Changing the language of habits to change your habits

What are you telling yourself?

As a person of a “certain age” you may well have heard yourself say things like “I know I drink too much” or “I wish I could eat less” or “I don’t do any exercise, really”. I know this because I have heard myself say such things on many occasions and I regularly hear others say them too.

the brain cannot process absence

I learned many years ago that the human brain cannot deal with negatives – it cannot clear itself of images that you ask it to. If I say to you: “DO NOT think about pink elephants”, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind? Yes, indeed – I have given you an instruction that is impossible to follow. The mind cannot deal with an absence of an image and so when I tell myself  “I don’t eat doughnuts” my mind cruelly presents me with an image of a plate of doughnuts and instantly I have the forbidden items on my mind and the temptation, however small that may be, is there too. On the other hand, if I say “I eat healthy food” the chances are that my mind will present me with an image of a healthy meal or snack, reinforcing the habit that I am seeking to improve.

Every time you tell yourself or someone else something about yourself, what you are saying is reinforced in you as “fact”. When I was in my early teens my elder brother used to tell me every morning “you are ugly” and I grew up believing that to be the truth. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my early forties that I began believing otherwise (thanks to “How to Build Self-Esteem” tape series, by Jack Canfield). A child that is constantly told “you are stupid” will surely start believing that before very long. And what you tell yourself every day you will certainly surely too. Tell yourself “I am fat” and whether you are overweight or not you will take that to be true in very little time – this is where anorexia begins for some unfortunate people.

This kind of verbal reinforcement works in more than one way. For example, every time I say “I drink too much” I embed that belief AND the habit further and if I don’t change my self-talk I will carry on doing so.

One powerful way to move towards the habits that I am seeking to establish is to use the language that will reinforce those habits RIGHT NOW. I have to change my language first and then this will ease the way for the habit to follow.

Stop trying

you are what you think

And it’s not always as obvious. Some words can seem helpful but are totally counter-productive. “I’m trying…” or “I’d like to…” are the kind of words and phrases that are full of good intentions but lack conviction or positive action. “I’m trying to lose weight” is the sort of thing you hear over and over again from people who are not losing weight. “I’d like to lose weight” is much the same (I have actually said it myself so I completely understand).

It is not possible to change a habit unless the real desire is there inside oneself to do so. But even when the desire if there it is often even the habits of the language we use that sets us up to fail.

I am picking unkindly on the overweight only because I have been there – I understand, believe me. When I lost three stone in four and a half months I didn’t do so by wishing, even though i told myself I wanted to lose weight – before I actually started eating less.

This language applies to ANY habit: the person who says “I would really like to be fitter” needs to take the appropriate action and the person who wishes to travel more but somehow never gets around to it just needs to find a way to get around to it.

Give up giving up

We also have a (bad) habit of talking about “giving up” something and this just sounds like we are leaving something behind that we love. It might be true that we love smoking, eating junk food, boozing, lazing around or criticising people but in moving on from those habits we are entering a new world of increased opportunity, good feeling and positive experiences. We need to shape our language to reflect the fact that we are moving towards something much better.

So what is the language of success rather than good intentions? It really is remarkably simple – you just need to verbally place yourself in the state that you desire in the present tense and enjoy it.

moving towards new habits

“I am a non-smoker” or “I am smoke-free” or even “I live healthily” are positive and will help you move on. Other examples are: “I am tee-total”, “I like alcohol-free drinks”, “I walk regularly”, “I eat healthy food”, “I am kind”. These positive statements, expressed in the present tense, will reinforce your commitment to positive habits and will propel you forward.

Some new phrases will be harder to form. For example, if I decide I am going to spend less time watching TV or looking at my smartphone I need to find a phrase to suit that isn’t simply “I’m spending less time watching TV”. The fact that I am making this change implies that I have something better to do and so I will simply say, for example “I am reading more these days” or “we talk more now” “or “I have been rediscovering my music collection”.

Be the person you want to be

I used to ask my Creative Writing classes in the first lesson of each group as a part of their homework to tell at least three people: “I am a writer”. You could see some of them squirming in their seats because they knew they would find that simple thing so difficult., Why? Because they didn’t believe it. By saying it, out loud, to other people, they would start to bring that into being. It also creates some psychological tension in you that helps move you towards your desired state – immediately. “I eat healthily” is the person you are; “I exercise regularly”, “I’m a writer” is what you do or are even if you have only just become that person.

Have a think about the habits you would like to change, the language you currently use, to yourself and/or to others, and how you could change that to start moving you towards better habits. Some examples:

“I know I drink too much” could become “I drink in moderation” or “I drink more healthily” or even “I am teetotal”

“I watch too much television” could become “I am reading more” or “I take a walk in the fresh air every day”

“I wish I could find time to write more” becomes “I write every day”.

There will be more about the important subject of self-talk in future articles but in the meantime I would love to hear from you, so please post your comments about your own experiences with self- talk, self-esteem and changing habits.

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