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Control your inner critic and conquer your goals

Ann Arbor fitness expert Mike Stack explains why self-care starts with mindset

Photo: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

ANN ARBOR – The sad truth: If we talked to other people like we talk to ourselves, we’d have no friends. Think about that for a second. I realize it might not be comfortable, but it’s true -- we say some ugly, nasty, mean things to ourselves.

Now, you may be asking yourself, “Why in the world is that an opening sentence to an article in the ‘fitness’ section?” No, we didn’t mistakenly publish a self-help article from the psychology forum. Truthfully there is no better place for this discussion than right here.

A word of warning: This article is about to get uncomfortable quickly. If it makes you too uneasy, please stop reading. For those of you who are willing to wade through a little bit of pain, I promise the reward is great, as it not only unlocks the door to long-term physical health, but mental health as well. 

Our Stories, Shame & Guilt
We tell ourselves stories all the time that aren’t necessarily true but profoundly affect our actions. Let me give you an example. I was once giving a lecture and a woman raised her hand and indignantly said, “WHAT DO YOU DO IF YOU’RE JUST LAZY?!?!” I said to the woman, without hesitation, “Stop telling yourself that.” She shot back in her chair like she just learned earth was round and not flat.

I pressed her further, asking, “Who said you were lazy?” She, of course, didn’t answer -- because the answer was “me.” She not only told herself she was acting lazy, she actually said it like it was an innate part of her being, like being right-handed or having blue eyes. I don’t know if that woman left my lecture and changed her life OR if she left and went to Burger King for a whopper value meal; what I do know is that, for the first time in her life, she learned she had the power to decide if she was lazy or not.

Notice something I highlighted above. She said she was lazy, not acting lazy. Lazy, in her mind, was a part of her very being. If that’s the case, it’s nearly impossible to change. However, if it’s the way she behaves, she can change it. That life-altering realization brings up the notion of guilt vs. shame. Now, I’m not going to take this article too deep because by no means is my scope of practice in psychology. What I can tell you is people have a lot of shame around their health and fitness (or lack thereof), and as a result are doomed to fail in their health/fitness endeavors before they begin. 

To understand why I say this means understanding the difference between guilt and shame. As well-known research Brené Brown defines it, guilt is about what we do (or how we behave), while shame is about who we are. Guilt is actually productive when not taken to an extreme. It holds us up against a standard we want to achieve and makes us feel bad when we fall short. Shame, on the other hand, is about who we are as a human being (or in this context what is wrong with us as a human being). Shame is associated with a whole host of terrible issues like drug abuse, suicide, depression and anxiety. It’s also related to why people fail to achieve their health and fitness goals. 

Think about the times when you’ve said, “I’m lazy, I’m fat, I’m out of shape” or whatever other terrible things we say to ourselves (remember the first line of this article). You can’t change those things if that’s your view. Not only that, but it causes you to feel absolutely terrible and then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. What if you changed the way you talked to yourself? If you started to say, “I’m acting lazy, I’m doing things that are making me fat, my lifestyle is making me out of shape” -- that feels a lot nicer and (of equal importance) is now something you can change because it’s a behavior.

Are you still with me? I know this is a tough discussion. I’m sure it brings up emotions you’d rather not deal with, but read on, I have some tools I can give you that will help shift from shame to guilt and take power over your harmful stories. 

Your Inner Critic
We all have an inner-critic that is ready to beat us up about our bad decisions -- sometimes obsessively so. Have it be skipping a workout, eating pizza or not spending enough time with our kids, this critic stands vigilant waiting to tell you how much you’ve screwed up.

This inner-critic, when directed properly, is very functional: It helps us be self-aware and constructively critical when we make mistakes. It helps us learn, problem-solve, and get better. The problem is that it sometimes goes too far and spirals into self-deprecating, negative mind chatter that can affect our mood, our performance, our health and certainly the ability to persevere through the challenges of implementing new health behaviors. Think about it: if every time you “fail” to successfully integrate a health behavior you beat yourself up and feel bad for a day or two, pretty soon you’ll stop trying.

In order to stop this cycle, you must be aware these thoughts even exist. Our inner-critic is sneaky, operating at nearly a subconscious level. To take its power away you must be mindful it exists, recognize what it says, and put the message into context.

To do this, take the next three or four days to be very mindful of your inner critic: what you’re doing (or not doing) when it gets loud, what it’s saying, how you feel, and what’s the objective reality of the situation. You can make a chart similar to this below (it really helps to write this out on paper):

Becoming aware of your negative self-talk was tough, I’m sure. Starting to really pay attention to that inner-critic can definitely be a little uncomfortable. Thank you for being open to that exercise; I assure you it will pay off. Now that you’ve increased your awareness of your inner-critic and objectively looked at the reality of what your critic says, you can start the all-important task of reframing. 

Reframing is a technique we use all the time without realizing it. Whenever we have a preconceived notion about something or someone and then change our view, we have essentially reframed.

Reframing the thoughts of our inner-critic is not quite as simple. First we have to be aware that the inner-critic is even talking, then we have to confront the painful message our inner-critic is saying. Once we do, we can reframe it into something more constructive and positive.
I’ve found that to reframe effectively, it needs to be done on a sheet of paper (initially, anyway -- eventually it can be done in your head). Like the chart above was helpful at shining a light on your inner critic, we can use a different chart to help you reframe. 

This chart will allow you to document what actually happened (what I like to call "what the camera captured"), what your reaction and mind-chatter was, how you’ll reframe and what you’ll commit to in the future. Here’s an example:

Where To Go From Here
If you got to this point in the article -- bravo, it wasn’t easy. I feel your pain (really I do). I grew up a fat kid picked on for being fat. Heck, my nickname in grade school was “Fat Stack” (a teacher even called me it once by accident). Talk about something becoming a part of your being. I had to wrestle with my inner critic too and it was loud, mean, and nasty. How did I get through it? I used these techniques.

It took time, mental effort, and emotional energy. The same will be true for you. One of the absolute truths in this universe is although you can’t control what you think (the mind, indeed, has a mind of its own), you can absolutely control what you do with what you think. Your mind creates a thought, a statement or a story. You have the ability to believe it or change it to something that serves you better. The truth is irrelevant; tell yourself the healthiest, most productive story and your life will improve exponentially. 

With all of that said, as you go away from this article, reflect on what I said. Maybe journal a little bit around what thoughts, feeling and emotions this article conjured up. Then when you’re ready, start the process of identifying negative self-talk first; after you’ve gotten good at that, move to reframing.

This process doesn’t happen in an instant (it can take years). Once you’ve mastered the mindfulness of negative self-talk and the skillful art of quick reframing, you’ll feel better, look better and lead a more fulfilled life. I wish you well on this journey.

Michael Stack is an exercise physiologist and founder of Applied Fitness Solutions (AFS). AFS provides group fitness classes and personal wellness coaching at their three area locations: Ann Arbor, Rochester Hills, and Plymouth. Learn more about AFS.

This story is sponsored by AFS.

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