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Change Your Questions, Change Your Diabetes – Why the Words We Choose Matter A Lot

by Adam Brown

Twitter summary: A look into the questions we as patients with #diabetes ask ourselves each day, & why some are MUCH better than others

“To change your life for the better, you must change your habitual questions. Remember, the patterns of questions you consistently ask will create either enervation or enjoyment, indignation or inspiration, misery or magic. Ask the questions that will uplift your spirit and push you along the path of human excellence.” – Tony Robbins, Awaken the Giant Within

Sometimes I feel like there is a culture of negativity in diabetes – in my own self-criticism, in talking with my healthcare provider, in dealing with my insurance company, and in the media. This topic has been on my mind as I’ve been reading Tony Robbins’ Awaken the Giant Within, a fascinating book about human behavior, psychology, and change. For me, the most meaningful chapter has focused on the questions we ask ourselves every day. Mr. Robbins asserts that “quality questions create a quality life” – they concentrate our focus, shape our beliefs, change how we feel and experience events, and affect how we interact with others.

I believe this single idea has considerable potential to help people living with diabetes feel happier and less stressed. For example:

Your meter shows a blood sugar of 298 mg/dl. Which of the following would you ask yourself?

  • “Seriously?! What did I screw up?! Why is nothing going right?!”

  • “What can I do right now to improve this blood sugar? What can I change next time to do better?”

Same number on the meter, but two very different interpretations. The first is de-motivating, self-blaming, and negative. The second is actionable, non-judgmental, and learning-oriented. The only difference is the mindset and point-of-view. To show just how far this stretches, here are some more examples to illustrate why I believe this concept is so important in diabetes:

De-Motivating Diabetes Questions

Motivating Diabetes Questions

Why did this happen to me?

Why is diabetes so unfair?

What things can't I do now that I have diabetes?

Why is this so difficult?

Why did I do this to myself?

Why did I eat that?

What am I supposed to do?

Why can’t I do anything right?

Why do I feel so bad?

What if something goes wrong?

Why can’t I control this?

How can I learn from this?

What one thing is going well in my diabetes management?

What can I still do even though I have diabetes?

What am I grateful for?

How can I do better tomorrow to get a better result?

What are some better choices I can make next time?

What role models can help inspire and guide me to better manage my diabetes?

How can I enlist friends and loved ones to help me?

What single change can I make to do better over the next week?

What books, websites, and resources can help me improve?

How can I use my experience to help others?

How can I run my first 5K? Cycle my first century? Learn how to play tennis for the first time?

The questions in the left column seem harmless enough, but I try to avoid them at all costs. Focusing on why diabetes is “unfair” or “limiting” is dangerous and unproductive for me  – it makes me feel awful, ruins my mood, and offers little hope that tomorrow will be better (after all, I will have diabetes tomorrow...). Most of all, it leaves me in a hole without a rope.

On the other hand, those in the right column motivate action. A speedometer in a car indicates if you are going too fast or too slow, at which point you change how you are driving (i.e., more gas or more brake). Similarly, a number on a meter is a speedometer for your diabetes – change your medication, go for a walk, make a different food choice next time, etc. The key is to take action, and choosing the right question motivates that next step.

This whole approach may sound “fake” or “manufactured positivity,” but I’ve personally found it very valuable. I tend to be an optimistic person, but when I started listening to the sound of my own diabetes-related questions, I realized how unproductive many of them were – there’s a lot of blame and negative self-criticism that comes with having diabetes. Using more motivating questions has made me think and focus on solutions to problems rather than the problems themselves. It’s a small but very meaningful difference.

Tips for Putting This into Practice

1. Write down the diabetes-related questions you routinely ask yourself, especially when things aren’t going well. Which of the above columns would they fall into – motivating or de-motivating?

  • Examples of some de-motivating, unproductive questions I often use: “How is this blood sugar possible? I exercised this morning and have barely eaten all day!” “Are you serious? I don’t believe that number!” “Why is this not working? I did the same thing yesterday and got a different result!” “How could I forget to do that again?”

2. Are there ways to change the wording of your questions to make them more solutions-oriented and motivating? If you cannot reword them, can you replace them entirely with some of the questions from the “motivating” column above?

3. Post your new questions where you will see them – in your glucose meter case, in your fridge next to your insulin, on your mirror in your bedroom, as a daily calendar reminder, as your desktop/phone background, on a stick note on your laptop, etc.

4. Enlist loved ones and friends to help you. When I overreact to an out-of-range blood sugar on my meter, my girlfriend will often bring me back to reality: “It’s not worth getting upset over.” Those six words are sometimes all I need. Ask your family and friends to monitor your language and point out when you’re using de-motivating questions and patterns of speech.

5. Remember that it takes time and repetition to make this sort of thing effortless and automatic, so don’t expect to change your whole psychology immediately. I’m certainly still working at it every single day. 

Concluding Thoughts

“Be careful not to ask limited questions, or you’ll receive limited answers. The only thing that limits your questions is your belief about what’s possible.”

The more I work at diaTribe, the more I’ve come to realize that anything is possible with diabetes, whether it’s running across Canada, playing professional sports, navigating our treacherous food environment, having great relationships, or simply living a long, happy, and healthy life. Such an empowering belief leads to a whole different slew of questions and responses to everyday diabetes challenges.

I would encourage you to examine the questions you ask over the next week and evaluate if they are serving you well or bringing you down. What beliefs about diabetes underlie your questions? Please let me know what you find!

[Tony Robbins’ book, Awaken the Giant Within, was the inspiration for this article.]