How Often Do You Say "Not"? And Why That Matters!

By Susan Ford Collins

Take a minute to read these instructions: Don't think about a hot fudge sundae and the warm, thick chocolate melting down two scoops of your favorite ice cream. Don't think about the walnuts in maple syrup or the generous dollop of whipped cream, and the long-stemmed red cherry sitting on top. Perhaps some of you are headed for the kitchen already!

Why do we “think about” what we’re told “not to think about? And sometimes take action. The truth is we can’t help it; it’s the way our brain works. Whether we realize it or not, we have a Positive Command Brain.

Our brain is wired to see, hear, feel, taste, smell… and take action. We’re programmed to respond…without stopping to think. Sense/do. Sense/do. Primitive man needed this brain! That’s how we survived.

But sometime in the distant past something monumental happened… the concept of "not" was introduced. "Not statements" create a challenging complication. If we depend on our primitive brain, we automatically and unconsciously take action… sometimes threatening our own safety and others’.

Don't play with matches while we’re out

A sales manager at Kimberly-Clark told me a story that tragically reinforces the danger of not instructions, especially with kids. Three months before my seminar, Kevin and his wife, Barbara, left their son Bobby with a sitter. As they pulled on their coats, Kevin heard her say, “Bobby, don’t play with matches while we’re out. Promise me you won't.” Kevin thought that was strange because Bobby was scared of matches but they were running late so he didn't say anything until they’d driven away.

In the car, Barbara said she'd watched a TV show that afternoon about children who set fires while they were staying with sitters. Scenes of badly-burned, heavily-bandaged kids kept playing over in her mind. She felt she needed to say something to protect their son. And so she did. Kevin understood.

They enjoyed dinner and headed home. When they turned onto their street, they saw fire trucks on their lawn. Their son had followed her not instruction. He had played with matches and set fire to the drapes. The sitter called 911 who rushed Bobby to the hospital where he was being treated for life-threatening burns.

If this mother didn’t want her son to play with matches, then what did she want him to do instead? She could have created an action plan… choosing specific games, TV shows, or inviting a friend… andcarefully gone over that plan with her son and her sitter. Plus remembering to put the matches out of reach of course!

Understanding not thoughts and instructions requires two steps. First, we unconsciously remove the not so we can understand what we’re sensing. In our brain, don’t think about a hot fudge sundae immediately translates to think about a hot fudge sundae.

Hopefully we quickly remember the not “Ah! There was a not. So before taking action, we ask ourselves, What do I want instead of a hot fudge sundae? Hmm... I’m going to think about making a bowl of fresh fruit. Unfortunately we sometimes fail to take that second step when we communicate, especially when we’re afraid.

What’s the real message you’re sending to yourself and others? Take the "not" out of the sentence and you’ll know. "Not" creates stress and uncertainty. It also signals opportunity… the opportunity to make a more thoroughly considered choice. A healthier, more loving choice. In 2015, let’s resolve to think and communicate what we do want. And when we catch ourselves "not"-ing ourselves and others, let’s resolve to take that extra life-saving, love-saving step by asking, What do I want instead?

(c) Susan Ford Collins. For permission to use this article, email

* For more on The Positive Command Brain, go to Success Skill 3 in The Joy of Success or Our Children Are Watching.

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