©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
The woman (I’ll call her Lily) was morbidly obese. There was no other term for it. The scales could register up to 350 pounds. The needle had hit the top before Lily got her other foot up onto the scale! Lily had enrolled in the Program to get some help. At time of admission she had actually talked about feeling sorry for her heart. “Poor thing! It has to pump my blood through 100 extra miles of blood vessels for every pound I’m overweight,” she would moan. She was only 27 years old and her blood pressure was dangerously high, to say nothing of her cholesterol levels.
It turned out that this woman didn’t understand the difference between a sense of 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 “I feel hungry for a pie.” It took awhile for her to comprehend that “hungry for a pie” was not a feeling!
It quickly became clear that Lily was addicted to pie. Well, actually, she was addicted to the sugar and other simple carbohydrates from which the pies were constructed. 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 bites!
Gradually the staff began to notice that Lily tended to mumble to herself through much of each meal. When asked if she were praying or complaining, she laughed and said, “Neither. I’m saying: I don’t want to eat two pies today. I don’t even want to think about two pies!”
Unfortunately, Lily’s self-talk was unhelpful. The words she was saying actually placed a representation of two pies in her brain's working memory. Sure enough. When I asked her what picture she saw in her mind’s eye after repeating those sentences, she answered, “Two pies." No surprise there.
When I asked Lily how she planned to reverse her mental picture of two pies, she had not a 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 pr 20-30 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.
Not only that, the brain thinks in pictures. When you say, “Don’t touch the stove,” the picture the brain typically creates is that of touching the stove. When it picks up on the word don’t (if it does), the brain must try to create a different picture, one related to the reverse of the first idea. That’s difficult for an adult brain, it’s almost impossible for children. How much more effective to say, “Keep your hands away from the stove.” The picture the brain tends to create with this instruction is that of the hands being held away from the stove. It’s a one-step process. It is clearer and takes less time and energy, since the brain doesn’t have to implement a two-step process, and try to create a reverse picture.
Lily's morbid obesity was so severe that the staff recommended "pie" be considered off limits for her. Period. They asked Lily, "When it is your birthday or anniversary or special holiday, what healthier replacement desert can you select?" Lily selected blueberry sherbert. When altering a behavior pattern such as this one, Lilly needed to change the picture in her brain (start focusing on blueberry sherbert) and teaching her brain to like the healthier replacement (sherbert rather than two pies).
The staff suggested that Lily imagine herself eating a scoop of blueberry sherbert in a beautiful silver bowl and taught her to say:
- It's my birthday
- I am eating a scoop of blueberry sherbert from my little silver bowl
- I enjoy the taste
- I feel satisfied
- Life is good and my health is excellent
I asked Lily to describe the picture she now saw in her mind’s eye. Her response was, “A scoop of blueberry sherbert in a little silver antique bowl that belonged to my granny." When Lily's birthday arrives she will need to make a choice about what she eats. Since she has been rehearsing eating the blueberry sherbert and feeling satisfied, she can use willpower to bring that picture into reality.
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.
If 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? Oops, I better get with the program!” It is much more likely to assist you in following through on the picture that you created for it.
Is using an affirming communication style a simple concept? Absolutely! It is easy to change a life-time of self-talk patterns? No! And it can be done. Lily did it. Several years later she returned for an alumni program. This time she could actually step onto the program 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 more energy-efficient 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!