative voice, so that they can begin to observe the distortions** with a bit of distance. For example, I call my negative voice Susan, and whenever I notice I am using one of the distortions, I calmly thank “Susan” for her input, and then ask her to leave.”

And with that, Negative Natalie earned her name. (To the Natalie’s of the world, please don’t take offense. It’s nothing personal! I invite you to name your negative voice Awful Anne, if you wish.)

Natalie is the voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough. She asks questions like, “What is your problem? Why are you so weak?” She says things like, “That person over there is so much better/faster/stronger than you,” or, “This shouldn’t be so hard. Something must be wrong with you.”

Natalie is a jerk. She crushes my confidence, which impacts my performance. But next time, she’s going down.

You might be thinking, “This chick is nuts.” Or, perhaps you’re thinking, “Wow, I’ve been dealing with that same negative inner voice. I’m not alone. And maybe – just maybe – that voice is wrong.”

Thanks to the amazing wisdom of Jen, I’ve now recognized “Natalie” for who and what she is, and I’m ready to tell her to jump off a cliff the next time she tells me I can’t do something. (I should mention that Jen addresses her negative voice with humor rather than aggression. I might try that someday, but right now I need to destroy Natalie, just like the giant monsters destroyed the skyscrapers in that 1980’s game Rampage.)

So now I invite any of you who have struggled with self-doubt to give that voice a name. Recognize it, acknowledge it, and then overcome it. You’re better, stronger, and more capable than it will lead you to believe. And you can do it.

*Jennifer Trainor, MA, Ed.S. has been a scientific, evidence-based clinical mental health counselor for the past decade, working in Washington, D.C., San Diego, CA, and Old Town, Alexandria. Her experience spans across multiple populations and socio-economic statuses, and demonstrates proficiency in working with children, adolescents and adults. Always culturally sensitive, Jennifer has spent years advocating for social justice and racial harmony in a variety of contexts and environments, and has worked in both public and private sectors. She is also a licensed K-12 school counselor, and a certified Positive Discipline Parent and Classroom Educator. 

In addition to her mental health background, Jennifer has had extensive academic training in Buddhist meditation traditions, Indian philosophy and mysticism, and sports psychology. These academic pursuits led to professional endeavors teaching meditation and breathing classes at The Optimum Health Institute (OHI) in San Diego, CA, in preschools across San Diego county, and in her private practice. While at OHI, Jennifer focused her attention on learning about nutrition, digestion, detoxification, and lymphatic exercises, and was then able to create a wholistic healing program based on the principles of mind, body, and spirit coming back into alignment. 

**The term “distortions” refers to Cognitive Distortions, or thought patterns and beliefs that are misleading and/or false.