Ep. 44 Subtractive Thinking

The key to being successful in competitive dance in my opinion, is mental toughness. Everyone who dances has potential and develops skills through training, but if they aren’t mentally tough, all of that can break down. The biggest risk of failure doesn’t come from how skilled you are or how talented you are. Your mind is the single greatest factor on if you will come out victorious or not.

Mental toughness is different than confidence. Confidence is a feeling that can come and go. Confidence can be built through mental toughness. Mental toughness can be defined as the mental or psychological edge that enables you to cope well with the demands that sport places on you, like competition, training and lifestyle. You are more consistent in remaining determined, focused, confident and controlled under pressure.

It implies stability. You can also think of it as resilience. Mentally tough individuals aren’t easily rattled. They seem grounded. This doesn’t mean that everything goes perfect all the time. And it doesn’t mean that they don’t get rattled EVER. But it means they are more consistent in their ability to cope.

When I say they are under control, that is not to be confused with trying to control everything around them and keep those things in control. The more variables you have to control, the more opportunities there are to be knocked off your game. It’s a great idea to have a plan and have strategies and routines in place. But if they get disrupted, a mentally strong person wouldn’t come unglued about it. They are not easily defeated and don’t easily give up. A mentally tough or resilient person is able to roll with the punches. They are able to adapt to challenges and pivot when necessary. They are able to think on their feet. They also understand that they don’t need to control all the variables and situations. They just need to be in control of themselves.

A mentally tough person has a lot of self trust. They believe that they can still prevail even if the odds are stacked against them.


One simple area that I think is a vulnerable spot where our mental toughness starts to unravel is in your thoughts. You can call it your self talk or your inner script, but whatever you are faced with, your thoughts determine the outcomes more than anything else.There is a sneaky type of thinking that can subtly start to put a chink in your mental toughness. Just like if you had a car at the top of a hill, and you put a wedge or a block under the wheels, it wouldn’t get the chance to start rolling down the hill. It’s much easier to stop the car from getting out of control at that moment than when it is barrelling down the hill.

This type of thinking is what I would call subtractive thinking. You might call it negative thinking but it’s more helpful to call it subtractive in my mind. Subtractive thinking is just what it sounds like. It takes away. It takes away from you.

These are thoughts that point out what you are NOT.

I’m not good at that. I’m not skilled at that. I don’t know how to do that. I am not a good performer. I am not a natural at smooth styles. I can’t use my feet in that way. I’m not like her. I can’t spend as much. It begins with words like:

I can’t

I’m not

I don’t know

I don’t have

I am not able to

Subtractive thinking is self-defeating. It implies that there is something missing, and this is the important part, AND THEREFORE I WON’T BE ABLE TO X. I CAN’T BE SUCCESSFUL. I CAN’T HAVE WHAT I WANT.

A key concept involved here to understand is also the subconscious programming of the mind. You think you are just telling me the news. You are just explaining the reality of what is. But what you are doing when you say those things to yourself is INFORMING your mind what we will create next. It doesn’t matter if it feels true to you. Do you want to keep telling yourself what you lack, and therefore keep perpetuating it? You are not telling yourself or me what IS, you are telling yourself what will BE.

Subtractive thinking is reactive. It is doubtful and hesitant. Remember, you are telling yourself what you don’t have or who you are not. That is not a powerful, confident place to operate from. It can put you in a defensive position. Indecision and avoidance are also a result. If you think you lack performance or musicality, you are more likely to avoid working on those aspects of your dancing. Because you think you lack them, working on them will seem pointless and hard and you will have to confront your weaknesses. The brain won’t like any of that so you will avoid it. Can you guess the result of avoiding it? You don’t get better at it. So you continue to create the circumstances that you lack it. That is how you create what you are thinking about.


Here’s how subtractive thinking can get that car rolling down the hill and create a mess with your thoughts.First, you start having the subtractive thoughts. Little I can’t, I don’t haves and I’m nots. You introduce doubt. You introduce hesitancy. This is where the car starts to imperceptibly start creeping forward. Might not even notice.

Your brain takes this as something is wrong. Because remember what we are making this mean? We can’t have what we want or won’t be successful. We are maybe in a worse position than other people if we lack something.

So then the brain perceives a threat. Anytime the body encounters a threat, it overreacts. This is a psychological threat, but it is a threat none the less.

The fight or flight system gets activated and this is where the car starts gaining momentum. The mind starts to spin. It picks up speed. Your thoughts and emotions will feel activated. It has motion associated with it. It might feel like anxiety to you. It might feel like overthinking. You lose control of your thoughts and anxiety and stress go up.

You struggle to gain control of your thoughts and/or your emotions and so you lose direction and oftentimes hope as well.

This is when we try to stop the car while it is barrelling down the hill but it’s kind of too late in that moment. Sometimes we can gain control of our thoughts but usually not. Because now we have a bigger problem than some little can’ts and I don’t knows. Now we have a whole emotional and physical reaction to deal with. In that heightened moment we can’t solve a physical and emotional reaction with just our thoughts.

This is where I recommend you deal with the emotional and physical piece. Deep breaths, self soothing, laying flat on the ground, changing your body temperature by going out into the cold…anything body oriented and meant to sooth and calm your nervous system will go a long way in slowing everything down. There are many other somatic (body) techniques you can find online to aid in this slow down and find what works for you. The point is we gotta slow the car down. Learning to control your thoughts earlier on in the process prevents the downward spiral by managing it before it can get rolling.


Rather than focus on what we DON’T want, let me rephrase so you know what to focus on and how to talk to yourself instead. The way we want to inform our subconscious about what we DO Want to create is the opposite of subtractive thinking. It’s additive thinking.

What DO you have? What CAN you do? This is also called a CAN-DO mindset or attitude. What are your resources? What are your strengths? The simplest can do thought you can nurture is, “I can do this.”

I can figure this out. I am strong. I am capable. I am a fast learner. I am determined. I know how to do xyz. I know I’ll keep trying. I can always try again.

Also consider what you want to create in yourself. What skills do you want to build?

I am becoming resilient. I am getting better everyday. I am learning from every experience I have.

I can…

I am…

I have…

I know…

I am able to…

Can you feel the shift? Rather than hesitant, indecisive, defensive, reactive, doubting…it feels more proactive. Additive thinking contains self belief and decisiveness. It’s more certain and results in executing and moving towards things rather than away. Can you feel that there is more self trust?

It still isn’t perfect. This has nothing to do with perfection or getting it right all the time. This is about creating a mindset that is resilient and bounces back. This is mental toughness. Being able to cope with the stresses and pressures of the situation. Mental toughness is about facing what is happening and accessing all your resources to the best of your ability whatever that is at the time. Even if the results aren’t what you wanted or expected, you still get the benefit of having supported yourself along the way and not defeating yourself or giving up. So even if the results don’t come, you can actually still walk away with your confidence intact.

That is mental toughness, and it’s totally accessible to you. It’s a skill like any other. Watch your thoughts. Watch for subtractive thinking and catch it as early as you can. Train yourself to think in additive ways more of the time.


It’s time to

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Hi there,

I'm Amber haider

As an amateur ballroom dancer myself, I understand the issues that come up for dancers, the pressures of competing, and the desire to make the most of my ballroom experience. I also really like to WIN! As a Life Coach by vocation, I have the tools to cut through the mental garbage that is holding you back so that you can maximize your potential. Using my own tools, I have been able to skyrocket my own skills, learn faster, lessen the pressure, win more and have tons more fun. I can show you the way. Here’s a couple tools to get you started:

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