How to Stand up to the Mean Girl in Your Mind:
Reframing dancer self-talk
By Michelle Loucadoux
Picture it. You run offstage after a performance, sweaty and exhilarated. That was fun! As you walk to the dressing room, that performance high gives way to a little voice in your head. That was not your best pirouette. I bet the director noticed. And you ate those french fries last night — did Allie see that you look puffy in your costume? And remember when you did that leap and everyone else jumped higher than you?
Does this sound familiar?
That’s your mind’s mean girl taking away all of the joy you gained from a good performance. I like to call my personal mean girl Dina. And if I don’t stand up to her, she not only ruins my performance, but she also can be the catalyst for a deep dive into self-doubt and depression.
Whether it’s Dina, Regina George, Gretchen Wieners, or Maximus the Self Confidence Conquerer, we all have the equivalent of a mean girl in our head that says negative things to us. Most people call this negative self-talk. And if you’re not careful with how you deal with this self-talk, it can impact both your dancing and your life.
What is self-talk?
We all have a constant string of thoughts running through our heads. Current science suggests we have more than 6,000 thoughts per day. Your self-talk can be both positive and negative. I really don’t want to go to that rehearsal. Why in the world did I decide to wear this today? I can’t believe I forgot that combination. Why do I always forget the combination?
For many of us, our brains don’t really shut up very often. There’s a bigger problem than that, though. The bigger problem is, much of what our brains tell us isn’t true. Yep. That’s right. That self-talk rolling around in your noggin? It can be worse than gossip. And much more harmful.
Kimberly Holland says in an article in Healthline that, “Self-talk is your internal dialogue. It’s influenced by your subconscious mind, and it reveals your thoughts, beliefs, questions, and ideas.”
So, if you think you’re just not good at remembering combinations in dance class, your mind’s mean girl can grab onto that thought and keep repeating it throughout your day. After a period of time, that repeated thought becomes a belief you adopt about yourself. And then, sometimes, that belief can become a more permanent part of your identity.
But, what if your thoughts, beliefs, questions, and ideas aren’t true? What if you just didn’t connect with a specific teacher’s style so you didn’t do a great job remembering their combination? What if your mean girl turned one incident into a problem that could follow you for a long time?
So many dancers focus on the negative aspects of their dancing rather than cultivating a healthy balance between negative, positive, and neutral thoughts. This negative self-talk, though, is something we can change.
Reframing negative self-talk
Clinical psychologist Dr. Albert Ellis created what is widely referred to the ABC model in relation to self-talk. The ABC model is a cognitive behavioral therapy model that explores “your beliefs about a specific event affect how you react to that event.”
In the ABC model, the A stands for the activating event. For a dancer, it could be that you take an entire class and your teacher doesn’t give you one correction the whole time. The “B” in the ABC model represents the beliefs you have about the event. You could believe, based on the activating event of no corrections, that your teacher is angry with you for some reason (which could either be true or not true).
Finally, the “C” in the ABC model stands for the consequences, or the actions you take based on this event and your beliefs about it. In the example above, you could choose to stop going to that particular class because you believe that teacher is angry with you.
The key here is that your beliefs may not always be accurate. What if that teacher just didn’t happen to notice you on that particular day? Or maybe that teacher had a migraine and didn’t feel like giving corrections? The point is that many of us jump to “C” without fully evaluating our “B.”
Try this exercise. In the “Harmful” section of the chart below, write down three examples of actions you have taken based on negative self-talk in your own experience. Include the activating event (for example, no corrections in class), the belief or assumption you had based on that event, and the consequence or action you took as a result.
Then, keeping the same activating event, try shifting your beliefs about those events. Perhaps, in the example of no corrections, you could choose to believe that you were doing enough correctly that the teacher didn’t feel you needed any feedback on that day. Would your actions be any different? How does shifting your beliefs about the same events change how you act based upon them? How does shifting your beliefs to a more neutral or positive stance make you feel?
And since beliefs directly influence our behavior, this is how negative self-talk directly affects and hurts our performance and our emotional well-being.
The good news is that while negative self-talk can hurt performance, positive self-talk can improve your performance. If you can begin to focus more on what you do right in class and performance and creating a more positive inner dialogue, your feelings about yourself will likely improve.
Additionally, instructional self-talk has been proven to enhance performance as well. So, rather than beating yourself up about what you’re doing wrong (or even focusing on the positive aspects of your work), try talking yourself through the details of your actions. Remember to engage your core. Focus on the details of the movement when learning it. Stay engaged with the story you’re telling.
Unfortunately, that mean girl in your mind will likely not pack up her fuzzy pen and leave entirely. However, if you’re able to apply the ABC model to your thoughts, you may be able to examine your beliefs about the activating events in your life and potentially change how you act based on them.