Overcoming a Self-Defeating Mindset

Explore effective strategies to conquer self-defeating thoughts, boost confidence, and harness control with intentional practice and self-lo
Abi Bradley
May 6, 2024
Overcoming a Self-Defeating Mindset

“This is too hard, I’m just going to fail. I’m not good enough. Everyone will think I’m a loser. I shouldn’t even try. It’s better to give up than to try and fail and embarrass myself.”

Does this internal dialogue sound familiar?

Unfortunately, a self-defeating mindset is a pretty natural response when we try something new or are performing in what we feel is a high-stakes role and can leak into a lot of other areas of life. It wreaks havoc on our energy, performance, relationships, overall satisfaction and defines our self-esteem/self-worth. In fact, sometimes it is such a natural response that we struggle to identify it and realize it doesn’t have to be that way. We tell ourselves we can’t do it, we’re going to fail, yada yada yada — what’s going to happen? We’re going to fail, we’re going to confirm we can’t do it, and we become a self-fulfilling prophecy of negativity. We become these “failures” and nothing else. But we deserve better than to succumb to this hamster wheel of toxicity. We are so much more than what we see as our shortcomings. We deserve to make the choice to defeat this self-defeating mindset.

Now like I said, this is a normal response and therefore that makes it predictable. When something is predictable it has the ability to be managed through intentionality and practice. But where to start? The big three heavy hitters when it comes to tackling a self-defeating mindset are:

  1. Controlling the controllables
  2. Stop being afraid of being afraid
  3. Practicing self-love and self-acceptance

Okay. Nice list. Now what? Let’s break it down *insert turntable motion here*.

Controlling the controllables

Let me set a scene for you…

You sign up for a spring 5k and spend weeks/months training for race day. You wake up the morning of the race and it’s pouring rain and hovering just above freezing. You’re filled with fear and doubt because how on earth are you going to hit the PR you’ve been working for? You’re saying things like “I don’t even want to run anymore” or “I don’t even think I’ll be able to finish the race.” You’re counting yourself out before even stepping up to the line.

Do we have control over the weather (or the crowd, our opponents words and actions, random digestive system issues, the workout our coach gives us on any given day, etc.)? No. Do we have control over training our bodies and minds by building muscle memory and mental fortitude? Yes. If we place all of our focus on things that are out of our control, we lose sight of the things we can control and again become a self-fulfilling prophecy of “failure.” So let’s focus our energy on the things we can control, to better prepare for/overcome the things we cannot control and accomplish things we never thought to be possible. Things that are always in our control: Our emotions, our reactions, our responses, our preparation.

Let’s make some edits to the 5k scenario…

You sign up for a spring 5k and spend weeks/months training for race day. You wake up the morning of the race and it’s pouring rain and hovering just above freezing. You start feeling fear and doubt creep in because of things that are out of your control. You notice these feelings, and take a pause. You tell yourself the weather is what it is, and it is very much out of your control. You remind yourself of the weeks and months you spent training your body to run this race. You remind yourself of the different weather you’ve already run in during this training cycle. You have been in control of your preparation, and therefore you are ready to run this 5k and push your body towards a new PR.

Next time you notice yourself ruminating or stressing out about a competition, workout, project, simple task, etc. I encourage you to take a pause. Reflect on the situation, and make a list (literally or mentally) of the things that are in your control and the things that are out of your control. Toss aside the half that is out of your control, and place your energy/focus on the side that is in your control.

Stop being afraid of being afraid

Fear is a universal emotion that all mammals experience thanks to the amygdala. The amygdala has a big job processing what is seen and heard, and deciding if anything is a threat. When a threat is detected, the amygdala triggers what is commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. This response prepares the body to get ready to confront or run from the perceived danger.

For us as humans, we have the little bonus feature of what I like to call inappropriate amygdala activation. We like to activate fear in scenarios that truly are not a threat to our safety (for example, a competition or an uncomfortable conversation). This inappropriate activation produces results (fear or nerves) that are highly uncomfortable and can feed into a self-defeating mindset. The activation of fear can cause us to run away from something we are well prepared for, inflict a negative internal dialogue, and drown us in self-doubt. But like most everything else, it can also be trained through our reactions.

Instead of running away from fear, embrace it and use it as motivation. Harness the power that the amygdala activates in your body. Remind yourself that you are safe, and reroute the energy that fear triggers towards excitement, waking your body up to confront the task at hand-on. Psych yourself up, instead of counting yourself out.

Fear does not need to always be the enemy. We can train it to become an ally.

Practice self-love and self-acceptance

We must give ourselves grace and accept who we are. We cannot improve out of hate. This results in punishment and dissatisfaction. If we try to change in this way we will inevitably lose, which as a result makes the hate/punishment/dissatisfaction more intense. We live in a world that seems to punish us for being human, and we are so quick to join in on that punishment. We make mistakes, then make ourselves feel bad for making that mistake, then make ourselves feel bad for feeling bad. How twisted is that?!

I’ll say it again, we are so much more than what we see as failures/shortcomings/mistakes. Our self-worth cannot be dependent on success, money, power, results. It is hard to be kind to ourselves, and takes a lot of practice. But this is the foundation for change. I encourage you the next time you make a mistake to tell yourself that it’s okay, mistakes happen, you’re learning and growing, and you are more than this one mistake. Then I want you to continue to report that to yourself. See if this internal dialogue feels better instead of the one where you punish yourself (spoiler alert - it will).

In summary:

I know when it’s all written out this way, it seems pretty straightforward and relatively easy. I wish that was the case, but moving out of a self-defeating mindset is hard work. Just like training our bodies to accomplish new physical feats/milestones, our minds require the same tenacity. It takes consistent work to avoid throwing our hands up and going back to how things used to be, the negativity of our self-defeat is at least a discomfort we know well. Change, however, is a whole new discomfort that feels very foreign and daunting. I’m here to tell you that change is worth it. That discomfort is worth it. You are worth it. I’m also here to tell you that you do not need to do any of this alone. We are better together. Every. Single. Time.

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