When we tell ourselves, “I shouldn’t do” something, we’re almost immediately on a trajectory toward doing that thing.
The human brain just doesn’t seem to respond well to “shouldn’t.”
For some of us, saying “shouldn’t” promptly triggers the thought, “you can’t tell me what to do”…even if it’s US who is telling us we “shouldn’t” do that thing.
For other people, saying “shouldn’t” triggers memories of being controlled against our will…and we immediately either panic or push back against those memories and feelings.
For still others, the word “shouldn’t” conjures up feelings of shame and inadequacy, as if we’re being admonished for wanting to do something we “shouldn’t” want to do, or wouldn’t want to do if we were just “better” people.
As a rule, behavior changes that are made primarily out of shame just don’t stick.
We tend to rebel against them sooner or later.
So there are al of these well-established reasons why using the word “shouldn’t” doesn’t tend to work well to create or reinforce behavior change…and yet, our culture tries to use that word to change and manage our behavior ALL THE TIME.
We’re told we “shouldn’t” use certain words.
We’re told we “shouldn’t” even WANT to do certain things (anybody who has ever struggled to give up smoking or an additive substance can attest to the intense social pressure that tries to shame them for being an addict).
The over-use of “shoudln’t” isn’t limited to the culture, either.
We tell ourselves we “shouldn’t” do things all the time.
We tell ourselves we shouldn’t eat certain foods in certain amounts, we shoudln’t spend so much time on the internet, we shouldn’t spend that money, we shouldn’t date (or even be attracted to) that person.
It’s not hard to see where all these “shouldn’t”’s gets us.
If “shouldn’t” doesn’t work to manage our behavior, then, what CAN we tell ourselves that MIGHT help?
I like to get away from the very idea of “should” and “shouldn’t” thinking…and instead nudge toward what I call “could” or “possibly” thinking.
When you’re struggling with a behavior that is in conflict with a goal of yours, and you’re tempted to pull out the word “shouldn’t”…take a step back.
Look at the situation, and ask yourself: if I DIDN”T do this thing that I think I “shouldn’t” do…what might my alternatives be?
If I don’t want to smoke, instead of beating myself up with the statement that “I shouldn’t smoke”— which will actually INCREASE my chances of lighting up— can I think of something ELSE I can do right here, right now, that might serve the same purpose as smoking?
If I don’t want to use my drug of choice right now, instead of beating myself up with the statement that “I shouldn’t use”…can I think of something ELSE I can do in this moment to feel good and relive tension?
If I don’t want to overeat right now, instead of beating myself up with the statement “I shouldn’t eat that thing in that amount”…is there something ELSE I can do in this moment?
It’s a subtle shift…but it can make all the difference in the world.
Our brains don’t do well with negative thinking— that is, telling them what NOT to do.
“Don’t think of a pink elephant.” See?
We’re just not wired to think in terms of “don’t do that” or “don’t want that.”
We’re better, however, at thinking in terms of “try doing this instead.”
Instead of smoking, take ten deep, slow breaths.
Instead of spending, think about enjoying some of the purchases you’ve ALREADY made.
Mind you: many of the alternatives you come up with WILL be imperfect.
They may not be as objectively “successful” as the behavior that you’re looking to avoid…but I will take trying to shift over to a replacement behavior over beating yourself over the head with “I shouldn’t do this,” and trying to white-knuckle your way trough it, every single time.
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