Every year at springtime I celebrate what I call a “Second Birthday”. And it’s something I make sure I announce to the world shamelessly. This event is the anniversary of when I stopped smoking. It was my fifth attempt and this time I knew it would work. I just knew it in every part of me.
The reason for my confidence in the face of my previous failures was that instead of positive “you can do it” messaging, I woke up to the fact that if I didn’t do this, I would probably suffer a long, painful death, dragging my loved ones along on a horrific ride to the end.
Like many people with this addiction, I lived my life as a smoker saying things like “I’ll never quit. I love this too much. Especially while doing/having (insert favourite enablement activity or drink here)”. Of course, I knew about the dangers and the terrible toll that taking this poison can bring, but then I quickly moved beyond these thoughts to my next cigarette and right back to another deep inhale. Mmm stress relief. Flavour.
The control that nicotine has over a smoker along with the mind games it plays with you when you want to stop are significant hurdles. No wonder it’s considered one of the toughest drugs to quit.
So how was I finally able to break this control?
Absolute, all-consuming, sweaty fear.
By chance, I discovered a website called whyquit.com (if you are currently hooked on cigarettes, go there now). This website had some very raw and revealing stories about people who died young from smoking and those who are currently dealing with horrible diseases due to cigarettes. It’s not all gloom and doom either. It has success stories too. Those are encouraging to be sure, but I’ve seen those before and those messages just weren’t getting through.
However, nothing was more motivating to me than the thought of having a very real chance of going through the kind of suffering that these unfortunate individuals were experiencing.
No amount of strawberry-flavoured nicotine gum or cutesy catch phrases like “Banish the Nicodemon” pushed me to make the final break with cigarettes like lying awake at night afraid for my very existence.
So, I quit cold turkey. No gum. No nauseating cartoon characters. Just Terror. Negative self-motivation.
If something as negative as fear can be a catalyst for breaking something as powerful as a physical and mental addiction, could this be consciously channeled into other parts of my life with similar success?
Granted, my experience with quitting smoking may be a bit extreme for the purpose of what I’m trying to say with this post, but please stay with me here.
Negative motivation isn’t talked about very much in the context of health and fitness because it’s not nearly as strong a draw for obvious reasons. People naturally gravitate towards positive situations and that’s great, but life is made up of both the good and the bad. The path to improved health and fitness are no different.
In sport psychology, there is a time and place to use both positive and negative motivation to achieve a desired outcome. To be clear though, when it comes to someone else coaching you, negative motivation actually backfires eventually. Intimidation, criticism and guilt coming from outside of ourselves is not what I am referring to here as a helpful tool.
Let’s take a look at some examples.
A male friend was told by a personal trainer – during an introductory orientation session no less – “Come on man! My girlfriend can lift more than you!”
I don’t have enough space here to start unpacking all that’s wrong with that gem, but it is a good example of negative motivation that probably won’t yield anything past the short term. If that.
At my gym, I’ve overheard trainers drop classics like “Get angry at that barbell!” or “Crush those <expletive> kettles!”. Those are examples of negative motivators that actually can help because they are delivered by another person in a way that’s not a personal attack.
When we speak to ourselves in this language, it can work even better.
I present to you my top 3 negative motivators (in no particular order):
Fear: Yes, it’s wonderful to look forward to a time where you feel comfortable in your own skin if you don’t right now. But there is a lot to be said about not wanting to get sick and die before a certain age due to something that is preventable.
Anger: Maybe you feel like you’re being overlooked in whatever context and you’re fed up. You may even be frustrated at having “tried everything” without significant results. Well, try something new and attack it with primal force!
Envy: Perhaps Linda in Accounting started working out and dieting and is looking like a million bucks. Why shouldn’t you get all that positive attention? Those excuses popping into your head right about now? NOT the kind of negative drivers we’re looking for here. Set them aside for later.
Please keep in mind that I use these to get that “fire in the belly” when my choices become more limited, such as when I hit a plateau. These or any other negative emotions should not be used as the only drivers.
My own growth – whether physical or mental – comes as a result of both positive reinforcements and healthy doses of self-generated and controlled negatives such as a desire to look better than someone (I’m certain we all have a Linda in our lives).
There is no argument against positivity being an amazing motivator, but when it comes to being healthy, strong and vibrant – why not use ALL available motivators without guilt?
Whatever your goals are for your health and wellness – be it quitting smoking, sport-specific exercise, looking good in a bathing suit – intentionally adding some negatives can be very effective when you’ve reached a plateau or hit a wall. Just make sure the emotions are focused and that you are the person speaking them to yourself and not someone else. It may be just what’s needed to get things moving in the right direction again.
Do you have similar experiences to share where something that the rest of the world would look at as a negative trait was used for a good purpose?
Let me know in the comments section. I’d love to hear from you!
In the meantime,
Get angry at those dumbbells!