Finding Goal-Oriented Solutions that Don’t Short-Circuit Your Brain

Have you ever labeled yourself or someone else in a negative way? This is more of a rhetorical question, not one to make you feel bad about yourself. Because, let’s be honest, we all have done it. 

“I’m just not good at staying organized.”

“She is such a procrastinator.”

“They are always late.”

“He just doesn’t care and doesn’t try.”

“I am so bad at…”

While we have all been there and done that, negative labeling is a very counterproductive way of approaching what we don’t like in ourselves or in others. Especially when it comes to the members of our own families. 

But it’s so natural to say! It’s what we say when we are frustrated. It’s what we say to others when we are embarrassed by our kids. It’s what we say when we are apologetic for letting someone down. It’s what we say when we just don’t know how to fix the problem.

That last one – “I am so bad at…” – will really get us. This is often our subconscious self-talk that keeps us from going for that promotion at work, from forgiving our partner and working together, from trying a new routine or family ritual. 

Negative Labeling as a Barrier to Our Goals

At The Chicago Family Tutor, our expertise is in Executive Functioning which is the mental process of goal-oriented actions and behaviors that help us successfully self-manage. Some of these goal-oriented actions and behaviors are things like organization, planning and prioritizing, time management, task initiation, metacognition, and self-regulation. When we are coaching students and their families, we are often helping them identify the barriers that are keeping them from reaching their goals.

Negative labeling is one of those barriers. If you have the mindset that you just have to settle for being bad at a skill or have to accept a habit as a way of life, and that skill or habit is keeping you from what you want, then we have some great news for you. You do not have to settle. 

How Negative Labeling Falls Short

When using negative labels, you are attempting to process and categorize what is happening around you. That is not a bad thing. To be able to identify, name and classify a problem is helpful. But, negative labels short-circuit the need-opportunity-solution current

“I am not an organized person” stops at identifying a problem area. I liken this to seeing water coming through a leak in your boat but never getting out the repair kit to fix it.

Instead of stopping short at stating the problem, you could try asking these questions as a follow-up to the negative thought or statement:

1. What is the need? I need to find my wallet and keys and my kids homework before finding it makes us late to work and school. 

2. What is the opportunity? I can learn a new routine that makes my life and my kids’ lives less stressful and more enjoyable.

3. What is the solution? Identify an area that is homebase where I leave my keys and wallet and my kids put their homework and backpacks every night. 

Then, change the statement. Be specific to the problem. “Our morning routine is not organized” is much different than “I am not an organized person.” The first offers hope of change, the second is an end to the conversation rather than the beginning of something new.

Can You Change?

Because we have a special interest in the cognitive process of meeting goals, the capacity to change is an important question. Neuroplasticity is the brain-centric explanation for how humans are able to adapt their behaviors to be successful.

Neuroplasticity is what the brain does when it responds to changes in your environment. Your brain actually makes new pathways, new neural connections, which is how you master new skills, store memories and information, and overcome difficult circumstances.

In addition, when you practice a skill or activity by repeating it over and over it strengthens the neural pathways in your brain. 

I recently read that at birth, there are 2,500 pathways per neuron in a child’s brain and then at around the age of two there are 15,000 pathways per neuron in the brain. That is some significant exponential growth!

While at one time adult brains may have been understood differently, the past several decades of research have shown that adult brains are anything but fixed. There is constant neural activity including new pathways or neural connections as well as neurogenesis, the growth of new neurons. 

With all that said, yes, you definitely do have the capacity to change and master new skills.

Becoming Solutions-Focused

Our brain is a powerful organ, and those Executive Function skills that were mentioned earlier are an important part of the brain that enable us to self-manage to reach our goals. 

So what happens when you try a solution and it doesn’t work? Does that mean you are just an unorganized [insert negative label here] person? Not at all! You just need to find a solution that really works for you. 

Being a creative problem solver is one of the best ways to keep from settling for negative labels. If something doesn’t work (and you have given it a fair and honest try), then come up with a new solution. Get creative, get practical, and stay specific and concrete to the need at hand.

Let’s hear it for some positive labels!

Finally, to balance out and counteract some of that negative self-talk that inevitably comes, a great individual and family practice is to identify and name the positives. What are you good at? What are you proud of? What are you thankful for? If you specifically name one or two things about yourself and the other members of your family each week, I think you will start to be quicker to find solutions to problems instead of settling for a lesser reality. 

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