Never tell people to improve

Are we too hard with ourselves for our own good? Recent studies show that more rest, positive language and acceptance will improve our lives. For more information, you are welcome to read here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Why now?

As the year ends, we review our year and summarize its results. Some people focus on the things they are grateful for. Others focus on the aspects that need improvement. While improvement is always welcome, do not push yourself too hard. Even more important, do not tell other people that they need to improve. Negative language can backfire and can be easily avoided.

Negative thoughts reduce mood, health, and longevity. Prolonged negative thoughts create a sense of guilt, unworthiness, and low confidence. We do not want this gift for ourselves of for our loved ones.

Negative language as a cultural phenomenon

I think the negative language is a part of our culture. Being born in Ukraine, I witnessed all sorts of negative language. Some parents from the lower socioeconomic background used to drink and misbehave at home. The parents in some good families used to push the kids much harder than was needed for the child’s motivation, in fact, destroying the intrinsic motivation of a child. The teachers were anything but shy when the children misbehaved in the classroom, and the respect for the teacher’s authority was complete. Bosses did not spare criticism from their employees. Spouses were very verbal with each other regarding the things nobody can change.

In Israel or America, the use of negative language by people with high socioeconomic status is less common. I am not talking about being politically correct or polite, but about the deeper need of peers to support each other. It is a common practice to minimize criticism or to sandwich it between something nice we can say. In some societies, negative talk is avoided as it could be a sufficient reason for a deadly duel.

Hate and obesity

Research shows that constantly telling someone about their weight does not reduce the weight, on the contrary, it causes weight increase. Positive talk about healthy food is a better path to moderate weight reduction. Lecturing others about food may put that person into the state of reactance, causing them to go against your advice just to prove their independence.
An alternative explanation could be comfort eating: we eat more to overcome the negative state of mind. Either way, positive thinking reduces weight gain. There is very little difference between the effect of someone telling the negative message and the negative self-talk, or the person repeating to himself some message someone told long ago.

Anna’s first lesson

When I just married Anna, many years ago, she was not the great teacher she is today. She wanted to test her teaching techniques on me, and I had no choice but become her student. In the first lesson, she gave some boring and irrelevant material to check my reading speed and retention. The quality of the material was so low that I could not force myself to read it. As a result, my reading scores were very low. So Anna started to ridicule me into improving. That was so annoying that for the next year I refused to study with her.

After a year of apologies, I finally started to study with a hidden wish to show her that she is wrong. I made very little progress under her guidance, and then she gave up. The day she gave up, I started to teach myself using basically the same techniques with a great success. When I confronted Anna she was very amused. “What do you think you did? You used everything I taught you, and claimed the credit”.

Overfocus

Living with someone is very annoying. We all have bad habits and faults. Occasionally spouses overfocus on some small fault we might have, and blow that fault out of any proportion. This is especially apparent during the first year of marriage when a small object placed in the wrong place can generate hours of heated arguments. The focus and the energy can and should be spent on more productive activities.

Others are overfocused on their own faults. The condition may be life-threatening, especially in food-related scenarios.

There are things that deserve our attention, especially when there is a good return on investment. Perfectionism can be the opposite of efficiency when people obsess about details instead of focusing on results.

Amendment

Sometimes people tell bad things because they are in a bad mood, do not really control themselves or think that the situation is funny. Very often immediately after the bad things are said we feel remorse. Is it possible to amend the situation?

Offended people will often try to hide their emotions, or to claim the opposite effect. One of my friends was essentially robbed by his business partner. In 5 minutes of conversation we had, he spent 3 minutes explaining why this does not bother him anymore. If it would not bother him, he would not spend 3 minutes discussing the subject.

Not all people are equally sensitive. Some might not even notice the negative communication. Others will never forget even the small transgression. Most people are quite reasonable. Explaining the true reason for negative communication and asking for forgiveness is usually the first step. A better solution is showing the remorse in action, accepting and supporting the other person with all their faults.

Repetition

Some negative talk is amusing at the beginning. When we just married, my wife used to call me dumb. I know that my IQ is in the area of 140, so it as cute. After several years of being called dumb, I made some bad decisions and this time my negative self-talk coincided with my spouses. So at some point, I became honestly offended by being called dumb. I confronted Anna and asked what can I do to act less dumb. She was very surprised by the question. In fact, she never thought I was dumb but thought that calling me dumb is funny and harmless.

When we hear something enough times we start to believe it. Even when the negative language is meaningless and irrelevant, it may have an unwanted effect. It is much better to avoid all sort of negative language than dealing with the surprising results of unintended insults.

Lazy of crazy

When we rest people tend to call us lazy. When we run around with no apparent reason people tend to think that we are crazy. In fact, many aspects of creativity puzzle people. When we rest we become more creative and more productive. Changing our perspective and performing some physical activity we may generate qualitatively new thoughts. Being tired it is best to rest, or even nap – this is called “siesta” in some countries. And if we feel restless, because some thoughts are bothering us, it is a good thing to walk around and “stretch the legs”.

If we need to learn a language or remember a lot of information, we need to sleep more. Taking more time to rest is a good response and should be welcome. When an employee starts a new job, he should work less so he can remember more, but he will tend to work more to impress his bosses. Being a boss, managing overly motivated employees is a complex balancing act.

Either way, if you are truly productive and creative, some of your habits will appear strange to some people around you. They will probably smile or even laugh at your eccentricity. Attracting negative attention is typically not a good thing, but sometimes it should be expected and welcome.

Unforgettable moments

Some people do not like when their spouses take few pictures on vacation or doodle too many pictures during conversations. In fact, both activities increase our ability to remember stuff. While we may wish some top-quality photos from our most memorable moments, we usually end up with boring compositions not worth another glance. The true key to remembering things is not trying to take photos and movies, but truly being there with all parts of our brain. This is especially apparent with the children when less sensitive teachers and parents try to stop the doodling and other activities children use to be more effective.

Harmful diaries

Expressive diaries and exposure to negative situations are generating recurring negative thoughts. Even a relatively safe psychological therapy like CBT can have devastating side-effects. Do not try to heal yourself or others, unless you preserve positive thinking during the process. It is very easy to reinforce and perpetuate the negative thinking patterns by using the same techniques that are created to deal with negative phenomena. Usually, this results in anxiety and possibly even substance abuse. Positive thinking creates positive momentum. Negative thinking needs to be treated carefully.

Stop measuring

Measuring is a great motivational tool as long as we improve. From time to time we will not improve, and our measurement will show degradation. The alarm can be correct, as we can acquire bad habits. More often than not, the alarm is false. If we constantly measure something, occasional degradations should be expected. Some degradations are caused by progress rate is too fast, by general mood or seasonal effects, by increasing focus on the measurements themselves. Quite often while we see degradation in something we measure, there is a bigger progress in something we do not measure. The measurement may cause anxiety, and this is something we should avoid. This does not mean we need to stop measuring at all, simply keep the desire to measure under control and avoid obsessing about the progress.

Acceptance and gratitude

The best way to reduce negative communication and self-talk is embracing positive communication. Acceptance reduces the effects of negative situations. All people have faults, and we should accept some of the faults in ourselves and the loved ones. If we tried to change something and failed, maybe the particular quality is not worth changing. At the same time we should not take the good things for granted, and express the deepest gratitude we can master. The perfectionism is counterproductive and we should not remove the negative communication. Simply have at least four positive messages for each negative message.

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