The way we use our internal language can have a profound effect on how we are able to overcome a challenge, for example anxiety. Let’s do a quick experiment.
- Don’t think of a tree
- Don’t think of a sunny beach
When you read the above statements, did you think of either a tree, a sunny beach, or both? Research shows that over 80% of people will have thought of at least one of them.
If you did think of one (or both) then it’s not a bad thing. In fact you have just revealed a mechanism that keeps anxiety, and many other mental health concerns lingering.
When you saw the instruction: Don’t think of a tree, your brain actually processed the message as: think of a blue tree, don’t.
There is a difference between how our brain processes the explicit order of writing and speech, and what how it interprets the meaning behind it, which in turn generates our behaviours. This is especially true when we are responding to instructions.
When following instructions our brain has a habit of deferring negation based words, such as don’t, to the end of the message or even ignoring it all together.
This is not something that is a 100% rule, there are a few exceptions, however this rather annoying function does occur consistently during times of high stress, tension and even excitement.
This is especially obvious when we see how children behave. You may have noticed that when you ask them the following
- Don’t run up the stairs is processed as: run up the stairs, don’t – often followed by running up the stairs
- Don’t slam the door is processed as: slam the door, don’t – often followed by the thud of a slammed door
- Don’t spill your drink is processed as: spill your drink, don’t – often followed by a wet carpet
Have you ever seen a do not touch sign, or a do not enter sign and then feel a sense of curiosity to do the deed? Yep, me too!
And many athletes have successfully unsettled their rivals by uttering the phrase: don’t mess up within earshot of their rivals.
So we now know we need to clean up our language and make it more precise – the more precise your mindset, the easier it is to achieve your desired results.
Let’s start with the previous examples regarding children. How could we change the instructions to get a more desired result?
Easy – we remove any mention of don’t, can’t, shouldn’t, not and other negations, and tell them exactly what we do want them to do.
- Don’t run up the stairs can be changed to: walk slowly up the stairs
- Don’t slam the door can be changed to: close the door gently
- Don’t spill your drink can be changed to: hold your drink carefully
See how that works? Simple changes can make a big difference to the meaning.
So let’s focus on you and your challenges. My suggestion to you is to spend a few days observing your self talk, that voice in your head which is narrating your experience of anxiety and write down how often you are instructing yourself not to do something.
Then once you have a list, write down a list of clear alternatives.
Some examples of shifting the self talk around could be:
- I don’t want to feel anxious becomes: I can notice calmness around me
- What if I mess up becomes: I’m able to do this properly
- What if things go wrong becomes: I can notice things working well
Remember that change is a multi step process, not an instant shift from one way of being to another. Give yourself time, and accept that even the best of us have a bad day, experience failure and generally have challenges.