When we were little and acted contrary to someone’s expectations, we were usually chided with, “Don’t ____.” Don’t hit. Don’t swear. Don’t drink grape juice in the living room.
As adults, when we’re trying to change a habit or practice, we often default to the same thinking: Don’t judge. Don’t yell. Don’t eat that.
We can’t actually DO a DON’T.
We have to DO something.
We can’t “not yell.”
Imagine this conversation by phone or text:
X: “What are you doing right now?”
Y: “Not yelling. How about you?”
X: “Not pooping.”
Once you’ve stopped laughing, please recognize that we have to do something specific that is not yelling if, in fact, we want to make a choice other than yelling.
One challenge in this process is identifying an affirmative action we wish to DO. Our default will be to look for the opposite of the DON’T statement, and that can be very limiting.
When we feel like hitting, what is the opposite? A hug? In a situation in which we don’t want to hit someone, a hug may also not be appropriate (think arguing with another adult who laid hands on your child or a a child on an airplane who won’t stop kicking your seat).
As another example, when we notice ourselves reaching for a bag of chips that do not fit into our eating plan, is the opposite to eat a celery stick or to eat nothing?
Answer: It depends on the circumstances, so don’t limit yourself to opposites.
Binary thinking (opposites) takes away too many options. The best choice might be nearer than the opposite pole.
Instead of trying to DO the opposite of the DON’T, it may help to view each situation in its unique context.
If our goal is, “Don’t eat a bag of chips,” we can ask ourselves WHY we are eating in the first place. Is it because we have caloric needs? Or are we eating for emotional reasons?
Getting to the root of our want/need (and, if another person is involved, the other person’s want/need) will help us identify a potential range of options. If we default to identifying the DON’T and its opposite DO, then we have staked out the extreme choices. Now we can also look at the multitude of options that reside in between.
And we need the accurate opposite DO if we want to demarcate the most relevant range of options.
For example, WHY we want to eat chips in the first place tells us whether the opposite of Don’t eat the chips is (1) Eat something healthful or (2) Don’t eat out of boredom. The range of options between those two opposites will give us very different choices for something we can DO. If we need calories, then we have many things we could eat or adjustments we could make to the next meal. If we are simply bored, then we can identify ways to address boredom that do not involve ingesting food.
Knowing the need behind the impulse is key to creating the most applicable range of choices.
To sum up, don’t take choices off the table by looking only for the opposite of what you don’t want to do. Instead, (1) look at the whole situation, (2) ask yourself what you want/need, and (3) begin to imagine the wealth of options that exist in addition to DON’T and its opposite DO.
We have to DO something. We can’t spend 99.9% of our time “not pooping.”