Change your language! – how altering language use can boost positive habit formation

Can changing language help with habit formation, like putting running shoes like these near your bed?
New Orleans, Louisiana

Last week on the blog I wrote about how the Alexander Technique is concerned with changing habits. This week I particularly want to examine the way the language we use around habits can make or break our attempts to makle positive change.

Habit formation as psychology

I’ve written before about how our language use can lead us astray, but I think it’s worth discussing again, because I think it is hard to underestimate the way our self-talk can affect us. Adam Alter wrote about the power of language in his book Irresistible:

There is one subtle psychological lever that seems to hasten habit formation: the language you use to describe your behaviour. Suppose you were trying to avoid using Facebook. Each time you’re tempted, you can either tell yourself ‘I can’t use Facebook’, or you can tell yourself ‘I don’t use Facebook’. They sound similar, and the difference may seem trivial, but it isn’t. ‘I can’t’ wrests control from you and gives it to an unnamed outside agent. It’s disempowering … In contrast, ‘I don’t’ is an empowering declaration that this isn’t something you do. It gives the power to you and signals that you’re a particular kind of person – the kind of person who, on principle, doesn’t use Facebook.[1]

The initial language use here – ‘can’t’ –  is one of submission. In Alter’s example, the person who says they ‘can’t use Facebook’ makes it sound as though they secretly want to, but someone (a teacher or other authority figure) has ordered them to stop. It’s the same language a schoolkid uses when they say the teacher has told them they can’t draw on the desk or shout in the classroom.

The substitution of ‘don’t’ for ‘can’t’, according to Alter, gives agency. Rather than the habitual behaviour being a thing requiring outside intervention, it becomes a matter of choice and identity. Using social media is something one chooses to do if it fits one’s self image. Habit formation becomes a position of power and choice.

Habit as a noun – and a point of pride

So far, so good. We can get on board with the idea that language choice matters, even in our self talk. There is another particular point of language use, however, that worries me whenever I hear it, and it relates very much to ownership and pride.

When I work with students, I very often hear phrases like: ‘I find myself slumping a lot – that’s my habit,’ or, ‘I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders.’ And often there’s an element of pride (or at least of ownership) lurking in the words. I want to take a moment to examine these sentences and tease out why they are examples of language use that we should beware.

Let’s start off with that last example: “I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders.” It always makes me imagine a person weighed down with beanbags over each shoulder, each beanbag labelled “Warning – Tension.” If a student says “I carry tension” they have used a verb, and they have used it actively rather than passively – it would make a world of difference to say, “I am weighed down by tension on my shoulders.” The student carries it; they have chosen to carry it; it is theirs. Nobody wants to admit to making a bad choice, so the student does the only apparently reasonable thing. They take it as a point of identity and even pride.

Similarly, I notice if a student makes a statement like, “that’s my habit.” Again, there’s that hint of pride in something owned: my habit. In this case, ‘habit’ is a noun. It is no different to a chair, or a table, or a book. “That’s my chair; that’s my table; that’s my book; that’s my habit.” It sounds like a physical thing – an object with a corporeal existence that my student can pick up and put down, just like the chair or the book. But they can’t. And because it isn’t physical, you can’t own it. 

A reminder of what a habit is

A habit isn’t something with a physical existence. It is a behavioural shortcut. Habit formation happens because we choose to make a particular behaviour happen, and we do it so frequently that we don’t even necessarily notice that we are doing it.

And as we saw last week, FM Alexander firmly believed that the application of reasoned thought could break unwanted habitual behaviour:

when real conscious control has been obtained a “habit” need never become fixed. It is not truly a habit at all, but an order or series of orders given to the subordinate controls of the body, which orders will be carried out until countermanded[2]

The first step to habit formation

The first steps, then, towards positive habit formation are not what most people think – I am not advocating practice, or timetables, or putting your running shoes by your bed so you are more likely to pick them up. What I am actually asking you to do is:

  1. Watch you language use. Do you fall into any of the linguistic traps I’ve discussed here? If you do, make an effort to change the script in your self-talk.
  2. Apply some reasoned thought. Before you jump to procedures, think about what it is you actually want to do, and have a good reason for why you want to do it. Then you are in a better position to choose the tools and techniques that will most help you to attain the goals you desire.

[1] Alter, A., Irresistible, London, Bodley Head, 2017, p.272.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.58.

Last week on the blog I wrote about how the Alexander Technique is concerned with changing habits. This week I particularly want to examine the way the language we use around habits can make or break our attempts to makle positive change.

Habit formation as psychology

I’ve written before about how our language use can lead us astray, but I think it’s worth discussing again, because I think it is hard to underestimate the way our self-talk can affect us. Adam Alter wrote about the power of language in his book Irresistible:

There is one subtle psychological lever that seems to hasten habit formation: the language you use to describe your behaviour. Suppose you were trying to avoid using Facebook. Each time you’re tempted, you can either tell yourself ‘I can’t use Facebook’, or you can tell yourself ‘I don’t use Facebook’. They sound similar, and the difference may seem trivial, but it isn’t. ‘I can’t’ wrests control from you and gives it to an unnamed outside agent. It’s disempowering … In contrast, ‘I don’t’ is an empowering declaration that this isn’t something you do. It gives the power to you and signals that you’re a particular kind of person – the kind of person who, on principle, doesn’t use Facebook.[1]

The initial language use here – ‘can’t’ –  is one of submission. In Alter’s example, the person who says they ‘can’t use Facebook’ makes it sound as though they secretly want to, but someone (a teacher or other authority figure) has ordered them to stop. It’s the same language a schoolkid uses when they say the teacher has told them they can’t draw on the desk or shout in the classroom.

The substitution of ‘don’t’ for ‘can’t’, according to Alter, gives agency. Rather than the habitual behaviour being a thing requiring outside intervention, it becomes a matter of choice and identity. Using social media is something one chooses to do if it fits one’s self image. Habit formation becomes a position of power and choice.

Habit as a noun – and a point of pride

So far, so good. We can get on board with the idea that language choice matters, even in our self talk. There is another particular point of language use, however, that worries me whenever I hear it, and it relates very much to ownership and pride.

When I work with students, I very often hear phrases like: ‘I find myself slumping a lot – that’s my habit,’ or, ‘I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders.’ And often there’s an element of pride (or at least of ownership) lurking in the words. I want to take a moment to examine these sentences and tease out why they are examples of language use that we should beware.

Let’s start off with that last example: “I carry a lot of tension in my shoulders.” It always makes me imagine a person weighed down with beanbags over each shoulder, each beanbag labelled “Warning – Tension.” If a student says “I carry tension” they have used a verb, and they have used it actively rather than passively – it would make a world of difference to say, “I am weighed down by tension on my shoulders.” The student carries it; they have chosen to carry it; it is theirs. Nobody wants to admit to making a bad choice, so the student does the only apparently reasonable thing. They take it as a point of identity and even pride.

Similarly, I notice if a student makes a statement like, “that’s my habit.” Again, there’s that hint of pride in something owned: my habit. In this case, ‘habit’ is a noun. It is no different to a chair, or a table, or a book. “That’s my chair; that’s my table; that’s my book; that’s my habit.” It sounds like a physical thing – an object with a corporeal existence that my student can pick up and put down, just like the chair or the book. But they can’t. And because it isn’t physical, you can’t own it. 

A reminder of what a habit is

A habit isn’t something with a physical existence. It is a behavioural shortcut. Habit formation happens because we choose to make a particular behaviour happen, and we do it so frequently that we don’t even necessarily notice that we are doing it.

And as we saw last week, FM Alexander firmly believed that the application of reasoned thought could break unwanted habitual behaviour:

when real conscious control has been obtained a “habit” need never become fixed. It is not truly a habit at all, but an order or series of orders given to the subordinate controls of the body, which orders will be carried out until countermanded[2]

The first step to habit formation

The first steps, then, towards positive habit formation are not what most people think – I am not advocating practice, or timetables, or putting your running shoes by your bed so you are more likely to pick them up. What I am actually asking you to do is:

1 Watch you language use. Do you fall into any of the linguistic traps I’ve discussed here? If you do, make an effort to change the script in your self-talk.

2 Apply some reasoned thought. Before you jump to procedures, think about what it is you actually want to do, and have a good reason for why you want to do it. Then you are in a better position to choose the tools and techniques that will most help you to attain the goals you desire.

[1] Alter, A., Irresistible, London, Bodley Head, 2017, p.272.

[2] Alexander, F.M., Man’s Supreme Inheritance, NY, Irdeat, 1997, p.58.

Image of shoes by Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States – run, CC BY-SA 2.0

Mind your language use: the way you describe a thing changes it.

Has it ever occurred to you how important language use is to the way we describe the world? The words we use to describe a phenomenon don’t only describe it; in some sense, they also author it. The word usage gives the listener a sense of what you think about the phenomenon (and also what they should think about it). In a very real sense, the way we describe something creates it – it makes it in our psycho-physical image.

This being so, we can sometimes create problems for ourselves by our language use. We can use unhelpful word choices that skew our ability to perceive something for what it really is.

I want to give you two examples of words that I’ve heard to describe physical movement recently, and I want to contrast them with a different word to describe the same physical action. I want you to see how we can give away responsibility for our flaws by the language we use, and that by changing the words we can take back ownership; if we reclaim ownership of our problems, we also reclaim control of the solution.

Collapse

Suppose a student says to me that she ‘collapses’ in the mid-torso when she sits. What sense does this give? What other things ‘collapse’? The language used makes me think of buildings, or of towers of children’s building blocks. These things can collapse – if the underlying structure isn’t strong, or if a force acts upon it in the right way, then the tower falls.

But is the human torso really like that?

Flop

What if my student said that she ‘flops’ at a point in her mid-torso. Where else do you hear the word ‘flop’? I think of flopping onto a bed or into a sofa. Again, there’s this sense of things falling, of being acted upon by gravity.

In both cases, there is a sense of a lack of a controlling force. A tower of bricks doesn’t have a guiding intelligence. When I flop into bed, I am so tired I am barely awake – there’s very little guiding intelligence going on there, either!

Crunch

But what if my student decided to describe the folding in her mid-torso as a ‘crunch’? Does that make a difference?

Crunched up paper. Crunch is a better term for what happens to muscles than flop. Language use is important.

To my mind, yes. When I hear ‘crunch’, I think of two things. First of all, I think of the act of squeezing a piece of paper into a ball. The other thing that I think of is abdominal crunches – the exercise that trainers get you to do to improve the tone of your abdominal muscles.

You’ll notice that both of these images involve physical work, and they both involve something being contracted. The paper is made to contract into a ball; the abdominal muscles contract because they are working.

If my student describes her mid-torso phenomenon as a ‘crunch’, she is using a word that implies physical effort, and implies a controlling force. The controlling force can decide not to crunch the paper or the abdominal muscle; the controlling force (the student’s brain) can decide not to ‘crunch’ her mid-torso. Not only is this description more active and take more responsibility for the action, it also fits better with what is actually happening anatomically.

Examine your language use

So today I invite you to examine your language use. What language do you use to describe your physical movements? Is it helpful language, and does it have a basis in fact/anatomy? Can you change the words you use so that you have a greater sense of control over the physical movement you are describing?

Learning to look at what we think, as we think it, is a tremendous skill. You may well find that you have more control over the quality and efficiency of the way you move than you previously thought.

Image courtesy of nunawwoofy at FreeDigitalPhotos.net