We’ve all heard these bits of advice over and over again in our lives — eat your vegetables, brush your teeth, wear sunscreen, do unto others, exercise and think positive!
This last life skill first came into my awareness at a relatively young age, in the form of a faded dot-matrix poster on the wall of my first-grade classroom: No Stinkin’ Thinkin’. That phrase became a mantra for us kids, and a quick verbal reprimand whenever one of us slipped up with a negative comment. At the time, avoiding the word “can’t” proved a novel concept, exciting and mysteriously powerful. I have never forgotten that poster, or the message (thanks Mr. Macaluso).
Since then, however, I’ve been metaphorically bludgeoned with the concept of positive thinking. If you can believe, you can achieve! Your attitude determines your altitude! I CAN is 100 times more powerful than IQ! Et cetera. I’m willing to bet you’ve heard at least one of these.
Positive thinking has become something of a cliché, and in that regard has lost meaning. Let’s face it. Those motivational posters with the clever aphorisms and pretty pictures actually do illustrate some powerful ideas, but they are so overused and misapplied that most of us would probably roll our eyes at the sight of one. In fact, there is an entire website dedicated to mocking these things (which is hilarious – check it out here).
My point is not that positive thinking is outmoded, or cliché, or anything less than a very powerful and frankly essential mental skill. However, the concept can be misapplied even with the best of intentions. I’m referring specifically to the practice of ignoring important emotions that don’t align with the positive attitude model, e.g. anger, frustration, sadness, anxiety, or any other negative emotions.
All emotions are important, and emotional pain, while by definition unpleasant, serves much like physical pain, as a signal that something is up and requires your attention. The pain in your knee when you pedal is a good indication that you should pay attention to what’s up with your knee. Likewise, intense anxiety (or anger or disappointment or sadness) is a signal to investigate the cause, or at the very least, acknowledge it. Paying attention to these emotions can uncover patterns in your life which may be important (e.g., consistent anxiety regarding your work might mean you need to make some changes). Like pain, negative emotions serve an important purpose, and should not be ignored.
But what about positive attitude? Positive attitude is vital and powerful, but should not be used to systematically mask genuine emotion. Why not? Because you’ll end up like What’s-Her-Face in the movie American Beauty, chanting with a positive thinking CD and crying by yourself in your car with a bad haircut. You’ve seen where that road leads, and it ain’t pretty.
If you ignore real emotion and supplant it with “positive thinking” your positivity won’t ever be genuine, and will therefore never be effective. Genuine enthusiasm is the key, and you can’t be genuine when you sweep all the crummy feelings under the rug.
The solution? I give you The 5 Minute Rule.
The following guidelines are geared specifically toward cyclists, but please feel free to extrapolate as needed.*
5 Minute Rule
Step 1: Find Some Privacy
When something really bad (frustrating/sad/stressful/etc) happens, do your best to keep it together until you have 5 minutes to yourself. Let’s say you crash in the final sprint when you would have been a sure thing for the win. Trust me, no one is going to think you’re happy about that. You do not need to throw a tantrum to prove your disappointment/anger/frustration to your teammates or anyone else. Keep it together until you have some time to yourself.
Step 2: Let ‘Er Rip
Once you have 5 minutes to yourself, let it rip. Really let those nasty emotions fly — self pity, shame, frustration, anger, whatever. Yell at the top of your lungs, punch pillows, bawl your eyes out, karate chop the couch — do what you need to do to feel those emotions as intensely as possible, but for no longer than five minutes. If you do it right, and you’re really crying hard, or really letting those pillows have it, then 5 minutes is all you’ll really need.
Step 3: Move On
When the five minutes are up, you’re done. No more feeling sorry for yourself. No more looking back. No more thinking “coulda shoulda woulda.” You collect yourself (and the pillow casualties), and you focus on what is ahead of you. If you’re injured, you focus on your healing and recovery. If it was a disappointing result, you focus on how you can earn a better result next time. Regardless, you let go of those nasty negative emotions and focus on aspects of your situation that you really do appreciate.
Don’t fake being positive, because it won’t work. You have to focus on things about which you really are glad. If it’s hard to think of something to feel good about, start small. Maybe you’re glad for ibuprofen, good weather for training, an awesome new hoodie, great teammates, a funny movie, or a really tasty burrito. What it is doesn’t matter, as long as you really do feel good about it.
Those positive emotions, even if they seem insignificant at first, will build momentum. Genuine, positive momentum. Before you know it, you won’t remember why you were feeling sorry for yourself in the first place.
Help spread the word. When someone you care about is feeling sorry for themselves, send them here.
On Twitter, remind them with #5MinuteRule.
[Thanks to @ahoulne for helping me refine this idea.]