©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
The woman was overweight. No, correction. The woman was morbidly obese. There was no other word for it. The office scales could register up to 350 pounds and the needle had hit the top before Lily (a pseudonym) had gotten both feet onto the scale!
Lily had finally made an appointment because, as she put it, “I’m actually feeling sorry for my heart.” She had read that the heart must pump blood through an additional 100 miles of tiny blood vessels for every pound of unnecessary fat. At the age of 27, Lily’s blood pressure was dangerously high, to say nothing of her cholesterol levels.
It turned out that this woman did not understand the difference between a sensation of physical hunger and feelings. Therefore, she tended to eat when she felt happy, sad, glad, mad, angry, fearful, or you name it. When the counselor asked her what she was feeling at that moment, Lily’s response was “hungry for pie.” It took awhile for her to comprehend that “hungry for pie” was not a feeling!
And speaking of pie, it quickly became clear that Lily was addicted to it. Well, actually, she was addicted to the sugar and other simple carbohydrates contained in the pie. It didn’t seem to matter what the flavor was: pecan, lemon, pistachio, banana coconut, key lime, pumpkin, cherry, berry, rhubarb, Boston Cream—just as long as there were two of them. If Lily ate any, she ate two. Pies, not slices!
We soon began to notice that Lily mumbled to herself through much of each meal. “Are you saying grace or complaining?” one of the program staff asked.
Lily laughed and said, “Neither. I’m repeating I don’t want to eat two pies today. I don’t even want to think about two pies!”
Lily’s self-talk was unhelpful. When I asked her what picture she saw in her mind’s eye after repeating those phrases, she answered, “Two pies.” That was no surprise. The brain tends to think in pictures. However, it is relatively easy for the brain to miss the word don’t. This is especially true of the subconscious brain layers.
“You’re giving your brain a map to follow when it pictures two pies,” I explained. “What can you do to reverse that mental picture?” She had no clue.
In truth, it’s not really possible to follow an open-ended negative instruction such as, “I don’t want to eat two pies,” or “Don’t think about two pies.” Even if you stumble on a strategy that endeavors to replace the picture of two pies with something else, you will always come back to thinking about the two pies, if only to remind yourself that you’re supposed to be thinking about something else!
The subconscious brain readily understands positives. That’s why affirmation is the programming language of the brain. The brain processes negatives (the reverse of an idea) much less effectively. Unfortunately, growing up most people heard 7-9 negative comments for every positive one. Those from quite dysfunctional families typically heard 18-19 negative comments for every positive comment or instruction. Think back to your childhood. What did you hear? If you heard, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, you can’t do this, you shouldn’t do that,” your brain is likely filled with negative memories.
For example, when the brain hears the words “Don’t touch the stove,” it initially creates a picture of touching the stove. If it picks up on the word “don’t” then it must try to create a different picture, one related to the reverse of the first idea. This is a two-step process and difficult for an adult brain to accomplish to say nothing of a child’s brain!
It is usually much more effective to say, “Keep your hands away from the stove.” That is a one-step process as the brain’s initial picture is of the hands being held away from the stove. It is clearer and takes less time and energy, since the brain doesn’t have to try creating a reverse picture.
Lily had decided to stop baking pies at home and to stop picking up pies at the store to bring home. If she wanted to eat a slice for her birthday or on a holiday, it was clear she would need to change the way she talked to herself. She needed new mental pictures.
I suggested she start talking to herself using the third person you. Imagine yourself giving directions to your brain. On the ocassions you decide to have a small slice, use phrases such as:
- You are eating one small slice of pie
- You take tiny bites and chew each thoroughly
- You feel satisfied.
- Your health is improving.
I asked Lily to describe the picture she saw in her mind’s eye. when she used those phrases. Her response was, “One small slice of pie and I’m smiling.”
Self-talk programs the brain! What is your habitual self-talk style? Human beings tend to communicate with others in their habitual self-talk style. Do you affirm or criticize? Encourage or discourage? How well do you give and accept compliments?
Since self-talk is learned, you can learn to speak consistently in an affirming manner. This style is usually much more effective. The formula is short, positive, present tense, empowering statements (affirmations). Speak as if you are already, presently, realizing your goal.
When you speak in future tense, the brain thinks, “When the future comes I’ll help you make it happen.” But since you’re speaking in a future tense, you never arrive at that future point, so to speak. When you use present-tense words and phrases the brain thinks, “This is happening right now! I better get with the program!” And it is much more likely to assist you in following through on the picture that you created for it to follow.
Is using an affirming communication style a simple concept?
It is easy to change a life-time of negative self-talk patterns?
And it can be done. Lily did it. When she return six months later for a checkup, she actually got both feet on the scales without the needle hitting the maximum! Not only that, her blood pressure readings were now within the normal range, and her cholesterol levels had dropped significantly.
When it was her turn to recount her journey toward better health, everyone listened intently. It was obvious that Lily’s life was vastly improved compared to what it had been. She concluded her story with these words: “I’m learning to use this new style of communication, with myself and with others. There have been times when I opened my mouth to say something and could not think of a way to state my thoughts in a positive style. But practice helps. I don’t have to bite my tongue nearly as frequently. How I wish I could have learned this earlier in life—but better late than never!”
Life does go better with a positive communication style. Does it prevent all problems? Of course not! It does give your brain a one-step picture to follow. I call it the “Affirmation Advantage,” and it can be used in any area of life.
As Lily said, “Better late than never.”
And there’s no time like the present to get started!