How many times have you seen a sign that says “Don’t touch; wet paint” and wanted to touch the wet paint? How many times have you seen that sign, ignored it, and done the thing you’ve been explicitly told not to do?
If you’re anything like me, I’m guessing a lot! (But maybe I’m just a rebel like that.) Don’t think of a red tree. Did you think of the red tree? You thought of the tree, didn’t you? Even though I specifically told you not to think of a red tree…that’s what you did.
Weird, right? Maybe this seems funny. But it also touches on deeply rooted psychological forces that influence our everyday experience and our relationship with ourselves.
Be careful what you tell yourself
How many times have you said to yourself…“Don’t mess this up,” or “Don’t be an idiot,” or “I don’t want to fail”?
Psychologically, what do you think happens when you say these things? Your mind latches onto messing up, being an idiot, being a failure. The unconscious mind can’t handle the word “don’t.” The concept doesn’t compute. The math doesn’t make sense.
When you say “I don’t want to fail,” you’re giving your brain nearly infinite ideas to ponder over. Infinity minus one, to be precise. The one being “don’t fail.”
Not very good odds. Because your brain can’t possibly comprehend all of these possibilities, it focuses on the one thing you have given it: failing. You end up focusing on the one thing you didn’t want to focus on.
Change what you’re telling yourself
What would happen if you changed “I don’t want to fail” to “I want to succeed”?
It would be like changing “don’t think of a red tree” to “think of a red tree”. When you don’t want to think of a red tree, you end up thinking about a red tree because “infinity minus one” possibilities is too many to handle. You’re setting yourself up for failure. You’re directly undermining your intention.
On the other hand, when you want to think of a red tree, it’s easy to call it to mind. You choose to think of something you want. You choose to be specific over being abstract.
If you live your life saying “I don’t want”, thinking about all the things you don’t want, that’s exactly what you’ll end up with.
If you live your life saying “I want”, thinking about all the specific things you do want, that’s exactly what you’ll end up with.