The Negative Spin Cycle

There’s one question that’s dominated my 32 years as a high performance coach. It comes in two forms.

The first one is

“Why can’t I make myself go to the gym? I bought a 12-month membership. I signed up. I committed the money. I paid up front to make myself go, and the first six weeks was fantastic. Then I stopped going. Could you explain to me why I don’t do something that I want to do, that when I do it, it’s good for me and I really enjoy the results? What’s going on?”

Of course, the reverse version of that question is

“Why can’t I stop myself doing the things that I know that are bad for me? Why is it that I can sit there saying to myself, half-way through a box of chocolates, ‘You should stop,’ and I can’t. Why is it that I can sit there late at night watching garbage on the TV, telling myself to turn it off, and I can’t?”

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There is an explanation for these kinds of behaviours called the Negative Spin Cycle.

It starts with an event or a set of circumstances.

For example you get an invitation to a party. That’s not exactly fantastic. The invitation comes in the mail or somebody rings us up or texts us and says, “Come to the party.” We immediately have a thought about that.

If you’re like me then you’re a bit shy. Getting an invitation to a party creates a thought like, “I don’t go well at parties. I’m not that good at mixing with people. I hate those networking things. Ahh Ahhh Ahh. Oh, what am I going to do?,” etc

We don’t recognise that “ahh, ahh, ahh” as a thought, but it actually is kind of like we’re stuck in limbo. Very, very quickly after the thought, whatever that thought might be, comes a feeling. As a consequence of the thought, there’s an emotion.

The emotion turns up, or the feeling turns up, and that emotion is like, “Oh, I’m going to be embarrassed. I don’t how to handle people. I don’t know what to say. What do you say to someone when you get asked what you do for a living?” that kind of thing.

The feelings of being embarrassed the last time I went to a party and I didn’t do too well, or a networking event where I got wedged in corner, or I stood there all night feeling lonely, that emotion starts to turn up. Either old ones (memories) or new ones in anticipation of what’s going to happen or what might happen.

As a consequence of that I’m going to take an action. Most likely that action is going to be, “I’m busy. That’s the night I’ve got to wash my hair. Can’t go to your networking event because my cat’s going to break it’s leg”.

The action is to refuse the invitation or to not RSVP. As a consequence to that action, we get a result. Which in this case is that we stay at home and feel lonely.

We call this a negative spin cycle. We spin around, and around, and the same thing keeps occurring over and over and over.



Most people say to me ‘Paul, how do we stop this?’

Most people would answer with, “Look, you just have to try harder,” but before we go there – I’m going to ask you a question.

If you put more energy into this closed loop, what’s going to happen?

It’s not rocket science to see that you’ll spin around faster and faster and faster. That will be completely devastating, which will be the opposite of what you want.

Essentially we need to look at how we think.

The problem will always be in the thinking and feeling sections of the cycle.

They are so interrelated it’s difficult to talk about them separately but lets start with thinking.

The thought process is faulty because there is no one up there (between your ears) to argue with you. When I say to myself, “I don’t feel like going for a swim,” there isn’t anybody up there saying, “You idiot. You’re hot. Why don’t you go for a swim?” It’s just going like, “I don’t feel like it. I don’t feel like getting changed. My swimmers are wet. I hate putting on wet swimmers,” which has now become a feeling.

You’ll see thoughts and feelings are so powerfully connected to each other that they kind of merge and we have them sort of happening simultaneously.

When you have the thought “I’m no good at networking; I don’t mix with people very well; I’m shy,” there’s no one to argue with that. I’m suggesting that we should start here and say, “Okay, if there was someone to argue with that, what would they say?”



Now, most of us know that there’s two people in our thoughts. There’s me, going through life, riding the rollercoaster, the ups and downs. I’m sure you’re familiar with it. And there’s me who’s watching. When you think about it, which is the real one? Which is the smart one?

The really smart one is the one who’s watching and can say, “You don’t have to pick that. You don’t have to think that being hopeless at networking means that things are going to go bad. Maybe you could be hopeless at networking and go along anyway. Maybe you could just go along and be shy and meet someone who shows you how not to be shy.”

In other words, what is the alternative thought process? I’m not saying change your mind automatically. What I’m saying is, “What are the alternative thoughts that could spring up?”

For example, “Hey, you beauty! An invitation to a place that I don’t want to go, to meet people I don’t want to know, to do things I don’t want to do. How exciting is that? Life is an adventure compared to staying at home with my cat with the broken leg.”



That’s an alternative in terms a ways of thinking. The question is, “Who’s arguing with your thoughts?”

What happens here is that most of us live lives of reaction. We react to the thought as if the thought carried some weight.

I’m going to give you a test. If you’re a parent, have you ever said to yourself, “I’m going to kill that kid”? Well, I’m a parent of two, and I’ve had that thought multiple times. We just don’t act on them. We don’t live in reaction to being a child murderer. We dismiss that thought.

What I’m suggesting to you is that you can get a whole bunch of thoughts in your life and just say, “Not that thought.” It’s a Buddhist concept, and it’s such a powerful concept, “Not that thought,” because as soon as that thought’s out of the way, what is an alternative thought?

I’m going to suggest to you not killing the child is a great place to start. That’s an alternative. You don’t have to act on it. You could go right ahead if you want to, but essentially changing our mind means not reacting to the initial thought as if it’s the only thought, the only possibility, the only thing that could happen. That’s the first thing. What could I think alternatively to this? What other possible thought process could be involved?

Secondly, have a look at your emotions. My thought is, “I’m hopeless at networking.” The emotion is feelings of likely to be embarrassed, maybe remembering some old embarrassments, feeling like I don’t know what to say and therefore feeling like I’m stupid or embarrassed etc.

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Have a look at the emotions, and look at the construction of the word emotion. You’ll see the word emotion is made up of energy and motion. This is a feeling within our body. You’ll notice that you can go ahead and do what you want to do regardless of how you feel. Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is doing the right thing despite the fact that you’re scared.

The second thing to understand is you do not have to act on that emotion. You do not have to respond to that emotion. Reaction would be a better word. Responding means choosing an emotion. Could you choose to feel anticipation? Could you choose to feel maybe there’s an adventure going to happen that could change the direction of my entire life? Maybe if I go along I might meet the person I’m going to marry. I might discover a whole new career. I might meet someone who’s going to dramatically, powerfully, and forever change my life for the better, and why wouldn’t I look forward to that?

It is important to understand emotions can be chosen. There are two things here acting together, thoughts and emotions, acting together, reinforcing each other.

Work on both of those and you will find is it allows you to take another action. In the case of the invitation to the party or the networking event, if I can think differently or feel differently (both of which effect each other) then I might be able to accept the invitation.

The consequence of accepting that invitation is that I will go along and I might bump into somebody who either wants to be my best friend or my worst enemy or whatever. Either way, it’s going to be an adventure.

That creates a different result for us, and it stops us spinning around in the same cycle.

That, my friends, is a fantastic thing to be able to do.

Can you do it just like that?

No. You will have to practise, but if you keep this negative spin cycle in mind and remind yourself, “I just need to practise,” then it’s not going to be long before it becomes second nature.