Negative Nancy? Overthinker? Good News: You Have the Power to Change Your Brain

Negative Nancy? Overthinker? Good News: You Have the Power to Change Your Brain

On, we run a fair bit of content about the mental aspect of riding. How to handle nerves, how to bounce back from disappointment, how to create a growth mindset … the psychological workbook for riders could be a Proust-length tome.

But what if your problem isn’t really tied to riding? What if you’re stuck in a rut of negativity and self-doubt in all aspects of life, whether you’re in or out of the barn?

British dressage rider Olivia Towers knows the feeling. To help herself and others deter those negative thoughts, she creates and shares content around mindset and positivity. Olivia is not afraid to share that she’s struggled with self-doubt, crippling anxiety, and “terrible” self-worth for years.

“I used to think there was nothing I could do about it and that I was just ‘born negative.’ I thought your mindset was your mindset, like your character is your character, so to me, negativity was my character,” Olivia says. “But then I looked at other people who had changed their mindset — people who have been through traumatic things — and they flipped the way they view themselves and the world.”

It affected every aspect of her life: she struggled with body image and worked herself to the bone (in the gym, in the office, and in the saddle) in order to feel that she was “worth something.”

“I was bullied really badly when I was younger and was bullied in some of my riding jobs. I thought if I wasn’t succeeding in the ring, I wasn’t worth anything. Even if I’d go and do well at a show, I was such a perfectionist that I wouldn’t even celebrate it. The goalpost would just keep moving,” she says.

After a particularly challenging day at a show where she broke down crying in the warmup, she desperately scoured the internet for help. She found mindset coaches like Tony Robbins and Gary Vaynerchuck offered actual solutions to the way she was feeling — but those solutions required a lot of work, and change only happened over time.

There are pathways in your brain, and when you’ve thought a certain way, there’s a pathway that is created. If you envision your brain like a cornfield, your thoughts are your walking path through that cornfield. If I constantly tell myself that I’m a rubbish rider, the more I say that, the more the pathway gets tread. You can rephrase that and it will literally change your brain over time and change where the pathways are tread. You can say, ‘I am a good rider. I know I can get better, but I’m happy with how I am at the moment.’ You can rewire that pathway.”

Olivia’s mission — through her YouTube channel, social media, and training sessions — is to empower riders that mindset change is possible, and it can improve your life in very real ways. (And yes, this helps your riding as well.)

“You have to realize that you can change your mindset,” Olivia says. “Every grown human doubts themselves, but you’re not born doubting yourself. You don’t see kids doubting that they can walk. They just get up, fall over, get up, and fall over again.

“We can learn a lot from that.”

Take the First Steps Towards a Positive Mindset

1. Before you begin your journey, realize that cultivating a positive mindset will not make you bulletproof. “You can become more self-aware and notice yourself going into certain habits. For example, I know I can be quite a black and white thinker, so I strive for 10 out of 10, and if I don't reach it, I think I am at one out of 10. Or I often use language like ‘I should or shouldn't’ and this isn't kind to myself,” Olivia explains. “Then when you feel a bit anxious or low, you can kind of step in and intervene on yourself with some positive self-talk or diving into a mental gamebook.”

2. Accept that it’s okay (and even good!) to have bad moments. In fact, that’s part of the growth to a positive mindset. “I’m the perfect example of this. Even though I’m ‘Miss Positivity,’ I went through a tough burnout period about six weeks ago. I didn’t want to do anything. I lost all motivation and just wanted to feel sorry for myself. The difference is, now, I see it, recognize it, and have the tools to address it.”

3. Allow yourself a set period of time to feel stressed or disappointed in yourself, but make it manageable for you. Tony Robbins recommends the “90 Second Rule” which (in short — learn much more here), allows you 90 seconds to “suffer” through a feeling. The idea is this: feel the feeling in its entirety for 90 seconds, and then move on. Olivia says, “Certainly 90 seconds can be the goal, but let’s be realistic. Maybe it’s a day for you — at first — or a few hours.”

4. Speak to yourself positively. Every. Day. “I am currently cultivating self-compassion, which has been really hard for me, and it firstly takes recognising it,” Olivia admits. “I started by just changing a few words. For example instead of saying, 'I shouldn't feel like this' change it to, 'I feel the way I feel but this doesn't define me as a person and I can move past this.' It seems quite a small thing but it really does help me with self-compassion.”

5. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works wonders. Back to those cornfields — this can rewire your neural pathways and even prompt your brain to limit negative self-talk. “For me, my self-worth was totally wrapped up into my success in the ring. I am seeing a therapist once a week and we’re unpacking everything and trying to figure out why I don’t feel worthy without success. You start to see things that have happened to you and how your behaviors were shaped by those experiences.”

6. Find someone you trust to talk things through with. “When we keep things to ourselves, this is a breeding ground for shame. It can be hard to be open and vulnerable, but this is so important,” Olivia says. “Another is to remember it's a process, and you will constantly be evolving in this area for the rest of your life. You will have highs and lows, but each time learn something new and become wiser.”

Needs some help changing your mindset? These are some of Olivia’s recommended resources:

Read this next: Why Your Mindset Controls Your Riding, and Three Ways to Make It Work For You

Photography by Sophie Callahan.