I don’t know exactly what my husband said to her, but it was something along the lines of: “It’s not real: it’s pretend. It’s made of copper, and it’s just a decoration.”
Georgia, who is almost three, accepted the explanation and calmed down—even though she still shot suspicious glances its way. You could see her processing it: that cat is freakin’ creepy, but daddy says it’s okay. Hmm. What should I do with this disconnect?
Her answer came later that day. As she climbed into her high chair to eat dinner, she declared, matter-of-factly: “Copper cats are good.” We both cracked up. Yes, Georgia, copper cats ARE good. Now, it’s become our little mantra when stuff isn’t going so well. “Copper cats are good!” one of us will say.
She’s not even three yet, and she is better at positive self-talk than any adult I know. Definitely better than me. It’s possible that all kids do this, and I am only noticing the way she does it because she’s mine. But her days seemed to be filled with these affirmative phrases that attempt to make sense of things that bother her. She’ll get water on her dress while washing her hands, and get momentarily upset—until I remind her that it will dry. A minute later, I’ll hear her repeating to herself, “It will dry. Water dries.” Don’t get me wrong: she’s a force and throws her share of tantrums about random stuff, like her jammy pants not fitting right. But after almost every incident, I watch her reaffirm what’s good: “I was sad, but now I’m happy,” she’ll say.
Kids don’t have sophisticated mechanisms like mindfulness. They don’t know anything about self-help or psychology. They don’t read books like Stumbling Toward Happiness (currently on my nightstand) or watch Nova documentaries about neuroscience and positivity. I generally find the whole “kids are so much smarter than adults” genre to be exhausting and stupidly oversimplified. But seriously, why is she so much better at this than me (and probably you)?
A Marketing Campaign For Your Brain
I’ve always believed in the power of words. I mean, obviously, since I’m a writer. Words are quite useful for describing things and selling things and convincing people of things.
So it’s no surprise that I tend to take the words I put on paper pretty seriously. And the words said to me by other people even more seriously. But the words in my head that I use to talk to myself? Somehow these slip through the cracks. Yet I know that positive self-talk, or that positive language you use to talk to yourself throughout the day, is the number one tip in every single cognitive behavioral therapy guidebook on the planet.
When do we lose the wiring to be able to naturally do it? To tell ourselves that copper cats are good? By that, I mean: when does it become something we have to work at—a self-talk “strategy”—instead of just something intrinsic?
I suspect it happens sometime around the age of 10. I could write a whole newsletter bemoaning this. But what’s the point of that? Instead, I want to think about how it’s still possible, with a little rewiring. (Yes, I do believe we can rewire.)
I already have a great example of how to do it living right here with me in my house. But I need to look a little more broadly for inspiration. Like maybe to . . . I don’t know . . . my job? People pay me to help them market their stuff. Maybe I should use that skill for my brain. Because really, what is a marketing campaign? It’s a focused effort to get people to adopt a belief and ultimately, take action.
Cognitive behavioral techniques like positive self-talk are basically just marketing campaigns for your brain. So, in theory, we should be able to take what we know about marketing and apply it to our own psyche.
It starts with crafting the right message—the message your audience most needs to hear. So, what message do you most need to hear? (A message I’d like to hear right now is: “The answers are already there somewhere.”) That message then becomes the focus of all of the other satellite messages, or in the case of a brain, the self-talk scripts.
Once you have the message, it’s a matter of timing: how often do you hit people with your message, so that they will start to recognize it and remember it? It’s a frequency game. For brain rewiring, the ideal timing is all of the time. But maybe that’s not so realistic. How about just whenever a negative thought—let’s call it an “off-message”—creeps in?
And finally, it’s about choosing your channels to deliver the message. We’ve got great channels in marketing: the web and social media and TV and radio and print and affiliate networks and sponsorships.
For a brain, it’s also about choosing the right channels to spread the word. Which channels will you get the most mileage out of? The self-doubt channel, the fear channel, and the guilt channel are all pretty good candidates.
Georgia may not need a marketing campaign to be able to soothe herself with positive language. If she never needs it, that will be a-okay with me. But her momma needs it. Because I really, really want to believe that copper cats are good.