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The Thoughts that Hold Us Back – And What to Do About Them

Carrie Steckl earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology with a Minor in Gerontology from Indiana University – Bloomington in 2001. She has spent over ...Read More

It was an innocent question: “Why don’t you play volleyball?” The circumstances were consistent with the topic as my friends and I sat outside with drinks, watching my husband and his friend compete in sand volleyball playoffs while Olympic sand volleyball projected from the televisions over the bar behind us.

Luckily, I had just processed this very question with my husband last week, so I had some insight into a not-so-simple answer. Still, I was startled by the way my voice cracked when I blurted out, “I think it was because of the gymnastics.”

Like many little girls, I wanted to be a gymnast. At the teeny age of 4, I began a strange journey that twisted from delight to achievement to self-doubt and, finally, to hell. At the age of 12, after years of living within a severe culture of “be thin and win,” I left the sport with the hopes of regaining some normalcy to my life.

In many ways, I did. I became physically healthier and generally more relaxed. I excelled in school and thrived in dance. From the outside, most would never know what I had endured during those crucial formative years.

It wasn’t until I began to feel pressure to join other sports that I realized something was still very wrong. Participating on athletic teams brought me severe anxiety, fueled by fears that I would let my teammates down if I didn’t perform well. Looking back, this probably outcropped from the fateful days my gymnastics coach would test me on a dangerous skill in front of my teammates. If I nailed the skill, the whole team would get to “indulge” in apples. If I failed, no one would get to eat.

You can imagine the kind of pressure this puts on a small child who is still formulating her conception of self-worth and esteem. Regrettably, those experiences created thought patterns that made it unbearable to risk failing in a team situation. I tried to play volleyball in junior high but forced myself through the season with a mediocre performance drowned in anxiety. I tried out for track in high school but quit before the season began, unable to imagine losing one for the team. I couldn’t even make myself play intramural basketball in college although I was the tallest woman in my sorority. I didn’t want to let down my sisters, even in the most recreational of circumstances.

I am not telling you this to garner your sympathy. I am trying to show you how powerful our thought patterns can be when learned at a young age. Those early experiences shape our views of ourselves, our responses to new challenges, and our ways of coping with stress.

But it goes beyond that. How we learn to think about ourselves when we are young provides us with a rubric for happiness that is either externally-based (performance, achievement, praise) or internally-grounded (confidence, self-loyalty, self-acceptance). Fortunately, my parents constantly validated my self-worth and laid the foundation for internal happiness. Unfortunately, my gymnastics journey damaged that foundation in some crucial areas of functioning.

But there’s a good ending to this story. As powerful as thoughts can be, they are not permanent. Thoughts can be adjusted, reframed, and even reversed with some diligent work. While it won’t happen overnight, I can attest to the fact that change is possible. Here are some ways to get started:

Talk about it. My husband and his unconditional acceptance of me helped me discern the connection between my early experiences and my fears of group competition. It seems so obvious now, but when you are suffering, it’s often hard to see beyond the thoughts that are holding you back.

Start out slow. You might know how you’ve been holding back and what you want to change, but start with baby steps. For instance, my husband and I have incorporated volleyball and basketball into our bi-weekly gym routine, but it’s just the two of us playing, and the purpose is simply to have fun.

Create new affirmations. If you have always been afraid of what bad things might happen if you try something new, try to focus on the good things that could happen instead. Make a list of all of the internal qualities you possess that can create happiness (compassion, gratitude, a sense of humor) and keep it with you at all times. When you begin to feel fearful of an external circumstance, pull out that list and focus on creating happiness from within, regardless of what happens.

I’m glad my friend asked me why I didn’t play volleyball. In the past, I might have seen the question as a frightening challenge. This time, I saw it as an opportunity.

You can do this. Decades of cognitive psychology research is behind you. And so am I.

Keep Reading By Author Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
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