The Language of Failure [Neuropsych]

In the 1930s, linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf argued that language shapes thought. Language, wrote Sapir, can be considered “the mold of thought.” Languages doesn’t simply latch on to pre-existing concepts. The words themselves define the concepts available to us and provide the raw building material for our thoughts. There can be no thoughts without the words to define them.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, as this argument became known, itself went on to influence social theories and, perhaps most famously, the ‘newspeak’ in George Orwell’s 1984.

I’m no linguist and I won’t try to argue over the correctness of linguistic relativity. What I find interesting is the premise that words can influence our thoughts, if not outright shaping them.

Cognitive therapy, a form of psychoanalysis, works by training a patient to recognize so-called “disordered thoughts” or cognitive distortions. Cognitive therapists suggest that, while emotional and stress disorders certainly have biological causes, we also fall into our own set of habits in our emotional and behavioral responses. These responses happen automatically, involuntary reactions to events in our lives. A car cuts you off in traffic; you get mad. You get an offer to present a paper at a prestigious conference; you get so nervous about speaking in public that you don’t sleep until the date.

Doctors Aaron Beck and David Burns suggests that these cognitive distortions don’t have to be automatic. From the viewpoint that mental disorders reflect an underlying biological cause, it would seem that we’re a slave to the chaos, unable to do anything but suffer through the misery caused by our brains.

This doesn’t appear to be the case. Cognitive therapy shows that the reverse applies: by changing our thought patterns, we can affect the underlying biology in turn.

Cognitive therapy argues that the depressed and the anxious and the angry do have the neural wiring to act this way, but they’ve trained themselves to respond to situations out of habit. When the distorted thinking appears, these people encourage it and reinforce it. It’s the thoughts — the words — that drive the emotional responses.

By intervening in the process, training themselves to intercept the automatic response and then replace it with a less-irrational narrative, patients can show a remarkable recovery — and better yet, these patients are less likely to experience a recurrence (likely because they’ve picked up new coping skills).

How we think about our selves and our circumstances can affect our biology and, in turn, our life.


Listening to motivational quotes from athletes and coaches and personal trainers, you’d think that effective exercise and good diets are battles against the demons of Hell. All the posturing, all the hardcore affirmations, all the cheap slogans. Does anyone treat a workout as an opportunity to cultivate growth, both physical and mental? Does anyone consider a healthy relationship with food?

Be strong. Be tough. Fight the cravings. Beat the pain. It’s about willpower and mental toughness, wrapped up in the language of violence. The entire fitness industry revolves around the adversarial relationship between you, comfortable and fat and sitting at your desk all day, and the healthy practices of regular exercise and eating right.

Look at the word “hardgainer”. A word with the best of intentions, meant to point out those poor souls who can’t get strong and add substantial muscle, and which has become one of the most poisonous mentalities in fitness. The hardgainers are only being honest and objective about their biological limits, of course — and in the process they internalize that negativity. That genetic limits exist is not in doubt; yet you have to wonder how effective it is to dwell on limits, to orient your training around the idea that you’ve failed before you’ve even started.

What’s this language doing to us? How does it shape our expectations and our automatic thoughts in regards to training and eating?

Here in the West, we see our minds (or souls if you prefer) as separate from the body, intangible and indestructible. Flesh inhabits the material world, the land of empirical, objective reality. The mind lives off somewhere else, free of those limitations.

Neuro-imaging studies tell a different story. Thoughts and feelings arise in the brain, as products of neurological activity. The brain convinces us that we’re inviolable spirits free of matter, and then works overtime to keep up that illusion. The brain is so good at this that some cognitive scientists call consciousness as a ‘hallucination of a hallucination of awareness’.

This includes ‘feelings about feelings’ and ‘thoughts about thoughts’. The disordered thoughts identified by cognitive therapy ‘feel right’ because of neurological behavior. Our feelings of knowing and correctness, which are feelings about thoughts, are generated by the brain. Your grocery list, being happy after a good day at the lake, and the experience of tasting ice cream are no different from your heart beat or the growth of fingernails, in that these are all biological functions.

Eastern thinking ‘uncenters’ the self. The individual ‘you’ isn’t a separate being. The self is part of the natural order, another function of the body. The self doesn’t fight the body because there is no self independent of the body. As the Zen proverb says, no snowflake ever falls in the wrong place. Things happen and the world turns and we have no bearing on that. All we can do is all we can do.

If you understand, things are just as they are;
If you do not understand, things are just as they are.

Do you really need to do battle with chocolate cake?

Is it war with pizza and Coke?

Do you really need to treat your body as the enemy to get in shape?

Research by Roy Baumeister at Florida State has shown that willpower is a scarce resource. Called ego depletion, we can actually exhaust our self-control. Force yourself to do that workout, and you can’t turn down the ice cream later. We’re encouraged, even told it’s a virtue, to shape the world according to our wants.

War with food and exercise is wasted energy. How much of your needs for “bad” things come from simple habit? Invoking “willpower” demands that you fight impulses on their terms — as giving in or not giving in. You struggle against your vices because you still want them. You beat yourself up in the gym. And you burn out because every workout, every meal, is a willpower-sapping fight.

That’s unnecessary. That’s the wrong point of view.

Te-shan was sitting outside doing zazen.
Lung-t’an asked him why he didn’t go back home.
Te-shan answered, “Because it is dark.”
Lung-t’an then lit a candle and handed it to him.
As Te-shan was about to take it, Lung-t’an blew it out.
Te-shan had a sudden realization, and bowed.

How many of your failures come from framing the situation in terms of battle and conflict? How many failures happen because you “understand your limits” and act accordingly? How many because you’re dead-set on being iron-willed and rigid in your thinking and doing?

Conflict comes from the language. You need willpower to succeed because you were told that diet and exercise are hard. You need to fight against cravings and work to stay motivated because the rest of your life is built around easy solutions. Chances are your entire viewpoint sees the world as obstacles to be overcome and reshaped to suit your needs.

Change your words and you change your thoughts.

6 thoughts on “The Language of Failure [Neuropsych]

  1. Enjoyed this post…probably because I agree with the points you have made. Particularly the idea of a feedback system between thought and language. Of course, as a baby one thinks and feels before acquiring language…there is unity there too.

    Meanwhile, acquiring another language definitely shapes the way you think…and some words are untranslatable-connect you to different emotional states. For example, saudade in Portuguese is more that just home sickness or missing someone, there is a deep longing, a yearning component, an empty feeling associated with this word that is difficult to express in English.

    Your essay also reinforced the importance of taking time to calm the mind, to relax the constant bubbling of thoughts and letting the mind just be…a recognition of the unity. The power of stripping away the excess can be felt in the gym or on the field, when you hit that flow state and everything moves naturally, when there is no separation between the mind, the body, and the environment. Again, language falls short, as being in -The Zone- does not fully capture the feel of it. This is an elusive state…when you hope for it, it does not come. I am intrigued by how it can show up, when you are under the weather, not expecting a good performance, and your guard is down. I would ask for your thoughts on cultivating a practice that facilitates this unified mind-body, as opposed to the obstacle based construct you describe above.

  2. Matt,

    I really enjoyed this post.

    I would also like to add that I've really been enjoying my training of late by doing just what you have written about – I know what exercises I'm doing, and how many reps per set, but how many sets, how much rest, what weight is all chosen on the fly based on feel.

    I've also stopped keeping a training log *gasp* I remember early on in my training career I trained with a big strong guy who never kept a log, then I read you must (keep a log) on the internet, but it got to the point I was always trying to beat the log, which became stressful.

    • Glad to hear it.

      I still keep a record of all my workouts just for keeping track of trends and such, but I don't use it as a benchmark for performance. If it's working better for you without it, then awesome.

    • The same thing happened to me.

      I never kept a log. Then I read online that I MUST keep a log (or I will NEVER improve)! Never-mind that I had made a ton of progress without the log; I thought that I would stop improving if I didn't start keeping track.

      When I was keeping track with a log, the workouts became tedious.. almost like a chore. Yeah, sometimes I would get excited from beating a previous record or something, but the workout as a whole just didn't have the same excitement that it had before.

      Now I have ditched the log, and guess what? I'm still making improvements! I might even be making more improvement than I had with the log because I enjoy the workout so much more and feel like I have more energy. I'm not saying I am not aware of my PR on various lifts; I think that I have a pretty good idea of what I can do in my head, and I still know when I have done better than I ever have before.

      I just think that keeping a strict log just takes some of the fun out of lifting and starts switching the motivation from "I love doing this" to "I need to beat my PR".

  3. This is fantastic, it's a perspective and thought pattern like this that I need to cultivate, not the best possible auto regulating undulating periodization super program or the perfect metabolic building nutrient partioning lean gains diet.
    Breath of fresh air Matt, and profound yet very simple in its message LOVE IT

  4. The Beck/Burns book is great. Cognitive Therapy has really helped change my view of things. While not depressed, their book Feeling Good us recommend for depression, I was far from being a positive person. Throughout the day my mind races and its amazing how many of those thoughts are negative. The book offers various techniques, all very easy to implement. I use a simple counter on my phone to keep track of the negative thoughts that go through my mind in one day, after a while my number of negative thoughts per day goes down. Awareness is key. Happiness Hypothesis suggests meditation for slowing down the mind. Personally I prefer the cognitive approach, just because I feel I need to reframe my thinking. But I will use the meditation techniques if I find that I have trouble sleeping due to my overthinking things. As I've read those books, I kept wondering how I could relate it to training and post was done beautifully Matt. I have certainly fallen trap to the hardgainer mentality, along with flip flopping goals and routines.. I'm going to have to use some of the methods I've learned to keep a little more of a positive focus.

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