When saying “don’t” works

"Don't" sounds like such a negative word, doesn't it? Maybe that's because it's often used in commands, like "Don't do that!" or "Don't call me; I'll call you."

It's a word that shows up a lot when we try to control what others do (or don't do.) I expect that you already have your own opinions about how well it works.

However, if we step away from attempting to use it to control others, "don't" can be a valuable tool in our self-control toolbox.

A Choice Theory axiom is, "The only person whose behaviour we can control is our own." However, your experience may have also shown you that "controlling ourselves" is easier said than done.

Some of the components of what Dr. Glasser refers to as our "total behaviour" aren't easily controlled at all, even if we really, really want to control them. For example, there are our thoughts, which might include resentment, frustration, inadequacy, even if we don't want to think them. Then there are feelings, which could include dread, despondency, anger, hurt. Good grief, we don't want necessarily want those, either.

And there's our physiology, when the stomach roils with anxiety, voice shakes with frustration. They don't seem very controllable.

Suggesting that we "choose" those behaviours can be pretty hard to accept. It can seem like they are in charge of us, not the other way around. If that's the case for you, you might want to give this experiment a try.

Many of us have an inner dialog going on much of the time. That is, we talk to ourselves. What we tell ourselves may be a source of inspiration, motivation, encouragement, creativity!

Or not. For some, the message of that inner dialog is, "I can't."

What experiment am I suggesting? Try substituting "don't'" for "can't."

For example, "I can't snack between meals" becomes "I don't snack between meals." "I can't miss a day without a laugh" becomes, "I don't miss a day without a laugh." "I can't stay up after midnight" versus "I don't stay up after midnight."

How about this one: "I can't argue with you" versus "I don't argue with you."

What's the difference? When I say "I can't," even to myself, there's an implication that I'm not in charge. "I can't snack..." suggests that something external is in control of me. Perhaps it's the judgemental glance of a health care provider; perhaps it's an unpleasant physical response. The implication is, "I would if I could, but I can't."

On the other hand, "I don't snack..." implies choice. I may have reasons, or not, but I have control over my behaviour and this is the choice I make.

Similarly, "I don't argue..." suggests that I've made a decision. I could argue if I wanted to, but I don't. I am in control over whether or not I argue and I choose not to. Powerful, isn't it?

Does it matter? When we are in charge of our lives rather than feeling pushed, pulled, and controlled by outside forces, we can act more effectively. We can do more for ourselves and for others.

Even if we are only talking to ourselves, saying "I don't" tells us that we have a little more control than when we say, "I can't."

Do you see a difference between can't and don't? Is it worth giving this experiment a try? Let me know what you think at choice@focusonclarity.com or by mail c/o Progress Bulletin.

To your choices! ~ Susanne ~

Susanne Beck, RTC is Reality Therapy Certified by the William Glasser Institute

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