Five Damaging Thoughts to Get Rid Of
I have a confession to make: I am terrible about flossing my teeth.
Due to helpful Twitter tips from James Clear, author of Atomic Habits (which I have yet to actually read), I’ve gotten a lot better with flossing in the past few months. Clear suggests things such as:
- Start small: I floss at least one tooth every day. Almost 100% of the time, once I start, I keep going. But the commitment is to start.
- Make it easy: I hate floss. I hate the feeling of it wrapped around my fingers. So, I started using floss sticks. Problem solved.
- Give yourself a visual cue: I used to keep my floss sticks in a drawer. I started putting a handful of them in an empty soap dish on the bathroom counter and that helps me remember.
- Attach a new habit to an existing one: I’m already great about brushing my teeth! So brushing is my cue to floss.
These are great. But the most profound way to change to habit, according to Clear, is to adjust your identity. How you see yourself drives your behavior. You’ll always struggle to consistently exercise if “exercise hater” is part of your identity. You’ll never get your drinking under control if “drinker” is part of your identity. It’s really hard to get up early if “I’m someone who sleeps late” is how you think of or describe yourself. It’s like trying to change a leopard’s spots. No matter how much willpower you have, efforts to change a habit (let alone your life) will fail if your new behaviors don’t align with your sense of self.
The stories you tell yourself about yourself affect much deeper and greater behavior patterns than whether or not you floss. They affect how you spend your time, who you spend it with, what career path you choose, and whether or not you go for that promotion. They affect how you communicate, the impressions you make, and your relationships.
Here’s the good news: You can change the stories you tell yourself to ones that benefit you. First, you have to listen. Most of the time you aren’t even aware of the negative soundtrack playing on repeat in the background of your mind. Once you’re aware, change the track. Find a new story that matches the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to live.
The following five stories are some of the most common; you have probably told yourself these stories at some point. I certainly have. As you read through them, think about where each one shows up in your life and what you’d like to replace it with.
“I’m not good enough.”
If you’ve been reading my blogs for awhile, you probably already know this is one of my favorite stories to tell myself. If it’s one of yours, too, you’ll recognize the symptoms: approval addiction, perfectionism, shame, boundary issues, and fakery. You feel like you can never do anything right and any time you fall short of your unrealistic expectations, you think, “See? There’s the proof!” Sometimes, it means no one else lives up your expectations either, and you can get super judgmental. It’s not great for your mental health OR your relationships.
New, better stories: I am enough. I am doing my best. I approve of myself.
You ARE enough. Just how you are.
Think hard about this one. We live in a can-do culture, so you may not be willing to admit to this story right off the bat. Yet if you’re honest, you’ll probably see places where “I can’t” has crept in to your inner vocabulary. Can’t win. Can’t help it. Can’t change. Can’t do anything about it. Can’t handle it. Can’t risk it. Can’t take it. Can’t get over it. Can’t afford it. Can’t decide.
This points to a sense of powerlessness or inadequacy. And yes, of course, there are limits in life. But you owe it to yourself to make sure they aren’t self-imposed. Don’t let “I can’t” absolve you of your right and responsibility to live the life you want.
New, better stories: I am capable. I am in charge of my own life. I can handle whatever comes my way.
Of course, the truth is whatever you tell yourself.
Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.
“I never win.”
“I never win” or “I never get ahead” stories expect and look for setbacks. And again, yes, setbacks happen. But if your identity includes these ideas, you will sabotage yourself any time it looks like things might be going well. You will fear taking risks, because they “never work out.” You’ll ignore your wins and magnify your losses in order to confirm your view of yourself. It’s really hard to be happy with this mindset.
New, better stories: Anything is possible. I am open to good things that come my way. I am grateful for the good in my life.
You can’t predict the future, except through a self-fulfilling prophecy. Stop predicting loss. Look for abundance.
“I am my anger.”
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with anger or any other emotion. But you can take your legitimate anger or grief or guilt and create an identity out of it. I am my anger. I am my grief. I am my guilt. It can be very hard to let go of these deeply embedded emotional responses, because they get conflated with the experience that caused them.
“If I stop being angry, that means the abuse was okay.”
“If I let go of my guilt, no one will believe I’m sorry.”
“If I feel anything other than grief, I don’t care enough.”
Yet having such a narrow framework severely impedes your ability to enjoy life, connect with other human beings, take action, or even know your own multifaceted self. It hurts you.
New, better stories: I am more than this feeling. I release my anger. I am at peace.
There’s a lot more to you than any single experience or feeling.
If you think no one loves you or that no one could love you, it’s a sign that you don’t love yourself. It’s really hard to see and accept love or support or kindness from others when you don’t love or support or show kindness to yourself. If you take criticism to heart but deflect and diminish praise or compliments, if you operate from fear or scarcity in relationships, if you expect people to hurt you, or if you find yourself stuck in unsupportive or abusive relationships, you may have unwittingly woven this story into your identity. Don’t worry. You can change it!
New, better stories: I love myself. I am worth loving. I am willing to love and be loved.
Find a mirror. Look yourself in the eye and say out loud, “I am worth loving.” It’s the truth.
Change is always possible, whether you’re changing a small habit or the entire trajectory of your life. In both cases, change starts within, with how you see yourself and how you speak to yourself.
If you’re going to tell yourself stories—and you are, you can’t help it—you might as well tell good ones! The words that you speak to yourself shape your life. When you change your stories, you change your life.