Beware of “I Am Not”

I’ve been particularly sensitive to students and clients who utter the words “I’m bad” at this or that.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote Are You Walking the Talk?, in which I encouraged you to act on your words. Today, I ask you to think about the words you’re putting out into the world and those you’re saying to yourself.

©2009 Jacqueline Iskander, Impromptu in Blue. Mixed media mosaic.
©2009 Jacqueline Iskander, Impromptu in Blue. Mixed media mosaic, 13 x 16 inches. Used with permission.

Stop Defining Yourself in the Negative

Have you ever said any of the following?

I am not a salesperson.
I am not outgoing.
I am terrible at marketing.
I am bad at following up.

Sure you have. We all have. And we all need to be aware of how these are limitations we impose on ourselves.

Every time you use any of these sentences, or similar, you are giving up. You’re telling a story about yourself that will stick. You’re defining yourself in the negative.

These are self-fulfilling prophecies. You can’t say, “I’m terrible at marketing” without being terrible at marketing.

Whenever you find you’re defining yourself in the negative, remember that you have the power to shape your story. How you choose to define yourself will influence how others look at you and think of you.

Will you define yourself in terms of limitations and failings? Or . . .

Will you define yourself in terms hopes and aspirations?

Opt for the Positive

I am one of the last people who will pontificate about the power of positive thinking. It’s just not my thing. But I do know this . . .

The minute you decide you have limitations, you will be forever bound by those constraints.

Next time you catch yourself saying “I’m bad at X” or “I am not Y,” turn it around. Make it a positive:

  • I get a kick out of sharing my art with others.
  • I enjoy meeting interesting people.
  • I follow up on opportunities that are important to me.

You’re only as good as you allow yourself to be.

This was first published on August 1, 2012, and has been updated with original comments intact.

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46 thoughts on “Beware of “I Am Not””

  1. Victoria Miller

    This is so true! But rather than ignoring or discounting this niggling messages, we (I) need to examine them and say, “Okay, what do I need to improve upon?” or “What am I sticking my head in the sand about?” Not a moment of anxiety but a call to action. A gentle call. Thank you for this reminder.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Victoria: I never ask you to ignore the messages. I asked you to turn them into positive ones.
      It’s true that going a step further with deep examination will be beneficial. That’s another post. 🙂

  2. We live our lives somewhere between hope and fear. It’s what we pay attention to that influences the quality of our life.
    Challenge negative thoughts by turning your attention to at least one positive and life will tend towards the positive.
    Good book: Rapt Attention By Winifred Gallagher

    1. Gallagher makes compelling points that much of the quality of life doesn’t depend on fame or fortune, beauty or brains – or what happens to happen to you – but on what we chose to pay attention to.
      We are largely constructed from the thoughts and feelings, things we have chosen to focus on. Gallagher draws from neuroscience and psychology to make the point that you can actively direct your attention to create the kind of experience you want and become the person you want to be.

    2. It’s a very well written book Beth.
      What I liked about it was the good old common sense approach and the use of the term “paying attention to…” rather than positive vs negative thinking.
      A fresh approach.

  3. Thank you Alyson for re-enforcing the power of thought. I am currently reading the book ‘The Answer’ by John Assaraf & Murry Smith. Everything is now making sense and falling into place.

  4. I have often been aware of these comments when it comes to students – “if you think you can or think you can’t, you are right.” But never thought about applying them to me.
    Thanks for the whop upside my head!

  5. Maybe I’m outside the norm, but I don’t shy away from defining myself in the negative. If I did a terrible job of marketing, I’ll say that I sucked at marketing. But I don’t take this as an affirmation of my abilities, but rather an honest insight and critique of where they are now or what I accomplished with them. I roll with it in the same way I roll with studio critiques, with a tough skin and and open mind.
    To me, negative words can be the foundation of positive growth.
    But here’s the kicker: it has to be me saying these things about me for it to act as motivation and spur me to action in a positive direction. It doesn’t work for someone else to give me negative statements.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Robert: I think it’s fine to say “I sucked at that” and learn from it. But assessing one job is different from issuing blanket statements about your current and future abilities.
      Saying “I suck at marketing” is different from “I sucked at that marketing job.” The former implies that you’re resigned to the fact that you’ll always be bad at it.
      Make sense?

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Thank you for doing that, Indigene. It’s very helpful to me. And it means a lot that you think enough of it to share.

  6. Im learning with my young son NEVER to say we can’t do something, or even that we didn’t do something well (the word “bad” had to go early on): he takes it to heart and is immediately paralysed. We try again. We need more practice. We do better next time.
    It’s rubbing off! Life is better when you aren’t beating yourself up. And it’s usually true…we do get better when we practice 🙂

  7. Thank you for the reminder Alyson!
    “The minute you decide you have limitations, you will be forever bound by those constraints. “. <–love this!
    I recently mentioned to someone viewing my work, ("I'm not good at landscapes") and they quietly slinked away.
    Wise words Alyson!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Ouch, Tracy. I know that’s a painful lesson to learn. But I know you moved on and will never say that again.

  8. I make an effort every day to remember that my thoughts become the things and events in my life so I want to keep them positive. I hope to teach my daughter that you get more out of life and feel better with positive words and actions.

  9. Excellent message, incredible timing. Thanks for helping me remember to rephrase these things! I am uncomfortable with ‘selling’ but I am happy when I can share my work! I’ll also share it on FB, and I’m going to mention it in my blog.
    Thanks, again!, Alyson!

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Jill: There’s a whole chapter in my book “Share, don’t sell.” I need to rewrite that text and remind people of the concept. I make sure all of my workshop attendees get the drill down.

  10. Thanks Alyson for this important reminder! We’d never even learn to walk if at each fall we programmed ourselves at how awful we are at this walking thing.

  11. Perfect timing! I am about to send out my Plein Air newsletter with a unique opportunity to take a monotype printmaking workshop with an award winning Costa Rican artist. I know there are some people in the group who will say “I can’t draw; I’m not good at art” and pass up on this opportunity. I plan to end the newsletter with your “walking the talk” message and hopefully some will pause and decide to “not be afraid to go out on a limb because that is where the fruit is” (H. Jackson Browne). Thanks, Alyson!

  12. I have a daily meditation practice that helps me remain positive and open to what comes my way. I also end each day with writing down 5 things that I am grateful for that happened that day. I became a Buddhist many years ago and one thing that we believe is that we are all perfect the way we are…..and so is our art!

  13. This is a topic very dear to my heart! I am definitely a proponent of positive thinking, and do my best to notice the messages I tell myself.
    Still, old habits die hard. When I catch myself thinking or saying something limiting like, “I’m not good at numbers,” I use it as a cue to quickly add the deceptively simple modifier, “…yet”.
    So much power in such a small word! Adding “yet” totally changes the mood of a negative proclamation.
    You don’t even have to go as far as substituting a more positive phrase (“I excel at numbers”), which might be too far out of your current self-image to feel believable when you first begin to monitor your thinking.
    Start small. Notice your thoughts and use “…yet” to open up possibilities. You never know what might happen!

  14. Hello Alyson,
    There is a wonderful book that has a chapter on this topic. It is called The Success Principles. It was written by Jack Canfield of Chicken Soup for the Soul fame. In it he write a few ages on different principles that successful people share. One of them is the attitude that “it is possible.” A couple of quotes on the subject:
    “The number one problem that keeps people from winning in the USA today is that lack of belief in themselves.”
    Arthur L. Williams
    Founder of A.L. Williams Insurance Company,
    sold to Primerica in 1989 for $90 million
    “You can be anything that you want to be, if only you believe with sufficient conviction and act in accordance with your faith; for whatever the mind can conceive and believe, the mind can achieve.”
    Napolean Hill
    Best-selling author of Think and Grow Rich
    At a certain point in my life it became obvious that the words “I can’t” have the power to destroy all possibilities. For just as the words that you quoted, these two words admit defeat before the battle. However, by knowing that it is possible (albeit with a lot of hard work,) so much more can and will be done. Then, choices are made that support the belief, risks are taken, and if the person has the skills needed, and a viable plan of action, all is possible.
    I wish us all good fortune.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Anthony: I’ve been quoting The Success Principles since the book came out, but I admit it’s been a few years since I’ve re-read that. Thank you for mentioning it and sharing the other quotes.
      We could also quote The Little Engine That Could: “I think I can I think I can I think I can” !

    2. I agree with you Alyson,
      Another great source of understanding is a set of 5 CDs called No Limits: The Will to Succeed, by Michael Phelps. It is read by a good reader, and the CDs take the listener through the years of extreme payment that Michael made in his bid for the Olympic gold medals. I teach art in a juvenile hall, and try to instill in my students the need to know all is possible if one believes in oneself, and makes effort. With all of this in mind, I continue to produce art in this economy, and learn how to market my art, as I wait for the economic tides to change.
      Good luck with all you do,

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