Be Careful What You Tell Your Brain
Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW
You are not only what you eat, but what you tell yourself. Nearly every week, a client comes into my office and tells me how “overwhelmed” she is. She’ll say it multiple times: “I’m so overwhelmed” or “I’m really overwhelmed” or “Boy, am I overwhelmed.” Although I encourage clients to connect to their emotions, I don’t encourage them to keep reminding themselves of feelings they don’t need to be having.
Our brain more or less understands only commands and translates more complex ideas into them. It hears our self-talk and does what it thinks we want it to do. So that, “I’m overwhelmed” tells the brain to feel pressured, “I’m miserable” instructs it to be unhappy, and “I’m scared” signals it to feel fear. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what you want to be telling your brain when you’re overwhelmed, miserable or scared.
Try an experiment. Set a timer and for one minute repeat to yourself that you’re overwhelmed, scared, miserable, sad, fatigued, or some other “negative” emotion. Make sure to say it as if you really mean it, the way you would when you actually feel it. When one minute is up, check your feelings. Notice your bodily sensations and posture and what you’re thinking about. Generally, people end up feeling what they’ve been saying. If you don’t, continue the experiment for five minutes and check in with yourself again.
Then, follow this procedure and this time tell yourself that you’re happy, proud, joyful or glad to be alive. Again, notice your bodily sensations and emotional state. Extend the experiment to five minutes if needed and do another assessment.
I’m not telling you to deny your emotions. You just want to be careful that you’re not causing an emotion to happen because you keep repeating that you feel a certain way. Obviously, if you’re feeling hurt or mistreated by someone, you don’t want to brush that off or turn it into a positive feeling because this is crucial information for your happiness. But, there’s a big difference between self-talk that allows you to explore, say, feeling hurt, betrayed, or invalidated and directing your brain to make you unhappy.
If you tend toward focusing on negative emotions, just be careful what you tell yourself and aren’t reinforcing them. Rather, tell yourself how you wish to be feeling, not how you currently feel. Turn “I can’t stand this” into “I can manage this” and “I’m overwhelmed” into “I’m really busy.” There’s even a big difference between calling yourself “overwhelmed” and “busy.” Use the past tense to describe how you don’t want to feel—“I’ve been unhappy”—and the present tense to direct your brain how you wish to feel—“I’m feeling better and better every day.”
Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW, is an international, award-winning author of seven books on eating, weight and body image, a psychotherapist with 30 years of experience, a health educator, and a popular blogger. Her expertise is in eating psychology and helping over-eaters and binge-eaters improve their self-care and become “normal” eaters. She lives and practices in Sarasota, Florida.
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