When we think about “negative thinking” we think of statements like, “I’m a failure” or “I can never get anything right” but another type of negative thinking involves beliefs about your inherent capabilities, either due to personality or biological traits. Here are some common examples I have heard from people in our clinical weight loss program:
I am the type of person who hates exercise
I am uncoordinated
I hate vegetables
I’m not the athletic type
I have the fat gene
I have a naturally huge appetite
I can’t run, because I’m not a runner
I have a slow metabolism
Relate to any of these? These statements reflect beliefs about who you are. The person who says, “I hate exercise” believes that they just aren’t the type of person who likes to be active, could never love a physical activity, and therefore will always find exercise an unpleasant chore. These are “dead end” beliefs because they rob you of the opportunity to change. The belief implies “this is who I am.” You can’t change who you are….right?
In this post I challenge you to recognize any “dead end” beliefs and to understand the enormous impact they may be having on your progress.
The Fundamental Attribution Error suggests that we are more likely to explain our own behavior as a result of our circumstances than our personality, whereas we are more likely to explain someone else’s behavior as a result of their personality, rather than their circumstances. For example, when I pass an acquaintance on the street and give her only an abrupt “hello” and keep walking, I would recognize my abruptness as a result of my running late for an important meeting rather than because I’m a rude person. The acquaintance however, might be more likely to think “She is so rude!” than to wonder if perhaps I’m late for a meeting or in some other harried circumstance. We give ourselves a bigger break than we give other people. The error is in weighing personality so heavily in our explanations of other people’s behavior when their circumstances likely provide a better explanation. The Fundamental Attribution Error is a “dead end” belief.
Interestingly, when we are in the midst of a motivational struggle, we make the Fundamental Attribution Error not only about other people but to ourselves as well.
Consider Mary. She skipped her workout for the fifth day this week. She says, “It’s just that I hate exercise.” When she sees that her friend Susan has just completed a 5K run, she thinks, “Susan loves exercise, she used to run track in high school, she is just very athletically inclined.” In this scenario, Mary took a “this is just the way I am” and “that’s just the way she is” attitude, which doesn’t leave much room for change. She has left herself at a “dead end” and at the same time has minimized Susan’s efforts.
When attempting to do something difficult, dead-end conclusions close off possibilities. Assuming that not accomplishing a goal was because of our unchangeable traits will inevitably lead to failure. When you first start trying to lose weight, you will find yourself in many circumstances that make changing your behavior difficult. Over time though, you begin to sculpt your circumstances such that the healthier choices are the easier choices to make.
Consider Susan who ran the 5K. When Susan first started exercising, she found it to be very exhausting. She had a hard time fitting into her schedule with her work and family obligations. She was used to doing some work at home in the evenings and her family was used to her being available at certain times. Over time as she persisted with her habit, things changed. Her body became more conditioned and exercise started to feel less exhausting. She also became used to working out for an hour before starting on other evening work tasks. Her family got used to her workout schedule and so put up less resistance. As she persisted, everything became easier over time.
If you are having a hard time it is more likely the case that you are fighting against circumstances that are working against you rather than it being a matter of an inherent personality or biological deficiency. The latter are almost never absolute barriers to any and all progress.
Be A Flexible Thinker
One thing I notice about successful losers is a certain mental flexibility. Sure, they have a few of those dead-end beliefs (we all do!), but the difference is they are able carry the notion that “I’m not built for this” right alongside the notion that “I can achieve this if I try hard enough.” The former doesn’t box out the latter. They are focused on the process, and spend less time seeking explanations for failures. As they become successful and accomplish things they never thought they could, the dead end beliefs actually soften and dissolve. See this story of how a couch potato became an Iron Man. With progress, your beliefs about your inherent capabilities change. Who you think you are changes. When you begin to notice a shift in your thoughts and beliefs about your personal capabilities, you are rounding the corner to permanent change.
Everyday I Write the Book. Keep in mind that who you think you are is a narrative of what you see yourself doing. Your mind is merely the storyteller of your life. If you want to change your beliefs (i.e., the narrative), change what the main character in the story is doing and a different story will unfold. Here are a few open-ended beliefs to try on for size.
This is hard now but it will get easier.
My feelings may become more positive about this.
I can make progress without a natural talent.
If I keep at it, I will be able to do things well later that I have a hard time with now.
I might enjoy this more once I get more skilled at it.
I can learn to like things that I don’t start off liking.
Beware of dead-end beliefs. They may be limiting your progress more than you know. You are in the right place when you open up the range of possibilities of what you can achieve to the point where it actually feels a little scary.
And whatever you do, don’t write your ending long before you know what can possibly happen.
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