Muller Marginalia

The Benefits of Brainwashing

Published: Jun 8, 2022  |  

Writer, editor, performer and self-producer

Last week, my Marginalia article unexpectedly collided with another writer’s final contribution for Mental Health Awareness Month. In her piece, Jaime Andrews touched upon the good hard work of taking on her own depression through discipline and hypnotherapy. This wasn’t so much a “you are getting sleepy, very sleepy”-type hypnotherapy, but rather interrupting automatic negative thinking by forcing herself to think positive thoughts about herself, even when it was uncomfortable, repeating this until she actually believed them. 

This immediately resonated with me, as this technique is a fundamental building block of the women-only nutrition and fitness program I briefly mentioned in my article last week, through which I’ve been reprogramming my own thoughts over the past month and a half. Essentially, what started as a mission to get “wedding-ready” has become an all-out allegiance to a pretty cool cult. 

What’s that, you say? “Cults are bad?” I beg to differ. If a cult is brainwashing you into being your best self, then I say: bring it right the hell on. So I’m going to share a little bit about the joys of the brainwash through the School of Thot fitness program, specifically.

SoT isn’t a Crossfit gym, Beachbody video series, or Peloton class. Although the goal of SoT is to become “as hot as possible,” at its core is a radical message of self-empowerment and love for its female members, which relies deeply on the kind of negative thought interruption Jaime outlined in her article.

But let me tell you more about our cult leader first.

I’d made a friend through comedy years ago, Stasia Patwell, who was also a personal trainer. Through her Instagram stories, I’d followed along as she developed an incredible, women-centered, cheeky workout brand, School of Thot. If the name didn’t give it away, SoT is doubly cheeky because, first, as a comic, Stasia’s reliably NSFW in a very motivating way, and second, because her workouts focus primarily on what is commonly referred to as dat ass. In addition to a whole lot of glute-busting workouts, her eight-week, women-only certification program features accountability text groups with daily check-ins that not only keep everyone on track and motivated, but also provides an endless thread for sharing advice, support, recipes, and cute pet pictures as an added bonus. 

As someone who has been surrounded by men for a lot of her adult life—whether in comedy, at the muay thai gym, in various jobs, or in triathlon—it’s been really incredible to connect to other women seeking to better themselves, their relationship to their bodies, and to food. We’re all coming from different experiences, but all share similar culturally-programmed feelings of shame, which makes us especially good at supporting and empathizing with one another. It also saves me from dudes mansplaining that I only need to  “just work out a little more to lose weight.” A man can stop thinking about beer and drop five pounds. Weight loss is a bit more complicated for most women I know, for a whole host of biological and psychological reasons.

During the program’s introductory webinar, Stasia noted that virtually every woman from all walks of life has had some sort of psychological hang-up over her body and likely has experienced some kind of disordered eating. Or in her words, “we are all mentally ill.” There is a whole lot of baggage built into the way we look at ourselves and how we interact with food, which—obviously—ties into how we feel. Though some might be blessed to have a healthy relationship with self-image and nutrition, most American women have inherited some kind of shame or weird food behavioral pattern from our family or primary caretaker. We learn it early, and it becomes an ingrained part of us, how we see ourselves, how we deal with stress and emotions. We are also constantly barraged with marketing from food, alcohol, fitness and beauty. And as much as we’d like to think we’re capable of being objective, for many women, food and physical fitness are intrinsically connected to some kind of trauma, making it a deeply emotional and difficult riddle to solve. To unravel that, some concerted deprogramming—and reprogramming—needs to happen.

As such, Stasia’s top goal with School of Thot is to change her clients’ way of thinking—which makes the double entendre of her brand name even more apropos. Although there are plenty of steps to her certification program—macro and food tracking, nightly accountability check-ins, drinking a gallon of water a day, fitting in workouts and 10,000 daily steps—Stasia holds that the absolute most important part of it is changing your thoughts. During workouts, she demands participants pick a positive mantra and repeat it between each circuit. She holds that this is arguably the most vital—and perhaps the most difficult—exercise. “I’m the best, I love my ass, I love my body, my body knows exactly what to do, things are happening for me, not to me, I’m getting stronger every day, I’m healthy, wealthy, free and hot.” Whatever phrase makes you feel the most uncomfortable, pick that one—since that’s likely the place you need to heal. And when the temptation comes to deride yourself for being weak or flabby: “Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a four-year-old girl,” she advises.

The first time she said this, I felt a profound sense of shock. I’ve always been a fairly self-confident individual. I believe in my strength, power, intelligence, and general capabilities. But I’m incredibly mean to myself, too. Generally I think we all have a little bit of an inner-abuser (or inner saboteur, as Ru Paul would say.) 

Devil’s advocates out there would argue, “I’m not being mean, I’m being realistic.” But there is a difference between acknowledging reality—perhaps that your pants aren’t fitting so well—and calling yourself a fat loser. Telling yourself the latter encourages you to reify that statement, thereby maintaining an unhappy existence. 

Enter brainwashing—which we might more politely refer to as “brain training.” If you’re in a pattern of negative self-talk, that will continue to be the easiest path to take. So you have to actively make the effort to interrupt these thoughts and build new pathways towards a more positive mindset. Affirmations have a very “woo woo” reputation, but there are actual, neuropsychological studies that back up the effectiveness of this kind of exercise

The funny thing is, many of us learned the power of positive thought early through Watty Piper’s classic children’s book, The Little Engine that Could. Here, a determined-if-petite railroad engine chugs her way up a steep hill with a heavy load by repeating “I think I can” until she makes it. Did the Little Blue Engine call herself a crappy weakling incompetant garbage train? No. That mantra wouldn’t get her up a hill—it probably wouldn’t even get her out of bed. (Side note: if you clocked it, yes, the Little Blue Engine was gendered as female. Feels poetic.)

Even if we learned the power of positive mantras in pre-K, years of self-doubt and “adulting” have likely snuffed them out for most of us. But with practice, you can get back into that good habit. When the inner saboteur is starting a monologue, cut it out with some loud, obnoxious affirmations. Don’t believe them? Cool. You will. By telling yourself you are strong, capable, beautiful, fit, that miracles are happening, that the universe is providing, that you think you can, you’re opening up the possibility for that to become your future. And as much as your inner skeptic is scoffing, if you don’t create the opening for change, it simply cannot and will not happen. So open the damn door.

That said, our neural pathways have been deeply grooved into our brains through years of thought, so a good, effective brainwash isn’t something that happens after one quick meditation: it takes lots and lots of repetition. As Jamie said in her article, just wishing “some magical enlightenment” is going to fix your life won’t get you anywhere. To get different results, you have to take different actions. And that requires effort. In working out, you don’t get strong overnight—it takes weeks of discipline to see it payoff. Your brain is the same. It’s not going to instantly shift from shit-talking you daily to thinking you’re fabulous and capable.

Stasia herself knows firsthand the importance of this repetition for personal success. As a shit-talking, pessimistic, born-and-bred O.G. East Coast Bostonian, she’s still a self-confessed “hater” by nature—much more “fuck this” than “blessed day.” But after resolving five years ago to change her negative way of thinking, she began every day by listening to the likes of Abraham Hicks and other “hippy dippy shit,” and started forcing herself to repeat positive mantras. Though her brain shit-talked the process every step of the way, she eventually felt herself changing, as well as the way she thought about herself. Ultimately, she’s been able to transform scores of women’s lives by passing this advice along.

My favorite thing about all this brainwashing is that you don’t have to believe in it for it to actually work—the repetition is what actually winnows away at your former patterns of thinking and creates a new reality. But the key word here is repetition. As Stasia mentioned, borrowing from AA, “yesterday’s shower doesn’t keep you clean today.” So instead of brainwashing, maybe it’s more of a brain shower—something you do (ideally) once a day.

In her workouts, Stasia often says, “you don’t have to like it, you just have to do it.” The same holds for the mind. So do your brain training. Get in your reps of positive self-talk, and eventually you just might find yourself more mentally fit, too. 

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