Six years ago, I went to a Women’s Conference, and I vividly remember a speaker talking about Positive Imagery. To illustrate the power of Positive Imagery, she said, “what happens when you hand a child a glass of milk and say, ‘don’t spill your milk’?”
You know what happens — almost always, the milk gets spilled. She said there is a neurological reason for this — the brain can picture the image of “spill the milk” and we subconsciously will do whatever the image is in the statement.
Her suggestion in this example is to give a positive image, such as, “hold tight to your milk.” Because in that statement, you’re not even suggesting the possibility of spilling the milk.
I heard this speech at a time in my life when my daughter was two and spilled her milk at the dinner table EVERY SINGLE NIGHT (we literally had to refinish the table because it got warped from all the spills). This example really resonated with me, and raising a clumsy toddler, I totally latched onto this parenting technique.
Instead of, “don’t fall”, I’d say, “watch where you’re going — step around that hole”. Instead of “don’t drip ketchup on your shirt,” I’d say, “hold your burger over your plate so that it will drip on the plate.” When teaching them how to ride a bike, I’d say “steer straight and pedal fast,” instead of saying, “if you don’t get enough speed you’ll fall.”
It truly works wonders.
As my kids have grown older (they’re now 8 and 5), I have found this technique to work great as I teach them new skills. Take skiing for example… One day, my daughter and I got on a hill at Mt. Rose that was a bit steeper than she was used to, and it was much icier than expected. She fell, slid a few feet, and immediately was consumed by fear. She was paralyzed by her fear and started crying. Her body went limp, and if you’re a skier, you know that is NOT a wise thing to do when on a steep icy hill. She needed to have her wits about her.
I walked her through some positive imagery. It started with, “you need to stop crying, as your brain won’t work when you’re crying.” As soon as she calmed down a bit, I had her picture exactly what she needed to do. “You’re going to focus on digging in the edges of your skis, you’re going to move forward a few feet, and then use that speed to make your turn.” I told her to sit there and picture it. I drew an “x” on the snow where she should make her turn.
“I can’t!” She wailed. Those are two words I absolutely don’t permit my kids to say. I reminded her that her brain is listening to her, and if she SAYS she can’t, then her brain will believe her, and she absolutely won’t be able to do the task at hand. So I turned the focus on to what she was going to do. As I coached her through this situation, I consciously knew I needed to keep her mind away from what she feared could happen, which was falling in her attempt and then sliding all the way to the bottom of the hill. If she focused on what she feared could happen, her brain would likely make sure that fear came to fruition. I made sure she focused on what her body needed to do next — one step at a time, starting with that “x” in the snow.
We made it down that hill. It wasn’t easy, but I’m sure that the power of positive imagery was what helped her conquer her fear that day. Later that same season, she skied from the top of Mammoth all the way down without hesitation.
The same method has worked with homework for my kids. As soon as I hear those two dreaded words of, “I can’t!”, I will remind them that if they say those words, they most surely won’t be able to do the work. We shift the conversation towards picturing how they can take one step at a time to accomplish the task, and we are able to rise above the pit of homework despair.
Positive Imagery isn’t just for kids. Once you’re aware that your brain will pick up on negative images and thoughts and will often see those through to fruition, you can manage the way you picture and approach challenges. Following my husband around mountains on skis, I often get into very hairy situations. There was one time where I was on a very steep pitch, and the only line out of my position was to ski directly over an area that had iced over so much that the ice was actually blue. I stood there consciously slowing my breath, and I did not stare at that ice patch that could totally trip me up and send me flailing down the mountain. Nope, I focused on the fluffy white snow just past that ice patch, and pictured exactly where I’d be turning once I got there. It worked. This technique has worked for me more times than I can count.
So stop telling yourself I can’t lose weight… I’ll never find a job… I can’t manage my money. Think about your challenges in a positive light with the end result that you desire. Instead of focusing on losing weight, focus on what you can GAIN by getting healthier. Instead of having a goal to get out of debt, think about what having savings will offer you — security, vacations, and a better credit score.
When you hear your kids, yourself, or even your girlfriends struggling with a task and going down that rat hole of all of the reasons they CAN’T do something, remember the spilled milk example. Help turn the conversation and the focus towards what CAN be done, and HOW it will get done. It really helps to get a picture in your head of what the end result will look like.
Your brain is listening after all.