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Let's Talk About Self Talk: Tips for Changing a Negative Inner Dialogue

As an aspiring or professional dancer, whose voice do you hear the most in your head? While you may think it's the voice of your teacher, ballet master or director, or perhaps even your friends and colleagues, it's most likely your own. Even when we're not speaking out loud, we're in constant dialogue with ourselves. But whether you're thinking about choreography or your to-do list, how does that voice sound?

In a field that is already hypercritical, let's pause and evaluate exactly what we're saying to ourselves. Is our inner voice helping, or could it be hurting?


Black and White Thoughts

The first step is to notice what that voice is actually saying—are you giving yourself constructive advice, or are you constantly tearing yourself down? Therapist Jenna Kiska, LCSW, of the Dialectical and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Center in Westport, Connecticut, specializes in working with adolescents and young adults. She notes that self-defeating thoughts really stick out when we classify them as "black and white" thoughts. "A black and white thought doesn't leave room for interpretation," says Kiska. "You're stuck thinking it can only be one way or the other."

These thoughts can include the words never, always, everyone and no one. If I say to myself, "Everyone is a better turner than me," is that 100 percent true? Probably not. When I think, "I always mess this part of the choreography up," is that helping me to fix it for the next rehearsal? Not really. "Catching those black and white thoughts reminds us that we're not leaving any space for possibility, or for change," says Kiska. Much of life in general is not black and white; the same is true for ballet.

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Make a List

As a young dancer, I easily got bogged down in everything that was wrong with my dancing: I wasn't turned out enough, my pirouettes weren't strong enough, my technique wasn't clean enough. When I focused on these thoughts instead of the positive aspects of my dancing, I quickly became defeated and discouraged. While it's great to want to improve and advance, beating yourself up about everything you're doing wrong isn't the most effective strategy, and it's probably not going to make you a better dancer.

So let's reframe that. Kiska's advice is to make a list, and split it into two categories: the things you like about your dancing, and the things you want to improve upon. "And you can't like nothing!" she says. The "like" list can include aspects of your technique that you've worked hard on, or even the joy you feel while dancing. Note, too, that the second category isn't about what you're "bad at." By saying we want to improve, we're subtly reminding ourselves that we will advance. Before class each day, remind yourself of how far you've come, and let yourself enjoy the things that make you unique.

"The Best Friend Rule"

Another excellent way to work on your inner dialogue is to think about how you would speak to a friend. "We refer to this as 'the best friend rule,'" says Kiska. "When someone asks you to watch them and give them feedback, we tend to go into constructive-criticism mode." Even if they're not doing a step correctly, you're going to be gentle in the way you approach helping them. So why should we be so hard on ourselves? Talk to yourself the way you would a friend: gently, kindly and with lots of encouragement. Give yourself every mental "snap," "yess!" and "you got this!" you need. Don't be afraid to celebrate little victories!

Now, maybe you read all of this thinking, "That doesn't apply to me," or "I don't do that." Then that's amazing! But for me, it's taken a while to change my mental approach. I even sought out a therapist's help to change my mindset, because it was so difficult for me to accept any compliments or encouragement from others. But by learning to speak to myself more kindly, I'm now more willing to believe people when they point out the positives aspects of my dancing. I hope that the more we talk about self-talk, the more dancers will be empowered to be kinder with themselves, and that we begin to address the mental needs that aren't talked about often enough.

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