How to overcome negativity: 5 steps to positive thinking
Article by Mark Tyrrell of Uncommon Knowledge
Everything for him was a “downer”, a “bummer”. His language dripped negativity like castor oil leaked into your favorite lemon cake. Everything was “bad, pointless or useless!” People were “idiots, hopeless, users…” , ideas were: “stupid” that would “never work!”
You’d think that someone as negative as Greg (a former work colleague) would be unhappy but I had a sneaking suspicion he was comfortable spreading his misery, being proved “right” if, as he predicted, things didn’t work out. Like a shabby old jacket his negative mindset was at least familiar, even if it let in the cold. He felt it continually saved him from disappointment.
Greg was “realistic” unlike us deluded more positive fools. But what he misunderstood was that attitude itself influences events. Positivity supplies us with the energy, determination and hope to keep going longer and rise up again after set-backs. In this way, to some extent, we all create our own realities. What you expect has a powerful influence on what you experience.
Drug companies know this which is why every potential new drug has to be tested against placebo (1) (an inert substance that the patient believes might be the genuine medicine). What a patient expects to happen before and after receiving a medication (even surgery) greatly influences what actually happens! The point is that the more positive we are the more “realistic” it is to expect good outcomes.
This is why optimists tend to live longer, have more friends and, not surprisingly, show more resilience in the face of adversity (2)
So what can we all do to avoid the pitfalls of negative thinking and become more positive?
5 ways to avoid negative thinking
- Don’t over generalize the bad stuff
- Don’t assume bad stuff is permanent whilst good stuff isn’t
- Ditch the (self) blame game
- Look positive to feel positive
- Quit assuming
Negative thinkers don’t contain or compartmentalize bad stuff in their minds. When adversity strikes in one part of life they’ll spread the meaning of that badness to cover their whole life.
“My girlfriend left me; my whole life is ruined!” Psychologist Martin Seligman found this to be a typical thinking style in people prone to depression (3). Contain the damage by remembering it is specific †”Okay my girlfriend has left me and that’s terrible but I still have my good friends, I have my work and I still like where I live!”
Negative thinking fools us into believing that bad stuff has either always been there or always will be there:
“Nothing ever works out!”
“I’ll never get another job!”
“I’ll always be a loser”
The bad stuff is seen in terms of “always” and the good stuff as “never”.
But good events are seen as fragile and impermanent:
“This is just too good to last!,”
“I’m just waiting for something to go wrong!”†
If you recognise this thinking bias within yourself at least recognise it and make efforts to remember that bad situations can pass and good ones can continue.
Another common negative thinking trap is “internalisation” of negative stuff and “externalisation” of positive stuff: “I always ruin everything!” when something goes wrong but “I was just lucky!”, when something goes well. Internalizing the negative whilst externalizing the positive is a recipe for feeling bad-recognise your part in good and bad events but don’t exclusively blame yourself when bad things happen or refuse to accept any credit when things go well.
When we feel positive we look more positive; simple cause and effect right?† But it also works the other way.
Research (4) found that when volunteers were asked to sit up straight their confidence in their ability to achieve their goals dramatically increased. In other research it was found that getting volunteers to “smile” (by saying the letter “e” for thirty seconds) improved mood and optimism (5)
So next time you want to feel and therefore think positively about something sit up straight and smile for thirty seconds even if you just silently mouth the letter “e”.
When we think negatively we minimize or discount positive feedback and assume we know exactly what others will think and what is going to happen.
“She hasn’t texted me back; she doesn’t like me!” or “He only said that to make me feel better, he doesn’t really think that!” Or: “I know this is going to be a disaster!”
Stop it with all that certainty!
If you’re so good at reading the future do the lottery already!
Positive thinking isn’t about having to feel certain all the time or always “knowing” that everything going to go great it’s more to do with relaxing with uncertainty feeling that “whatever happens I’ll be okay”. It takes humility from a person to recognize their negative mind set may just be wrong or incomplete or overly simplistic.
I recall one time Greg was left a large amount of money by a distant relative and still managed to put a negative spin on his windfall. Having a more positive life isn’t about having more positive things happen it’s about responding to more things positively.
The greatest, perhaps the only, real power we all have as individuals is the choice of how we react to life.
Mark Tyrrell is a therapist and trainer who writes articles and audio on all aspects of positive psychology including this positive thinking hypnosis download. He also publishes a regular newsletter for therapists where you can get a new therapy technique every 2 weeks.
- For a fascinating glimpse of just how powerful placebo can be, see Dr Ben Goldacre’s chapter ‘The Placebo Effect’ in his book Bad Science
- Researchers at University of Pittsburgh looked at rates of death and chronic health conditions among participants of the Women’s Health Initiative study, which has followed more than 100,000 women ages 50 and over since 1994.Women who were optimistic — those who expect good rather than bad things to happen — were 14 percent less likely to die from any cause than pessimists and 30 percent less likely to die from heart disease after eight years of follow up in the study.Optimists also were also less likely to have high blood pressure, diabetes or smoke cigarettes.
- See ‘Learned Optimism’ by Martin Seligman PHD.
- In the experiment co-authored by Professor Richard Petty professor of psychology at Ohio State University people were told to sit up straight or slump over their desks. They were then told to list three positive or negative personal traits relating to their future career.
- D.N. McIntosh, R. B. Zajong, S. Peter and S.W Emerick (1997) “Facial movement, breathing temperature and affect: Implications for the vascular theory of emotional efference” (i) Cognition and Emotion (March 1997), 179-195.† It seems that smiling inflates the nostrils which helps lower brain temperature which is associated with pleasure feelings-frowning of course does the opposite heating up the brain (which needs to be constantly cooled to work optimally).
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