As I have written in the post Beware of Pink Elephants, when we use negative phrases, we focus on the things we do not want to. If you have not had a chance to read that post, please do not think of a pink elephant, dancing, dressed with a tutu.
If you are like everyone else out there, you imagined a pink elephant and maybe, maybe managed to chase it away. I agree, I was very cruel putting the pink elephant in front of you and asking you not to think about it, but hey, life is the same – we see things around us and cannot choose to “not see” them.
Many of my clients, who go through deep understanding of the pink elephant concept, say it is a lifetime revelation for them and an essential ingredient for a good relationship.
A couple of clients came to me for parent coaching because of a problem they had with their teen boy, and were very surprised when we went through Pink Elephants. They said, “We tell him every day NOT to hang around bad kids, but saying it only puts the focus on those kids we want him to stay away from”.
The day after our session, the mother sent me this email:
You won’t believe what happened after we left our session last night. I was home for 3 minutes and so many Pink Elephants came out of my mouth… It is so hard!
It is hard, I agree.
During the session, I ring a bell every time anyone uses a pink elephant. This is annoying, but if you try it for 10 minutes, you will find out that we all use many, many pink elephants in our language. We are so programmed to express our thoughts with negatives that no wonder our world is so angry and upset and our relationships suffer greatly.
Pink elephants are the things we do not want in life, but focus on just the same. Pink elephants are all the negative words we use, like “unacceptable”, “don’t forget” and “no smoking”. By thinking of them, we do exactly the opposite of what we want.
When we are not happy with something, we use more pink elephants in our language. If you want to try, write a letter to someone about something you are really upset about, and count how many pink elephants you have there (reminder: pink elephants are words with “no”, “don’t”, “un”, “not”, “lose”, etc). Now, try to rewrite it with a focus on what you do want instead of what you do not want. Yes, this is not easy, but it is possible.
During the teen years, parents are not happy about many things. Their teenagers look for ways to experience life, they struggle with boundaries, with pressure and with finding their uniqueness and many parents lose control of their kids’ life at that stage. This is the danger zone, when the parent–teen relationship is filled with pink elephants.
Frustration is good food for pink elephants. When things do not happen the way we want them to, we use them a lot. Parents say to their kids, “I do not want you to do drugs”, which gets the teens thinking about drugs. Teens say, “I don’t want you to look at my stuff”, which makes their parents really curious.
Both parents and teens want good things but use the wrong methods to get them.
Let me give you an example of the communication gap between parents and teens. If you tell your kid, “I don’t want you to hang around bad kids”, you are saying exactly what you mean, but your child’s brain (which cannot not think of a pink elephant) hears, “I want you to hang around bad kids”.
It is what happens to most people when they see the sign “Wet paint. Do not touch!” and they touch the paint right away.
The reason this thing happens is that the brain first records “touch” and only then tries to block it (just like you did with the Pink Elephant – the elephant appeared and you tried to chase it away). Since “not touching” is undefined, the only thing the person can do is touch.
When you use pink elephants with your kids, this is very confusing for them. They hear you saying, “Watch TV until late”, but then you get upset with them for doing exactly what they think you told them to do.
Here are some of the pink elephants parents tell their teen kids:
- [Don’t] talk back to me
- I’m [not] happy you’ve failed in math
- Your friends, who smoke and drink, are [no] good for you
- [Don’t] drink and drive
- [Don’t] smoke
Exactly like the couple who wanted to save their teen from falling real hard, you can too, if you just change the focus to what you want your teen to do rather than what you do not want them to do. It is hard at first, but liberating and very positive in the end. Focus on what you want!
Post your alternatives to the statements above in the comment box to practice, but also to give others some ideas.