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“Do not think of a blue butterfly!”- If I were to say this to you, what do you think might happen? I encourage you to give this a thought. Take a few more minutes, if you need to. Now, let us process it together. Upon hearing that sentence, within a fraction of a second — the mind instantly conjured up the image of a blue butterfly. Eventually, it fought against the urge to persistently picture it.

If you are someone who is on a strict diet and struggling to keep up, the words “I should not eat junk!” could possibly be replaced with “I will eat my favourite fruits.” Someone who is learning how to ride a bicycle for the first time might replace the internal monologue of “I do not want to lose balance!” with, “I can balance well. I can do this.”

What I am trying to establish here is the intriguing manner in which our mind processes negative words. Allow me to illustrate it with everyone’s favourite — a story.

To Flee or not to Flee

She was seated backstage. The skin on her face gleamed as tiny drops of sweat tricked down her forehead, like diamonds. It was her first stage performance as a professional singer. From practising her favourite songs within the four walls of her room, she was about to face a crowd of about a hundred guests at the cafe. From the clock on the wall to the floor, her eyes oscillated back and forth like a windshield wiper. “Ten minutes to go. nine minutes to go.”

Her heart rate gained momentum and prepared for a fight or flight reaction, “I cannot do this. Oh God! I wish I had never said yes to this. I do not like this feeling.” Notice how all the words in her internal monologue are begging her to “not” do something. This gears her physical and mental stance to exit the situation and flee.

In this scenario, a friend approaches her and says, “Hey, don’t panic! Come on, don’t be nervous.” This is now an absolutely tragic scene. It is the single most frustrating advice for someone who is literally on the verge of a meltdown. For all we know, the singer would drop the gig and (probably) never come back. Just like the blue butterfly example, her mind immediately processed the words ‘panic’ and ‘nervous’ first, and then tried to resist them.

She said Yes!

We have all heard our friends, family members or peers say it to someone who is in an anxious state. Needless to say, it only worsens the condition. Swaying back to the nervous performer, a quick and efficient alternative to the previous advice could be, “Hey, just breathe. We are here for you”, or “Stay calm, you have got this. The show is going to be amazing!” These affirmative sentences are powerful enough to convince the mind to genuinely believe that things are under control.

The moment she hears the words ‘breathe’ and ‘amazing’, her mind experiences a switch; a distraction. In this case, it is easier for her brain to process what she must ‘do’ rather than something that she must ‘not do.’ Focusing on the word ‘calm’, she positively attempts to stay calm. Her mind reiterates the word ‘amazing’ and she pictures herself singing confidently on stage, the audience having the best time. Now, it is over to you. Which advice was better?

This is the power of our mind. The manner in which we choose our words is so profound, it can make or break any significant situation. Often, it need not necessarily be a friend or a colleague who advises us, it could be our own mind. “Don’t think of junk food”, “Don’t spend so much”, “I cannot tolerate her” are everyday words that our minds ruminate over.

Treat the mind as a friend. Give it a little distraction from the nots and the donts. “I will eat a plate of colourful fruits”, “I will save this money for now and buy that, next month”, “Let me just hear her out, maybe she is right” are some alternatives to choose from.

This is not to say that negative words do not hold value (see what I did there?); they do. But in a world full of so many donts and cannots, let us feed ourselves some “I cans” and “I wills”, if that makes sense. We are half way through 2022, and I am no preacher, but this is my first advice to you.

Hansika Korivi works in Corporate Communications in Dubai