There have always been cultures, groups and individuals — sports, the military, fitness freaks, the hyper-successful — who claim that negative self-talk is motivating for them in a way positivity can’t touch. But can that ever really be a good thing?
I asked Chicago psychologist Jacqueline Duke. “For some, the use of shame can increase unwanted behaviors,” Duke writes via email. “For others, shaming self-talk is a very powerful motivator. It can effectively motivate to change not only the unwanted behavior, but to change who we are as a person toward who we want to be.”
While it’s clear it doesn’t work for everyone, a persuasive case has been made that it does work for some athletes, at least in the moment. Writing about the phenomenon of negative self-talk in tennis players, psychologist Melissa Weinberg notes that in spite of the increasingly widespread perception in her field (and even within the athletic community) that it’s always bad to engage in calling yourself a stupid loser, star players like Andy Murray and Nick Kyrgios notoriously engage in angry self-talk on the court.
What’s more, many studies Weinberg cites have found that it’s not necessarily bad for performance, either. In a nutshell, more often athletes engage in negative self-talk after they make a critical game error — so it’s a response to poor performance, not a predictor of that performance, Weinberg writes. Another study found that if the negative talk is instructional — telling you what not to do — it’s a roadmap to avoiding an error, and therefore, can increase the odds of success.
That’s true even when it seems a bit masochistic. An example of this might be German cyclist Jens Voigt. The Tour de France winner is famous for the phrase “Shut up legs,” a motivational phrase he says he uses when his lower extremities start dragging. “I just tell my body, shut up legs and do what I tell you,” he explained of the phrase, which he credits with getting him through the hardest stretches. (It went viral and is now the name of his website and a clothing line.)
Weinberg says the main thing to remember with such talk, from a psychological perspective, is understanding what the point of it is, and so long as it’s facilitating the desired outcome, it could be considered useful.
Not all instances of negative self-talk lead to greater athletic performance, though. One study of soccer players found that enhanced performance and decreased anxiety was most prominent in those who practiced positive self-talk, not negative.
So it may simply come down to the individual and the particular goal. A controversial weight-loss tracking app called Carrot Fit highlighted this controversy by offering praise when users hit their fitness or weight loss goals, but using terms for users like “meat bag” when they didn’t. The app’s description reads, “Carrot is a sadistic AI construct with one simple goal: to transform your flabby carcass into a Grade A specimen of the human race.” But according to reviews, some people found such tactics absolutely offensive, while other people claimed the app’s snarky negativity held them accountable.
Should this make you feel okay about calling yourself a useless idiot if it makes you run a faster mile, pay off debt or get that raise? There are some environments in which negative motivation is a bad thing — like work, for instance. But maybe it’s okay to apply in some instances, but not others?
Duke says it’s not that simple. “It works at a significant cost. It can have long-term negative consequences to self-esteem and self-image. Once the behavior is changed, many struggle to part with the shaming inner-voice that they’ve developed even when it’s no longer needed, as in the case of the majority of those who struggle with anorexia and related disorders.”
For that reason, she explains, therapists would advocate self-love, visualization and positive reinforcement as motivators to replace the negativity. The good news is, those work too, are less likely to mess with your relationships and they don’t leave you hating yourself for your mistakes forever.