Language matters

Posted by Christie Johnson on

Hello and welcome to 2016! The silly season is over. The Christmas tree is packed away (or, in my case, rapidly browning and losing needles at an inconvenient rate). The party poppers have been popped. The leftovers have been eaten (except, perhaps, for half a dried-out fruit cake and some cheap Santa chocolates). You’ve finally caught up on some sleep. The excitement of the holidays is a fading memory as you sink back into the tedium of your daily routine – work, traffic, cooking, chores. Everything, it seems, is back to normal.

But is normal what you want? Are you happy for life to go on unchanged? What about those resolutions you made as you prepared to welcome in the new year? How many of them have fallen by the wayside in the first two weeks of January? Statistically a third of you have already given up, and a whopping 92% will fail to achieve your resolutions over the coming year. Ouch!

The good news is that you have the power to buck the trend! Even if the year hasn’t started quite as you had hoped, it’s never too late to get back on the wagon. There’s nothing magical about the first of January. Today is just as good a day to start making changes that will help you to LIVE.SUPERLATIVE in 2016! Especially if you make the right sort of changes!

There’s a good chance your New Year’s resolutions ran along familiar lines – eat better, exercise more, lose weight – but today I’d like to challenge you to make a different sort of resolution. Instead of (or as well as) deciding to change your actions, I’d like you to resolve to make a few simple but powerful changes to your use of language.

No, this is not the swearing police, nor am I asking you to take grammar lessons (although fewer feral apostrophes in the world would be a great blessing). I’m talking about changing the way you talk to and about yourself.

Language is powerful. The words you use, the thoughts you entertain – these are the things that shape your reality. So if you want change – real, lasting, meaningful change – then you need to change the language you use, both internally and externally.

Now there are many books, blogs, and internet memes that discuss the power of positive thinking. It is not my intention to add to this collection with another post full of airy-fairy platitudes. Instead I’d like to suggest a couple of simple language substitutions that can make a real difference to your ability to reach your goals in the coming year.

“I don’t...” vs “I shouldn’t...” or “I can’t...”

This is one of my favourites, and is especially powerful when applied to actions you know are bad for you but which you’re having a hard time avoiding. Consider the following situation: you’re at a party, and your host offers you something to eat or drink that is not in line with your current health goals. If you think/say “I shouldn’t…” you’re immediately setting yourself up for failure. Firstly you’re making yourself choose in the moment, thereby leaving the door open to finish the thought with “…but I will anyway.” Secondly you’re all but asking your host to press you with “Come on, it won’t hurt just this once.”

Similarly, if you respond with “I can’t…” you immediately start to feel deprived. It’s so unfair that everyone else can treat themselves but you’re not allowed to! Depending on the strength of your reason for avoidance (e.g. allergy vs on a diet) this can cause you to indulge as an act of rebellion, or at the very least leave you feeling angry and resentful.

However, if your response is “Sorry, I don’t eat/drink that...” you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to decline. You have removed the element of uncertainty – the need to decide in the moment whether or not to indulge – thus reducing the drain on your willpower. Your firm refusal is less likely to be questioned by your host. Importantly, you retain power over the situation – you’re not a victim of someone else’s determination of what is “good” or “bad”, but instead you’re making your own decisions about what you really want. Finally you are building an identity that will slowly but surely move you towards your goals.

Unhealthy food is a classic example, but this strategy can work for any sort of destructive behavior. The more you see yourself as no longer being the sort of person who does that, the easier it is to avoid. A bonus is that others will start to see you that way too, making them less likely to pressure you to indulge. It is amazing how one little change in phraseology can make such a difference!

“Training” vs “exercising”

This one is no secret in the CrossFit world. When I first started CrossFit I was confused by the fact that some of my box-mates referred to the classes as “training sessions”. Like many people I was used to going to the gym in order to “get some exercise”, the ultimate aim of which was simply to burn fat and/or “earn” my food intake. I enjoyed my CrossFit classes, but they were really just one form of exercise – no different from taking a dance class or going for a bike ride. In fact, it felt hard to justify the cost of a membership when I could just as easily exercise for free by going for a run or throwing an exercise DVD in the player. So for 9 months I simply bought 10-class passes and attended approximately once a week.

Eventually my coach spoke to me (in the nicest way possible) about coming more regularly. She said she was perfectly happy for me to continue the status quo, but that as a coach she really liked to see her clients improving, and to do that I needed to “train” more often. This was a bit of a revelation. Suddenly it wasn’t enough to simply turn up and burn a few calories. Improvement was expected.

I decided to step up to the challenge. I stopped “exercising” and started “training”. I attended more regularly, and worked harder in class. As is usually the case for beginners, improvement came quickly. Numbers went up. Times came down. Skills developed. I began to set goals – lifting a certain weight, mastering a new skill. I was no longer just burning calories. The number on the scale ceased to matter (yet my body had never looked better). It was life-changing!

Exercise is something we do because we feel we should. The purpose is usually to burn calories – maybe to lose weight or simply assuage our food guilt. It is easy to justify skipping an exercise session, especially if we are tired, because we can “make up” for those calories simply by forgoing dessert. Exercise is usually done alone, or with minimal accountability.

Training is something we do because we want to. We train towards a goal. We expect measurable improvement. We show up because we want to get better. We often have a coach or team-mates to push us and help us stay accountable.

In 2016 I challenge you to stop exercising and start training. You’ll be amazed at how much you can achieve (and you’ll still be burning calories)!

There are many more well-known examples of simple language swaps that can make a big difference. Here are just a couple:

“Strong” vs “skinny”

Now this is a tricky one. On one hand, CrossFit has done amazing things to promote strong, healthy women as role models. On the other, we must be careful not to add another burden to the body shame many women (and some men) already feel (e.g. “Now it’s not enough to be slim – I have to be slim AND strong”). But in general I think it is helpful to swap “I want to be skinny” for “I want to be strong” in your internal dialogue. If nothing else, the process of “getting strong” is generally a healthier one than the process of “getting skinny” (if you are not naturally that way). Plus, training for strength will (if combined with sensible eating) help you shed unnecessary body fat.

“I get to…” vs “I have to…”

This one’s an oldie but a goodie! Feeling overly busy? Stressed? Overwhelmed? I’ve personally found this to be a very helpful mental swap. It’s a great way to remind yourself to be grateful for all the things that you can do. Many people would love to have that job you’re so stressed about, those kids that are driving you crazy, that house you have to clean, those clothes you have to wash, that food you have to buy and cook. So next time your to-do list is getting you down, try replacing “I have to…” with “I get to…” and see how that changes your perspective!

So as you review your New Year’s resolutions, I challenge you to resolve to change the language of your internal (and external) dialogue. You won’t be disappointed. And you might just find it helps some of your other resolutions stick, too!

Do you have a favourite language swap that has helped you? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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