Controlling Distracting Thoughts
Joan S. Ingalls
Performance anxiety - wobbly muscles, butterflies-in-the-stomach, racing pulse, short-circuited thought processes, and narrowed peripheral vision - affects both the voluntary and involuntary nervous system, and cognitive and perceptual process. It is the most common theme in my consulting practice. Some people are so struck by the physical manifestations of peerformance anxiety that they consult their physicians, who can find "nothing wrong" - no heart palpitations, no blood sugar abnormalities, and no allergies or brain tumors. Having ruled out a physical illness, many athletes conclude that they have a mental or emotional problem, and seek the help of a sport counselor. They think counseling can help them learn to calm themselves, and use "will power" to force "negative" or distracting thoughts out of their minds. But I don't think that is possible, or at least not helpful. I want to help athletes perform joyously, and to do that they have to grow emotionally, not fix themselves or force their thoughts. But what does it mean to grow "emotionally" as opposed to "fix" yourself? It's tempting to think that you can change - fix - just one thing and everything will be fine, but it's simply not possible. In my opinion, you can't change one thing. Everything is connected. Rather than going at a "problem" by correcting or fixing one thing at a time, and dealing with what happens as a result, I like to work at continuously changing totality of who we are.
Olivia, an elite-level sweep oarsperson, came into counseling with "performance anxiety." Aftert several months of doing developmental work - changing totalities - she said that she was distracted while doing erg pieces. While she felt that she should be concentrating on her workout - monitoring her heart rate and rowing form - she was instead thinking about her boyfriend, Tom. In her mind, Tom was watching her workout. He was making critical comments. He questioned why she was training. He pointed out her lack of talent, her imperfect physique for the sport, and the unnecessary drain on her time and energy that her workouts produced. To make matters worse, Tom was a retired rower and a coach. Olivia thought that Tom was right about her.
When I said that indeed she seemed distracted, she replied, "Which is silly, because I do have the ability to screen everything out when I want to."
Olivia was in that tempting place of wanting to be fixed, "No, you don't have to screen everything out; you have to be able to use everything to help you practice better." I smiled as I emphasized "have to," I don't think Olivia has to do anything, but rather they can choose to use all they have as they grow emotionally and row joyously. I was there to help her with what was hard about choosing that.
Olivia said cynically, "That's right. Silly me. Use all the quirks. Maybe the last session has worn off." Then, she became more serious, "But this garbage is not coming from a good place. So I tend to think, 'Why are you doing all this negative talk'"
"That seems like a good question." I say. "What's your answer?"
"I don't know," she solemnly answered.
Changing totalities, growing emotionally includes taking about the way we are talking to each other. We are talking as if we know what we are talking about. I have found it helpful for athletes to take seriously the possibility that we never know what we are talking about, that we find out what we mean, what we are saying, when we see the reaction of others to what we say. That means. in part, that our intentions don't count - how we impact others is what counts. That's upsetting. We have a very strong cultural environment that says that intentions matter. Working at "co-creating" meaning with others is one way that we change totalities and grow emtionally. We become less wedded to what we mean. We do less explaining, clarifying and understanding, and more building and creating.
I challenge Olivia to think about how we are talking to each other. I ask her what "I don't know" means, "Does it mean that you haven't thought about it; that you don't care or it's okay not to know?"
Olivia frowned and hesitated, "It means that I am not being serious and working hard here. How about this for answer: I think I do a lot of negative talk to myself because it motivates me?"
Olivia, in my opinion, is being serious with her response. It is serious for her to include me, our history together, in what she is saying now. We have talked about being serious and what it means to be serious. Partly, her "negative" self-talk is because she does not take herself and her rowing seriously. It's destructive to her goals. It is dismissive of all her efforts. We have talked about being less "knowing" in how we talk. She is being less knowing. She is asking me what I think of her idea.
"It sounds like a psycho-babble to me. What do you think of it?"
I call it "psycho-babble" because she is locating an emotional problem inside herself. She is saying, "I have a problem, because I motivate myself in this perverse way. That means we have to fix me." That's what psychology does; it locates problems inside people and fixes them. I believe that Olivia's "problem" is located in society, in her relationships with others. Our society advocates self-criticism as a means of improving ourselves. But why is this Olivia's personal problem? It seems to me that it is society's problem. And Olivia agrees:
"I think I need to just stop the negative self-talk. I can choose not to be so determined by societal norms that say I should motivate myself by being self-critical. I can be more serious."
"Yes, I support you to make that choice."
My support is partly in the form of our weekly sessions. When Olivia tries to just stop the negative self-talk, she will have an emotional reaction to that. We can talk about that. We can talk about what is emotionally hard when she chooses to stop. I find that part of what is hard for athletes and others is to experience themselves as creators of what they want to do and be, rather than victims of societal norms. Olivia doesn't want to be a person who improves by criticizing herself. She finds it painful and ineffective. But what will she become if she isn't that? It is scary to create when we don't know what we are creating. (If we knew, we couldn't create it.) I can help her with that. That is the therapy.