Changing the Way You Think Isn’t Enough: You Have to Change What You Believe

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Suddenly it all made sense. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I admit it: I love those lists of things successful people think or don’t think. As a competitive runner, I’m always looking to improve the little things to take my running to the next level, especially when it comes to my mental game. Anyway, I’m sure you know these lists I’m talking about. The latest one I noticed making the social media rounds is “Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid,” although there are many others that contain similar advice.

After reading one of these lists I often think, “Aha! Yes!” It at once makes me feel all awesome that it reinforces a few things I already know, but also feels like it contains the missing thought patterns I need to become a mental beast on the race course. So, there I am printing it out and slapping it up on my bulletin board. Then for the next 45 minutes I think all the mentally tough mo-fo things I can think  in place of the automatic wussy internal banter. But inevitably that list gets buried behind other lists: how to be a better parent; how not to feel holiday guilt; how to keep your house clean even when you’re a complete and utter incompetent domestic.

And with one turn of the calendar page, I’m right back where I started. Back to my old thought patterns and apparently completely inadequate behaviors. Yet, I’ve done this over and over – until now. I don’t know what it was about the last list I read, but that (darn cliché) lightbulb turned on over my head (despite my wish for more novel symbol of illumination).

Those lists aren’t going to fix my mental weaknesses. And they’re not going to fix yours either. 


“Your beliefs become your thoughts,

Your thoughts become your words,

Your words become your actions,

Your actions become your habits,

Your habits become your values,

Your values become your destiny.”



2011, the year in between recovery from my second pregnancy and the dawn of my third, was the year I really went after my running goals. I hooked up with a great coach. I had super fast and wonderfully encouraging training partners. I became more physically fit than ever. However, to reach the running heights I wanted to reach, I knew I also need to do work on my mental game, a lot of work! So, I searched and searched and stumbled on a great book, Running Within by Jerry Lynch. It’s a great book and it definitely helped me a little bit. But, as my mental training continued, I seemed to stop making progress. I worked harder, yet, my mental game pretty much stayed the same.

This really puzzled me. How could I work so hard and still be a relative racing wuss? The question remained with me as I took a more-than-a-year-long break from my mental and physical training during my third pregnancy and postpartum period. In fact, this question remained until that lightbulb moment I told you about in the intro.

In 2011 with Pepper while I was at my physical peak and despite working every day on my mental game, I still struggled to find the confidence that eluded me.
In 2011 with Pepper while I was at my physical peak and despite working every day on my mental game, I still struggled to find the confidence that eluded me.

What these lists and the book have in common is that they are exercises in changing our thoughts. However, they do nothing to change our beliefs. Changing our thoughts alone can be helpful, but only to the degree that our core beliefs do not get in the way.

Beliefs are the foundation of how we view ourselves and the world around us. From beliefs come our thoughts, and from our thoughts, actions and emotions. Changing our thoughts alone will not change our beliefs. It’s like painting over a rotten floorboard – it does nothing to fix the problem and despite the new color, it’s still a rotten board. If you step on it, you’ll fall through.

Similarly, when we just change our thoughts, we might initially feel stronger, but we are still weakened by our core beliefs (of course, only if these beliefs are not in line with our success). Many of us hold entrenched beliefs about ourselves and the world-at-large that hold us back from our success. We might believe we are unworthy of success. We might believe we are incapable of success. We often know these things are not true, but deep down we believe they are. The problem is that a) these self-sabotaging beliefs are very hard to identify and b) they are equally difficult to change.

There’s a reason people invest a lot of time and money into therapy. If becoming our mental best was as easy as reading a list on a website, in a magazine or even a self-help book, then there would be many happier and more successful people in this world. However, becoming mentally stronger and more capable of finding success is a very difficult project that often necessitates professional help. At a very minimum it takes some serious work and introspection.

Identify Self-Sabotaging Core Beliefs

Even though it can a very difficult process, there is a way to at least get an idea of what your self-sabotaging beliefs are: follow your feelings of fear and shame. For instance, I have written here about my fear that I am forever stuck at this fitness level. It seems silly. But when I think of why I am afraid of this I realize I also have a fear that “something is wrong with me.” Like I am not “normal.” Normal people consistently train hard over multiple seasons and see improvements in their fitness. Ironically, I’m the one always harping on patience + hardwork + consistency = improvement. But I have this core belief that I am not normal and that even if I did that work, there is something defective about me and I will not improve like everyone else would.

I feel silly even admitting that. I certainly know better, but yep, this is one of my self-sabotaging beliefs. When I was doing the exercises in Running Within, I did a lot of work with affirmations in an attempt to become confident. “I am going to run sub-3!” “I am a great runner!” “I deserve to succeed!” Did I line up at my 2011 goal race confident? Not really. I never tackled the underlying belief that even if I did the work, there was something defective about me that would prevent me from succeeding. It’s hard to feel confident with that as the foundation!

Perhaps you struggle with a fear of failure. Or maybe you have a hard time with negative self-talk during races. Whatever the mental weaknesses you have that are getting in the way of running your best are, if you trace your feelings of fear and shame back far enough you can probably find the underlying core belief. Once you identify this pesky self-sabotaging core-belief, then you can fix that belief. And once you change those self-sabotaging beliefs, then and only then can you benefit from a book like Running Within and work on better thought patterns to perfect your race day mental game.

How to Change Self-Sabotaging Core Beliefs

The typical mental training articles and self-help books tell us that all we need to do is change the thought patterns and voilá! We’re perfect mental machines! But it’s not that easy.

Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis, smok...
This is hard work! Don’t be afraid to call in the professionals, although I hear it’s really hard to get an appointment with this particular guy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Personally, I can “not sweat the small stuff” or “dust myself off after initial failures” or whatever, but that will not help me succeed when I believe deep down I can’t. To someone who believes they are defective, small defeats are evidence to support that belief. Big failures are even further evidence. The only way to really be like a successful person is to believe like a successful person. Instead of articles about what successful people think, imagine this article: The 2 Beliefs Held by Every Successful Person. This article would be very boring:

1. They believe they deserve it.

2. They believe they will succeed.

And nobody would post it on their bulletin board because changing core beliefs is not as simple as thinking a different thought. There goes the hope of that article going viral!

Here are things you can try on your own to change self-sabotaging core beliefs:

1. Challenge the belief. Really think it out. In my case, is it true that there is something defective about me? Of course not. All the evidence suggests I’m normal – thank goodness! Ha! If you believe you cannot achieve your running goals or something else preventing you from success, what evidence do you have to back it up? What evidence do you have to the contrary?

2. Figure out where it came from. My belief that I am defective developed after my dad died when I was 11 (I wrote about that experience and how it affects my running here). Usually we form these beliefs as children. Think way back to a formative time in your life. Maybe you were bullied. Maybe you suffered abuse or witnessed something traumatic. Once you know when and why this belief developed, then you can move to the next step.

3. Change your point of view. In my case, instead of believing I am defective I can view that belief as a natural outcropping of a traumatic experience. I now see that I’m a normal person who went through a lot a long time ago and I can focus on how that has made me a better person rather than how it made me a lesser person.

4. See a therapist. If you feel like you might have some beliefs getting in the way of your success in running or the rest of life, but struggle to pinpoint them or change them, don’t be afraid to call in the professionals.

So, to really be at the top of our mental game, we have to do more than think new, better thoughts. Sure, some people are naturally gifted in the mental aspects of athletics; they are naturally confident, positive and relaxed. But many of us are not and for us, the only way to really do our best in running is to identify and change our self-sabotaging core beliefs rather than adopting some list of thoughts some article tells us successful people think.

Do you struggle with the mental side of running? Do you think you have any self-sabotaging core beliefs?

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. Great personal post.

    I used to keep ‘Running Within’ in the same room where I shave and brush my teeth and read it on a near regular basis.

    Related to what you discussed, also think ‘knowing’ you can do something is a huge, important leap from ‘believing’ you can do something.

  2. I’m slowly making my way through Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘David & Goliath’, and one of the things he writes about is high correlation between losing a parent during childhood and success during adulthood, how hardship and overcoming that kind of tragedy can translate into resilience and strength (and ultimately success). Made me think of you and how you’re the best combination of tough and strong and tenderhearted–making you a great mom, a formidable athlete, and the best kind of teammate and friend!

    1. Thanks for making me cry! I didn’t want this post to be about me, I just thought I’m a really good example for getting my point across 🙂 I am still working through all this stuff and hope to someday really prove his point! Thanks!!!

  3. One reason why the mental game is so important in endurance running is there are all kinds of conflicting ideas about how to optimize performance.

    One co-worker of mine says to me to always train at or near race pace. According to him, running slow interferes with muscle memory. I told him that a few years ago I did most of my training runs at race pace and all it did was get me exhausted before my big goal race and injured too.

    Some friends of mine told me to always run with my heart rate at or below 141 beats per minute. This, they said, would build a bigger aerobic engine.

    So, when I try to follow a training plan, my main mental challenge is to stick with it long enough so that it can prove itself. But inevitably my mind plays tricks on me. I start thinking that I haven’t been running enough miles. But how many miles is enough? Then I start thinking that although I have run a reasonable number of miles, the pace of those miles is much slower than my goal race pace. But how many miles at my goal race pace should I run?

    My big mental challenge for my race this coming spring is to have enough confidence in my training strategy to believe that I can reach my goal and not radically change my training plan half way in the middle of it.

    As far as confidence in my abilities goes, I do not think that I am a gifted runner. When I was in grade school, junior high school and high school, I was always a somewhat slow runner. When I played soccer, my slowness was a liability when I was assigned to defend against a talented and fast offensive player. He was able to score a couple goals because I couldn’t keep up with him.

    But while I might not qualify for the Boston Marathon, I do think I can reach my goals for next year if I stick with my training plan and don’t get injured.

    As Clint Eastood’s character “Dirty Harry” said in one of his movies, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” But we shouldn’t over estimate our limitations either.

  4. What a great post, Salty, thank you! I think one fundamental point that is implied in your post but not explicitly stated is: you have to trust yourself. Sometimes I do things for my job that require me to literally put my life in the hands of a piece of equipment – whether I’m SCUBA diving or rappelling into a deep cave, and have a saying that I’ve recently applied to my race-head mantra: “trust your gear.” A gear failure in either case will almost certainly lead to death. But not having the confidence and faith that I’ve checked my gear, it is well maintained, and I know how to use it would keep me from even getting started in my task, or worse – I’d think about it part way through and become paralyzed and panic.

    A lot of the same things apply to running and racing. Your body is your gear. You consistently perform regular maintenance to keep it functional: you sleep as much as your lifestyle allows, and eat as well as you can based on your willpower. You trim your nails and brush your hair and your teeth, and you take vitamin C. This is all basic maintenance, that keeps things in working order for when you really need to use it. You check your gear periodically, usually during a long run. “What’s that twinge in my foot? Oh I just stepped on a pebble.” “My shoulder is stiff, I need to do some yoga.” “My Achilles kills today, I need to stretch better and throw on an ice pack.” You make the choice to NOT run if your gear is not in working order, “I’ve been exhausted for two days and have a low grade fever, my immune system must need a reboot.”

    The last part, I think, is what most of us find so challenging. You know your gear is maintained as best as it can be for this particular snapshot moment in time, and you’ve checked it. Now you have to trust that you’ve trained on it and that you know how to use your gear. You KNOW you know how to use it, because you’ve been doing some training runs before race day. But knowing that you know how to use your gear is not the same as trusting your gear to perform how it should. This trust is just what you said – a core belief. I’ve recently been repeating to myself to “trust my gear” and just stop thinking. I figure by race day, my body knows exactly what it’s supposed to do and what’s expected of it, I just have to shut up long enough to let it perform without talking it out of being successful.

    Trust your gear. It’s well maintained, you’ve checked it, and you know how to use it.