During the summer, my morning runs on the trail were lonely, except for the occasional mom pushing her toddler in a stroller or a retiree out walking a dog. Now that we have hit August, I am joined on the trail by high school cross country runners and the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (NJROTC) cadets who are both busy training.
Last week as I was heading out, the cadets were heading back in from their run. I was watching them as they passed me. There was a mix of runners – some fast, some slower. I saw one girl running alone. She reminded me of myself in high school – not exactly what you would envision as an athlete. As I passed her, I heard her say under her breath, “Don’t quit.” I understood why she said that. I have said the same thing to myself many times, taking tests, running races, even in training runs. Although I would not call what she said a “self-affirmation,” I think she was trying to mentally psych herself up to finish her run.
I recently read about a study published in the “Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin” that found self-affirmations help people perform better. According to Sonia Kang PhD., the lead researcher for the study, your actual performance in situations like taking a test is closely related to how you expected you would do. If you don’t have high expectations for yourself, then you probably won’t do as well. Dr. Kang notes that self-affirmation – thinking “I will pass this test” for example – is a way to neutralize the negative thoughts. Both thinking and writing down self-affirmations can help, though research indicates writing them down may be more effective.
While the study was informative, it was not as easy to digest as the book I read “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” by Scott Adams, best known as the creator of the “Dilbert” comic strip. In his book Scott writes about his successes, his failures, and things he has learned from both. Scott explained how self-affirmation helped him in his life. According to Scott, self-affirmation “helps you focus, boosts your optimism and energy, and perhaps validates the talent and drive that your subconscious always knew you had.”
I can recall many situations in my own life where my mind was ready to throw in the towel. A few years ago, I had to take a professional certification exam. My past experience taking standardized tests had not been good. I would panic and my test scores reflected it. It didn’t help that I heard horror stories from others who had taken this particular exam and failed. When I was preparing for the exam, I used self-affirmation. Sitting on my desk was a Franklin Covey bag with the words “I will”. Every day I looked at that bag and read that out loud. “I will.” My cubicle mate had to listen to me saying my daily mantra. He even joined in and would respond with “Yes, you will.” When I took the exam, the man who scored my exam said he had never seen scores as high as mine. The next day I crossed out “I will” on the bag and wrote “I DID!!”
In a pre-race show before April’s Boston Marathon, Frank Shorter said that the half-way point of a marathon is not at mile 13.1. It is at mile 20, when your body says enough already. But you still have 6.2 more miles until the finish line. Self-affirmation becomes the tool that gets me through those last miles. I have used lots of mantras to remind myself that I have done the training, I am ready, and I can finish. My mantra changes with the race, depending on how training went and how I feel on race day. Yes, self-affirmation works for me.
I would love to see that young girl on the trail again. I would tell her to change “Don’t quit” to “I WILL finish!” She needs to really believe it to do it.
I highly recommend the Scott Adams book “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.” Although Scott points out that people shouldn’t take advice from a guy who writes a comic strip, his stories are things you can understand and relate to in your own life. My husband and I found the book to be informative, funny, and inspiring. After finishing the book, my husband made positive changes to his diet and lifestyle – and he is sticking to them! Don’t ask to borrow my copy of the book, though. We have parts highlighted and pages flagged with Post-its so we can quickly refer to things we read. It’s a keeper.