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Are you positive?

(I divert your attention away from viruses and pregnancy tests.)

Motivational gurus preach the power of positive thinking. Lifestyle coaches urge you to reach for the stars – nothing is impossible if you adopt the right mindset. Personal trainers push you to break through the pain barrier. Your mother, quite possibly, emphasised the fact that only your best is good enough.  Psychologists and medical personnel report the difference in health outcome between health service users who have a positive outlook and the ones who display more depressive moods. Those with supportive families or friends and those without. 

Photo credit: Wilma Kirsten

Every January we are exposed to a barrage of motivational and mindfulness quotes. Once you’ve ditched the booze (dry January), all animal produce (veganuary), and lazy days whiled away on the couch, you are set for a better you – so we are told. Many people embark on New Year’s resolutions with all the vigour of placing last orders at your favourite pub. Only a small minority see it through.

Whatever the challenges that we desire to overcome, it is noticeable that the language we use in every day communication is overwhelmingly negative. “I won’t fail”, “I won’t do that again”, “I won’t cheat”, or “I won’t disappoint you.”

Positive thoughts are one thing, with only the most practiced amongst us achieving success in steering our thoughts to enlightenment most of the time.  Positive word choices is a strategy that we should all endeavour to adopt. It is said that the brain doesn’t think in negatives. For example, tell a child not to touch the iron and inevitably you’ll entice a curious young mind to go forth and make contact with that scalding iron leading to expected outcomes of pain and possible serious injury. How often have you gone out to eat and said to yourself, “I won’t have a dessert”, only to end up having that pudding despite your good intentions? Now, instead of basking in the post-prandial state of bliss, you have a whirring of internal dialogue castigating your every action.

Our minds focus on that which both our inner and spoken words direct it to. Learner drivers are told to focus on where they want the car to go as opposed to avoiding the obstacles along the side of the road. Motivational speakers tell you to set the goal you want to achieve. Instead of saying, “I won’t eat the whole slab of chocolate”, and then berating yourself for not having enough control, resolve, or strength of character, it works much better to set a doable target such as, “I will eat 4 squares”, or even more beneficial, “I will enjoy 4 squares today.” 

There are a myriad of societal laws and behaviours that we can be condemned for, a plethora of personal habits that cause self rebuke, and it can therefore be far better for our mental health to enforce positive thoughts by the language we choose. Communication is largely what makes us stand at the top of the food chain.  We might as well learn to use it to our psychological health benefit.

Compare your reaction to a loved one saying, “I don’t dislike you” as opposed to “I love you.” Even though both statements essentially express the same feeling, your emotional reaction is vastly different, raising undesirable, internal questions and conflict. We ask children, “Don’t you love mommy?”, as opposed to “Do you love mommy?” It is a struggle to make sense of the world as an adult.  Imagine, if you can, how confusing this kind of language is to the developing mind of a child.

Food evokes powerful emotions and gone are the days when inviting people to dinner was a simple affair. Even within households, serving a meal can be fraught with the challenges of individual likes and dislikes, allergies, intolerances, and disease states such as coeliac, diabetes, and cancer. With the spotlight on obesity, and its role in diseases, we are all encouraged to lose weight by any means necessary. For people with a thrifty gene – that superpower of gaining weight easily and shedding of unwanted mass being an almost impossible task – the attention to body composition can be daunting, humiliating, and down right depressing. Being bombarded with slogans like, “Eat right and your pants won’t be tight”, “You didn’t gain it overnight so don’t expect to lose it overnight”, or “Don’t wait to lose weight” is limited in its efficacy – just look at the increase in body sizes since the 1980’s when the fight against dietary fat was going to slim the population to ideal proportions overnight. 

Our attention is drawn to what we shouldn’t do as opposed to an actual winning strategy. When you cater for a person with coeliac disease you’ll sooner get a list of what that person cannot eat rather than a list of safe food options. In many cultures the thought of catering for a person who abstains from eating meat can be met with complete perplexity. This is perfectly illustrated by that famous scene from the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding:

Toula Portokalos: Ian is a vegetarian. He doesn’t eat meat.

Aunt Voula: He don’t eat no meat?

Toula Portokalos: No, he doesn’t eat meat.

Aunt Voula: What do you mean he don’t eat no meat?

[the rooms goes silent]

Aunt Voula: Oh that’s ok, That’s ok, I make lamb.

I recently met with a group of students who live in shared accommodation. One of the five dislikes cooking so I suggested that food preparation is shared amongst all the residents to allow for improvement of cooking skills, budgeting, and range of meals served – enjoyment of a vast array of tastes is as much a learned skill as playing the piano. “That won’t work”, a chorus chimed in, “I’m coeliac”, said one, “I’m vegetarian”, said another, “I’m allergic to peanuts”, and finally, “I’m a picky eater.” I quickly drew my audience’s attention to the safe foods that overlap – a vast list, may I add. Another solution would be for the designated cook to make the bulk of the meal (vegetables and gluten-free grains) and for every other person to only have to prepare their own choice of protein, be it vegetarian or not. A simple reframe flips a gargantuan obstacle into a practical solution.

Life is indeed frenetic and can be dazzlingly complicated. By nightfall we can be exhausted from near completing our daily to-do lists. Fortunately we have an abundance of technological appliances that allow us extra time. We can now instantly deliver recorded voice notes instead of writing letters that are carried by horse carriage to their intended recipient. We have state of the art washing machines that have lured us away from the river’s edge and now guarantee clean outfits. We can have meals delivered to our doorsteps freeing up time traditionally spent in the kitchen slaving over a hot wood stove. 

So now that we have more time, it allows us freedom to pay attention to our language. State what you mean, what you desire, what you intend to do. Not only will you use fewer words, your message will be clear, unambiguous, and perhaps even lead to improved mental health.