One of the ways we keep ourselves stuck in damaging behavior patterns is by using language that predicts future failure.
- “I always blow my diet on vacation.”
- “I'm not a morning person.”
- “I hate exercise.”
- “Evening is my horrible time.”
- “I avoid conflict, so I end up eating what everyone else is eating even though I don't want to.”
Notice that although each statement is in the present tense, its function is to predict (and to some extent justify) future failure. How am I supposed to get up at 5am to get my run in if I'm simply not a morning person? Obviously, I can't.
So what seems like a simple statement of fact turns out to be, in fact, a curse that we put on ourselves that becomes self-fulfilling.
The thing about these statements that makes them so powerful is that we truly believe them. So any attempt to argue with them feels like New Age Affirmation Bullshit, the kind spoofed by now-Senator Al Franken through his Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley: “I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!”
But it's crucial to dispute these statements of self-identity that lock us into repetition of the same behaviors that got us into the mess we're in. The question is, how?
We're looking for a new statement with two qualities:
1. It empowers us to adopt a better behavior in the future.
2. It feels as true or truer than the original statement.
Disputation Technique #1: Put in in the past
If the behavior happens occasionally or situationally, you can create breathing room and space for change by changing the verb tense. For example:
“I always blow my diet on vacation” –> “In the past, I used to blow my diet on vacation.”
The magic phrase “in the past” acknowledges the truth of the statement, but doesn't continue it into a prediction. After all, by definition, predictions are neither true or untrue. They're predictions about things that haven't happened yet, and may never happen.
And putting the behavior in the past implies strongly that it's done. Over. History.
So you get to choose a new behavior and outcome from now on.
Disputation Technique #2: Add the antidote
Sometimes putting an ongoing, regular behavior in the past feels like bullshit. For example, “Evening is my horrible time.” If I find myself bored and annoyed and stressed out at 7pm every day and finishing off a too-big dinner with a bowl of ice cream after being golden with my diet the rest of the day, it might be too big a stretch to say, “In the past, evening was my horrible time.” It just doesn't feel true.
Remember, the goal is to replace the disempowering prediction with language that's as true or truer, and either offers empowerment or a prescription.
So if evenings still feel horrible, the “in the past” phrase may feel like bullshit unless we add some tools or strategies to deal with that experience.
“In the past, I was extremely vulnerable to binges in the evening. Now I'm overcoming that tendency by…”
The dot dot dot is the antidote to the unwanted behavior. We figure it out through a trial-and-error process: identify the thought that excuses or enables the behavior, and brainstorm a tweak to our environment or routine or self-talk that we think can disable the link between the thought and our actions. Rinse and repeat.
If it sounds simple, it can be. What's required is patience, and persistence, and a willingness to be wrong until we're right.
The central engine of change is what researcher Carol Dweck calls a “growth mindset,” meaning an underlying belief that we can grow and change and improve. The growth mindset speaks a very different language than its counterpart, the “fixed mindset,” which looks at the past and assumes it utterly predicts the present and future.
The good news is, the growth mindset is also a self-fulfilling prophesy. When we intentionally challenge our fixed assumptions, we can change them. And that proves to us that we can change not only our self-talk, but a great deal else about ourselves that we always assumed was “just the way we are.”
Disputation Technique #3: Stop It!
In this technique, you allow yourself to get outraged at the behavior that's robbing you of health and happiness and self-esteem and joy. And you let that outrage fuel your resistance.
It's not a long-term strategy, because outrage tends to burn itself out long before we master the new habit we're trying to instill.
But the nice thing about arguing with absolute, “all-or-nothing” statements like “I always blow my diet on vacation” and “I cave to peer pressure” is that they are so easily falsified by one counter-example.
When I press my clients, they can always identify plenty of counter-examples from their own past. My advanced technique for this (pay attention: valuable coaching trick revealed) is to say the word “always” or “never” as a question and then shut up.
Client: “I always blow my diet on vacation.”
Client: “Well, no. In fact, last summer I went to Scotland for two whole weeks and managed to live on oatmeal and fresh fruit the entire first week.”
But even if you can't dredge up a single counter-example from your past, you can still disprove the disempowering prediction with a single episode of “I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to do it anymore.”
And then add one of the other disputation techniques to build a sustainable growth mindset that can carry you through habit change.
You can definitely try this at home. But it's often really helpful to have a guide and coach to accelerate your progress and help you avoid and recover from setbacks.
Right now, the Big Change Program is closed to new enrollment. Josh LaJaunie and I will be meeting next week to talk about how to shift to an admission policy that can take in a few people at a time, rather than forcing you to wait three months or more to join.
If you'd like to get on that waiting list while experiencing a test drive of the program, go to BigChangeProgram.com and click the blue “Test Drive” button.
Or, if you'd like to start changing your habits and health destiny immediately, check out my year-long unlimited 1-on-1 laser coaching program at https://plantyourself.com/laser.
You CAN Change Other People!
Well, that's what Peter Bregman and I claim in our provocative book of that title.
What we really mean is, you can help the people around you make behavioral changes in their own best interests. If you think you're powerless to help people change, it's because you've been going about it the wrong way.
Discover our straightforward, replicable process here: You Can Change Other People.
Audiobook: Use the Weight to Lose the Weight
Listen to Josh LaJaunie and me narrate our latest audiobook, about how to start moving when you're obese.
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