Everybody knows that black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking gets us into trouble. Beliefs like, “You’re either with us or against us” are not only inaccurate, but can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Not because they’re true (they aren’t), but because the belief blinds you to alternatives that are right in front of you.
“In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” and I’ll show you a simple trick that’s pretty good at bringing things back into your field of vision.
The trick? Take hard-edged, absolute statements like “I can’t,” or “always,” or “never,” and loosen them up:
Turn “I Can’t” Into “I Haven’t Yet”
Often people remember this one when talking to children. The child says, “I can’t ride a bike,” and the adult replies, “Not yet.”
“Not yet” is a magical phrase, from a hypnotist’s point of view, because it admits that the future might be different from the past. No guarantees, but it emphasizes the possibility.
“I can’t” implies a double-barreled message of doom: “I’ll never be able to” and, “Because I’m defective.” Saying “I can’t” is like a voodoo curse you use on yourself.
There are some variants that all mean the same thing. In addition to “yet,” there’s also “so far” and “up to now,” to name just a few.
Let’s try a couple of examples:
- “I can’t lose weight” or “diets don’t work for me” become, “Diets haven’t worked for me yet.”
- “I can’t learn algebra” becomes, “I haven’t learned algebra yet.”
You get the idea. One form slams the door on the idea of progress, while the other invites exploration into how to make things better.
You can see how a child, not knowing where to start, might say sadly, “I can’t ride a bike.” Their actual desire, “I want to ride bikes” isn’t even stated: it’s only implied. So behind every “I can’t” statement is a wish waiting, one which might come true if stated clearly.
By the way, declaring impossibility by saying “I can’t” can be very useful! Suppose someone’s throwing a party that you don’t want to attend. Saying, “I can’t” instead of “Eww! I don’t want to!” is a little white lie that lets them down gently.
This implies a pair of rules:
- Say, “I can’t” when you mean, “I won’t.”
- Say, “I wonder if I can” when you want to but don’t see the way forward.
In sessions with clients, I use hypnosis and work with I-can’t beliefs from multiple angles, but you’d be surprised how much difference it makes to train yourself to talk about problems and difficulties in a way that leaves the door open to solutions, starting with simple concepts like this one. There’s a world of difference between “I can’t” and “Maybe, just maybe, I can. I wonder how?”
Never Say Never Again. Mostly.
Absolute statements with “always” and “never” can act as mental blinders. Sure, sometimes they’re just dramatic exaggerations. Sometimes they’re even true. But often they reflect a limiting belief, like those I-can’t beliefs. Repeating a negative belief is like an anti-affirmation. It’s a way of jinxing yourself. Don’t do that.
I’ve heard people claim that black-and-white thinking lets our minds conserve limited brainpower for more important things. But I don’t believe it. We conserve brainpower in much more elegant ways, mostly unconsciously. For example, everyone knows that, while all pennies are worth exactly a penny when used in change, some are worth more to collectors. Do people simplify their lives with the black-and-white simplification that pennies are all the same? No, they do something much more elegant than that. Without distorting the situation, they behave in a way that works for them. It depends mostly on how interested they are in coin collecting and whether they enjoy the treasure-hunting aspect. All of which is very sensible and doesn’t require black-and-white thinking.
No, these black-and-white, always/never beliefs seem tailor-made for creating conflict and failure.Their very structure makes alternatives vanish by denying that there can be exceptions.
As with I-can’t statements, the first step is to change the form by rewording the statement. Just dropping the “always” works pretty well: “You’re always late” becomes, “You’re late.” Similarly, dropping the “never” works pretty well: “You never do the dishes” becomes, “You didn’t do the dishes.” In both cases, you can add “again” to the end of the sentence if you want to emphasize that this isn’t the first time.
Of course, replacing “always” with “usually,” “almost always,” etc. works fine, as does replacing “never” with “hardly ever,” “rarely,” “almost never,” and so on.
Using the Past Tense
This is an old hypnosis trick: shoving the issue into the past tense to build in the assumption that change is in the air. It breaks the assumption that next time will be the same as last time. I’ve already done this in one example: “You didn’t do the dishes” vs. “You never do the dishes.”
For example, if a student fails an Algebra class, saying, “I’m bad at math,” that’s just a wild guess. Lots of people bounce off math classes. Why? Because they’re really hard! I often found that I had to spend more time and effort on a single math class than the rest of my classes put together. And I flunked my first Calculus class and had to take it again. I didn’t say, “I’m bad a math.” I said, “That was harder than I thought.” When I took it again, I knew what I was in for, and did fine.
In hypnosis, one of the most powerful things I can have clients do is visualize how things will be different once they’ve succeeded. People are good at getting where they want to go if they’ve already had a glimpse of their destination. Otherwise, they often make the mistake of assuming the future will be the same as the past. For example, one failed Calculus class after another. But visualizing the goal (doing cool engineering design, for example) reminds you on multiple levels what you’re working towards. “Well, I’d better take that class again, and work every single problem in the book if that’s what it takes.”
I’m told that the Boston Marathon has people drop out all along the course, starting almost at the starting line, and continuing … until the finish line comes into view. Once you can see the finish line, you finish.
So the two tasks are:
- Let yourself see the finish line from the very start.
The linguistic tricks I’ve described here will help with both, simply by preventing you from jinxing yourself with negative habits of thought.