“I never finish things that I start.”
“I’m someone who’s completely uncoordinated.”
“I never plan things out – they just happen.”
“I always do things at the last minute.”
“I have no self control.”
“I’m really bad when it comes to learning a new language.”
“I’m an introvert.”
“I’m always “flight” and never “fight.”
Interestingly (and somewhat surprisingly), when I googled “Noticing Exceptions” nothing of even the remotest connection to this topic appeared (or at least this topic as I am addressing it today). But noticing exceptions can be a very powerful tool when you want to start to change a behavior that you don’t like.
We all view the world through a series of lenses (or perspectives if you prefer) that shape the reality that we experience. These lenses are generally formed pretty early in life by the significant figures who raise us, and by the events that have a significant impact on us. A couple of examples: If your Dad told you that you’re “just a kid who is kinda clumsy” you may very well shy away from activities that require coordination (like sports, for instance). If you were chased by the neighbor’s dog when delivering newspapers you could develop a real phobia about all canines. In other words, the lens is really a belief that significantly influences our development and the resulting behavior, to the point that we avoid things that we would be perfectly capable of handling (or at least potentially capable ). They’re just crossed off the list, so improvement can never occur. *
If you desire to change a persistent behavior (like procrastination or avoidance of certain situations) it’s a good idea to examine what narrative may be helping to shape that behavior. Then, once you begin to identify the narrative, start noticing exceptions. They are often hard to see – our brains are strongly tilted toward “confirmation basis,” the tendency to notice things that confirm our beliefs and discount the things that contradict them. But exceptions to behavior patterns almost always exist. Ask yourself “Did I ever……….?” or “Was there a time when………?”
Let’s take the example of someone who is perpetually late. Clients often complain to me about this behavior. I generally ask them if they can think of situations or times in which they DIDN’T show up late. It’s amazing how hard some of these clients need to think in order to come up with an answer. In fact, they often can’t come up with an answer at all, at which point I will tell them that they in fact showed up on time for our appointment (they usually do). That generally frees up their minds so they are able to cite other instances. Then I ask them to consider what contributed to the behavior that ran counter to the usual pattern, and this is where I often “find gold:” the factors that encourage contrary behavior. It might be that they would have been penalized for showing up late, or that they received some kind of reward for showing up on time. Once a factor (or factors) have been identified a new lens will have been built, and it will be easier for clients to notice times at which they don’t act in the way they want to change.
Noticing these exceptions will allow you to undertake (or at least consider undertaking) tasks that you might have avoided like the plague before. A personal example: I have always consider myself mechanically challenged, and so avoided ordering items for which “assembly is required.” Wanting to change this behavior, however, I thought back to a time when I put together a dresser, and realized that what enabled me to do it was a combination of my having set aside plenty of time for the task, and “psyching myself up” in advance. So nowadays I am less reluctant to tackle previously out-of-the-question mechanical tasks.
So if you describe yourself as, for example, a procrastinator, notice that the label itself will have a tendency to amplify your attention to certain behaviors and filter out noticing the exceptions. Choose instead to recast your narrative; rephrase your description as “I have a tendency to procrastinate.” It will make it easier for you to see around the lens that blocks exceptions, and therefore change.
*This is not to say that genetics don’t play a significant role in governing behavior. Some individuals do have greater inborn dexterity, which contributes to their being well coordinated. And some individuals are born more anxious than others, which increases the likelihood of fear-based responses to events. But biology is certainly not destiny.