Change your story! – Kickstart positive change with a change of focus

Positive change is hard if you're trying hard not to think about something. It's like not thinking about this chocolate ice cream!

Last week I wrote about how we can make positive changes to our behaviour if we are mindful of the language that we use to describe ourselves and what we do. The language of our self-talk is important, and can bewitch us or lead us astray. This week I want to extend the idea, and suggest that making our stories about ourselves – and the instructions we give ourselves – effective and useful is also a key factor for positive change. Specifically, I want to warn against the concentration of our attention on the thing we’ve decided we mustn’t do. There is evidence that doing this impedes our progress towards positive change, and stops us from engaging in a more constructive thought process.

“I must not!”

Imagine a pianist. They come to an Alexander Technique teacher for a lesson, and are told that they are raising their shoulders as they begin to play. They keep their shoulders raised through the whole piece. The teacher helps them to experience what it is like to play without raising their shoulders. They go away from the lesson, determined not to raise their shoulders. “I must not raise my shoulders,” they think.

And that may be the first thought they have when they next sit at the piano to practice. “I must not raise my shoulders.” This leads very quickly to the thought, “Am I raising my shoulders?” and the temptation to check. And if the pianist checks, I can almost guarantee they will find their shoulders raised. But why?

Chocolate ice cream

Psychologist Adam Alter explains it by asking his readers to avoid thinking about chocolate ice cream. But each time they do, they have to wiggle a finger.

If you’re like me – and practically everyone else – you’ll wiggle your finger at least once or twice. The problem is baked into the task: how can you know whether you’re thinking about chocolate ice cream unless you repeatedly compare your thoughts to the one thought you’re not allowed to have?” [1]

Alter makes a key point about trying to suppress a thought: most of us want to check if we’re suppressing it, and if we check, we are unwittingly thinking about the very thing we are trying to suppress. It reminds me of a student I worked with once, who was troubled by hoarseness caused by muscular tension in the throat. Whenever I asked this student what they noticed, they would put back all the muscle tension around their throat and vocal region, and then proclaim that it felt the same as before!

So what’s going on here? Why does the “I must not approach” fail so spectacularly?

Positive change comes from a change in thinking

When I was first training as an Alexander Technique teacher, my trainer Don Weed often could be heard to say, “The opposite of a fault is the same fault.” He was articulating the idea that if you try to do the opposite of the original fault, you are still tied into the underlying thought processes and assumptions that underlie the original fault. It’s like being stuck in a ‘thought groove’. So my imaginary pianist who is busy thinking about not raising their shoulders is still caught in the ‘thought groove’ that focuses on shoulders. They aren’t thinking about the music, or about their arms as a whole. They aren’t thinking about their axial (head, spine and rib) structures, and how those might relate to the business of playing a piano.

This is why FM Alexander described his work as being about lifting one’s thinking out of the groove:

The brain becomes used to thinking in a certain way, it works in a groove, and when set in action, slides along the familiar, well-worn path; but when once it is lifted out of the groove, it is astonishing how easily it may be directed. At first it will have a tendency to return to its old manner of working by means of one mechanical unintelligent operation, but the groove soon fills, and although thereafter we may be able to use the old path if we choose, we are no longer bound to it.[2]

Questions to kickstart positive change

So, instead of just thinking about the things you shouldn’t or mustn’t be doing, how about this

  • Ask yourself, “What am I missing here?”
  • Look at the activity you’re engaged in. What do you actually need to do to carry out that activity?
  • Are you doing more than you need to?

Start with those questions, and see how you get on. Change your conception, and you give yourself a chance to escape your usual grooves and explore positive change.

[1] Alter, A., Irresistible, London, Bodley Head, 2017, p.266.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.67.

Picture by Poorna Shaji [CC BY-SA (]