I loved The Little Engine That Could as a kid. The idea that we can accomplish seemingly impossible things through positive self-talk sounded great. It still does. But what do you do when optimism doesn’t work?
These were the thoughts inside my head this morning: I don’t know why you thought this was a good idea….You can’t do it…It isn’t going to work….seriously just stop." I’ve heard that same "you can’t do it" voice about plenty of things before. And this morning, no matter how many times I responded with “Yes you can,” the voice didn’t seem to stop.
How often do you hear yourself saying “I can’t”? According to the National Science Foundation, of the thousands of thoughts we have each day, 80% are negative and 95% are repetitive. Without even knowing it, your brain is pummeling you with the same negative speak all day long.
And that’s just what we do on a typical day. Imagine how strong the “I can’t” voice can be when you’re going through an extra tough time like divorce. Do any of these sound familiar: “I can’t get through this alone.” “There’s no way we can co-parent.” “I can’t find a good job.” “I’ll never meet someone nice.”
Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.
— Lao Tzu
The crazy thing is - most of what you tell yourself you can’t do isn’t true! You’re far more capable than you realize. Why our brains turn on us like this doesn’t really matter. (If you feel like getting nerdy about it, there’s plenty of research.)
What matters is that you have the power to change it. But it can be hard to do that when you’re down on yourself. When my inner critic is whispering that I can’t do something, telling myself “I can” doesn’t always cut it. I want to believe it, but I’m not convinced.
If positive thoughts aren’t changing your “can’t do” to “can do,” this might be why: Positive thinking operates at the surface level of our conscious thoughts. It doesn’t deal with our subconscious mind where our negative self-talk lives. (I’m not making this up - it’s research-based too.) Put simply: positive self-talk - while valuable - might not be getting through to the part of you that really needs it.
But here’s a subtle trick that does work. In fact, it’s the one that stopped my brain in its proverbial tracks this morning: The next time you hear yourself saying “I can’t do it,” ask yourself this in response: “HOW CAN I?”
Then be quiet and listen. Asking yourself a question, rather than just issuing your brain a command (like “yes you can!”) is a more effective way to create change. It works for 2 reasons:
#1. You’re not challenging yourself. If your subconscious is so convinced you can’t do something, hearing that you can do it might feel like an affront. Instead of psyching you up, it could lead you to feel further down.
#2. Asking questions puts your brain into problem-solving mode. Let’s say your inner critic is telling you “You can’t qualify for a mortgage on your own.” Instead of saying “Yes, I can,” try asking “How can I qualify on my own?” Now your brain might come up with ideas, like “Maybe I can find a more flexible lender, or perhaps I’ll need to save for a few more months to have a larger down payment.”
The beautiful thing about this approach is that it’s not hard. It also doesn’t require you to repeat positive affirmations over and over. It’s just a matter of tweaking how you’re already speaking to yourself. When you hear that inner voice critiquing your ability, think: how can I turn this statement (the negative talk) into a question? If the negative talk says, “You don’t have the skills to get a high paying job,” ask yourself “How can I get the skills?”
It’s also ok if your brain’s answer includes something like “This will be really hard.” This approach isn’t a short-cut to getting to what you want. It’s a means of retooling your brain to look for other possible outcomes than “I can’t. ”The answer might mean a lot of work. But at least now you’ll know that it’s possible that you can.