An Exercise in Positive Thinking

It’s amazing how our brains tend to skip over negative words. If you tell a small child, “Don’t touch the cookies,” the only thing the child can think about is touching the cookies. Our adult brains are the same way. I was just scheduling a meeting with a client and I said, “I can’t do 2:00,” to which the client responded, “Great! I’ll call you at 2:00.”

It’s not a great leap to come to the conclusion that if you don’t want the child to touch the cookies, give them something else to do instead. “Here, play with this toy and we can have cookies later.” Or tell the client, “I’m available at 1:00 or 3:00.” The trick is avoiding negative words that our brains just tend to filter out anyway.

We’re constantly telling ourselves the things we don’t want. “I don’t want to get sick.” “I don’t want to be late again.” We tell ourselves things in the negative all the time, but our brains don’t register the negating word. Your brain registers, “I want to get sick,” and “I want to be late again,” and subconsciously influences subtle actions that bring undesired outcomes. It’s like that time in high school when you’re walking by someone you really wanted to impress, and your brain is repeating, “Don’t trip, don’t trip, don’t trip,” and of course you trip and embarrass yourself.

So try this powerful trick: Tell yourself things in the positive. “I want to be healthy.” “I want to be on time.” There’s nothing for the brain to filter out here. By focusing on the positive we’re attracting what we want in our lives and it’s going to subtly influence what we look for and how we behave.

A coworker of mine told me a story about a young girl who was afraid of their shih tzu. When the girl approached, his wife said, “Don’t worry, he won’t hurt you. He doesn’t bite.” The child retreated behind her parent. Why? His wife was well-intentioned and trying to reassure the girl that the dog was friendly, right? Unfortunately, the brain filters out the negating words of “won’t” and “doesn’t” and only hears “worry, hurt, and bite.” That’s when my coworker stepped in and said, “It’s okay, he’s friendly. He likes everyone.” The little girl relaxed and came over to pet the dog. This time, her brain heard, “Okay, friendly, and likes.”

Try to watch how you’re phrasing the thoughts in your head. Are you more likely to tell yourself, “Don’t forget our anniversary,” or “I need to remember our anniversary”? “Don’t fidget while presenting,” or “Stand with confidence while presenting”? “Don’t interrupt the speaker,” or “Listen with intention”? Try it for a couple days. You may just be surprised how often you flood your own head with negative thoughts, and you’ll be even more surprised at how your “luck” seems to change when you start phrasing things in a more positive light.