Shift Your Perception—Negative Reappraisal3 min read

To address temptations, distractions and similar challenges, you can use the Shift Your Focus technique to reframe how you think about them. Or you can use the Shift Your Perception technique and change how you feel about them.

Yes, you can change how you feel about something—through self-talk and how you focus your attention. Stoics philosopher and Buddhist monks have done this for centuries, and modern psychology calls it cognitive reappraisal. It works in both directions: negative and positive.

The logic is simple: when you consider something to be attractive, you’ll desire it; when you consider it repulsive, it repels you. Attractiveness and repulsiveness are subjective and can be changed intentionally.

This technique relies on your abilities to visualize, imagine, and believe your thoughts into reality. The more you improve these, the more effective this technique will be for you.

Suppose you have resolved to stop drinking soda. You have done well for a week, but now you are out with friends, and everybody is having one. The urges are back, and you think, “Just one won’t hurt”. Pleasurable memories of drinking soda come up, your mouth starts salivating, and you want to “join in with the group”. 

Time for the PAW Method!

You pause, taking a few deep breaths (P). You notice the urges, stories, and feelings related to drinking soda, and you become aware that giving in means a -1 toward your goals (A). You then decide to use your willpower to change how you feel, through cognitive reappraisal (W).

(Warning: Skip the next paragraph if you are having a meal.)

You start with the first method—focusing on the defects of the soda, using imagination and self-talk to develop disgust. You think how bad it is for your body. You remember the bloated feeling of gas in your stomach. You see that the black liquid is the color of sewage. You imagine that it will taste extremely bitter and make you want to puke. You tell yourself that it is poison. 

Now, are you ready to drink that soda? Not so appealing anymore, is it?

(Note: Do keep this process to yourself. Let other people enjoy their sodas!)

A second method emphasizes the negative consequences associated with the soda and links them to your aspiration. You can ask: “Do I want to be someone who is overweight, doesn’t prioritize health, and can’t say no to my impulses?”. Reframing the conflict in this way shifts “I can’t drink soda” to “I don’t drink soda”. “I can’t” is a restriction, a rule you wish you could break. “I don’t” is a choice based on the vision you have created for yourself—your designed identity.

A third way to practice negative reappraisal is imagining being saturated with the tempting pleasure. When we are saturated with something—be it food, sex, TV, or whatever—we are done with it. The spell has been broken.

So the next time you feel a strong urge, try this: imagine that that urge has already been fulfilled. Take your mind to the state you experience once you are done with that activity or have been saturated with it. Try to re-create the feelings in your body associated with being saturated with that activity. 

If this is difficult for you, then go through that indulgence as mindfully as possible, paying attention to how it feels in your body and mind afterward. Then take a “mental snapshot” of that post-indulgence experience, so that you can remember it the next time the urge comes up, and use it to re-create the state of saturation.

Finally, the fourth method of negative reappraisal is to associate physically painful sensations with that urge—such as the snap of a rubber band on the wrist every time the urge arises. This is called aversion therapy, and it does work; but this book is about mindful self-discipline, so we won’t emphasize this method.

Negative reappraisal can be used with anything (not only food). No thing, person, or event can lure us away from our chosen goal unless we allow it. Nothing has the power to shake our resolutions unless we allow it. Become aware of that, take control of your likes and dislikes, and you’ll be able to achieve your goals more easily.

This article is a summary of key ideas taken from Chapter 6 of Mindful Self-Discipline. To dive deeper, get the book or audiobook.

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