Getting healthy is all about action, right? Move more, meditate, and eat better. But achieving your goals isn’t dictated entirely by your behavior. It’s influenced by your perspective, attitudes, confidence and commitment. And contrary to what you may think, these can be manipulated by something you’re probably not thinking too much about – your language.
The words we use can have a remarkable effect on behavior.
For example, clinical studies have shown that having patients engage in “change talk”, or talk that makes the case for why they should change, is associated with positive results that aren’t as apparent when someone else makes the case for them.
Take out the clinical setting and you’ve got a familiar scenario. Think back to the last time your mother, spouse, sister, friends, or colleagues lectured you about taking care of yourself, dumping that unhealthy relationship, or making that jump to a less stressful job. On a good day, you might call it annoying. And it probably has nothing on you making those same arguments to yourself.
Put simply – your words have power, and this can be leveraged to give your goals a needed boost. Below are three language tweaks to help you reach that healthier version of you.
1. Switch from saying “I can’t” to “I don’t”
Goals often emerge in the form of wanting to break bad habits. Think: cutting out sugar, not drinking as much alcohol or not smoking those cigarettes. It’s about removing a behavior that was part of your identity, often tied to friendships, experiences, and your day-to-day routine.
When confronted with these once cherished items, we often utter the phrase “I can’t”.
Here’s a hypothetical example. You want to stop eating dessert, and someone at a party offers you a delectable-looking slice of cheesecake. What do you find yourself saying?
“Oh, I am sorry, I can’t.”
Then comes the expression of resignation, like you are already tired of yourself and your annoying, restrictive ways.
Think about what this statement communicates: that you want to eat the dessert, but aren’t allowed to do so. And at some point, it will get harder and harder to deny yourself whatever it is that you want. It’s no wonder that so many attempts at breaking bad habits fail. Because we think – and talk – as if we are still in the mode of being that person that wants to engage in the behavior that we’re trying to quit.
Now consider a different scenario. When offered the cheesecake, instead of saying, “I can’t,” this is your response.
“I’m sorry, I don’t eat dessert.”
Hear the difference? One is focused on what you’re doing (in this example, restraining yourself from the full-fat goodness of a piece of cheesecake), and the other is about who you are as a person. In this last scenario, you aren’t holding yourself back. You are just the type of person that doesn’t eat dessert.
Studies show that whereas “I can’t” feels restrictive, “I don’t” is empowering and reframes your behavior as being consistent with your identity and values.
Identify a bad habit you’re trying to break – such as cutting out sugary foods, late-night snacks, excessive video gaming, or substance use. Try reframing yourself as someone that doesn’t partake in these activities, rather than someone who can’t partake. See how it feels to reconsider your action in this way, and then work on using the words “I don’t” instead of “I can’t” when tempted by whatever it is that you are trying to quit.
2. Differentiate between what you “should do” versus what you “want” or “need” to do.
Now let’s consider that instead of trying to break a bad habit, you’re working to develop a new, healthy habit. In this scenario, you might speak in terms of what you “should” do. I should eat more vegetables. I should do more strength-training. I should take more time for myself. Etcetera. Etcetera.
“Should” doesn’t communicate a connection. It is rational, distant and may even convey reluctance and lack of desire. Something you “should do” is a behavior or action you would ideally do, in the best of circumstances, but maybe not now. In fact, probably not until way later or never. Because you just don’t care enough about it to put in the effort.
Contrast this with the phrase “I want to” or “I need to”. Studies show these words are associated with higher emotionality, which in this case signals a deeper connection to your goals and an urgency to pursue them.
When making goals, start to speak in terms of what you “want” or “need” to do, rather than what you “should” do. You may find that this brings your goals to the forefront. So instead of being something you’ll accomplish one day, you feel more motivated to pursue them now.
3. Use language that conveys a strong commitment to your goals
Whether it’s breaking a bad habit or developing a new healthy habit, commitment to your goals is crucial. Without commitment, you’ll find it easier to make up excuses or just let life get in the way of whatever it is that you want to accomplish.
How does this come out in language? People with a weak commitment to their goals may say they are “trying” to do something or “probably” will do something or even are just “thinking about” changing. Conversely, saying that you are “determined” or “dedicated” to changing your behavior resonates more strongly. The power of those words will likely influence not only the effort you put into pursuing your goals but how you navigate the inevitable challenges that you’ll face as you work towards a healthier lifestyle.
Use words of determination and dedication to convey your commitment to your goals. Don’t just say them in your head – say them out loud. The experience of verbalizing your commitment will help you feel more empowered, connected and resilient in the face of setbacks.
Featured photo credit: Eli DeFaria via unsplash.com
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