Are you lying to yourself?

If you use affirmations or a wellness vision, you’re familiar with the recommendation they be positive and in the present tense. For example, instead of “I don’t eat junk food” you’d say “I make healthy food choices.” Or, instead of “I will meditate daily” you’d say “I make meditation a daily habit.”

Learning this many years ago I trusted the process, but part of me wondered if it was hooey. Had someone conjured this up to sell books on positive affirmations? Then there were my clients…to them it felt like they were lying to themselves. Right?

Six years ago, while reading a required psychology text at Fuller, I was convinced of the use of positive over negative. It has to do with the way our right v. left brain processes things. (Please, don’t ask for more details than that – I swear I read it and had an “ah ha” moment, but that’s the extent of what I retained on that particular point!)

Then early this year I read Dan Pink’s book, When. In it he discussed strong and weak future languages. What’s the difference? If asked when you plan to exercise, your response would differ as follows:

  • Strong future language: I will go to the gym tomorrow.
  • Weak future language: I go to the gym tomorrow.

It’s a tiny distinction. A strong future language differentiates between the present and the future; a weak future language does not. Why does that matter?

According to research by economist M. Keith Chen, those who speak using weak future language (like Mandarin) are more likely to save money, exercise regularly, avoid smoking, and less likely to be obese than those who use strong future languages (like English).

Chen notes the use of language may reflect deeper differences that drive an individual’s behavior rather than actually causing the behavior. Either way, those of us in English speaking countries are at a disadvantage: in separating the present from the future we are less likely to engage in positive behaviors geared towards a future that seems far away.

Photo by Sasha • Stories on Unsplash

Our ways of thinking and speaking are ingrained and affect our future success, whether tomorrow or in ten years.

Start by noticing how you speak, especially about behaviors you want to encourage in yourself. Whether you use a wellness vision, set goals regularly or simply commit to take certain actions, think about how to state them positively and in the present tense.

If you’re like some of my clients who feel like it’s making a false statement, add the prefix “I’m moving toward (name your desired habit).”

I don’t expect a change in our use of language but being aware of it lets those of us who use strong future language to focus on our intentions in ways that may encourage positive action.

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