When the going gets tough, such as losing your job or having a financial setback, many of us try to boost our mental outlook by blindly repeating positive statements to ourselves.
Encouraged by magazine columnists or talk-show hosts, people prepare for challenges by chanting positive mantras like "I am a strong, powerful person." This approach was introduced in Norman Vincent Peale's 1952 The Power of Positive Thinking.
But sometimes the Power of Positive Thinking does not go quite far enough, which is the difference between jumping all the way across a very deep chasm and jumping “not quite far enough.”
In fact, studies suggest that despite its popularity, this particular brand of self-help may backfire badly. In fact, it may even cause us to feel even worse!
Joanne Wood from the University of Waterloo found that people who blindly repeated "I'm a lovable person" to themselves…and who felt anything but lovable…. often felt worse than people who did not. She discovered that if such people say something positive about themselves…but feel they are way beyond what they actually believe, they might dismiss the claim and draw even further into their own insecurities. In fact, these positive statements could act as reminders of failure.
Wood’s simple explanation is that when we allow ourselves to think only positive thoughts, our difficulty in blocking out the negative ones merely certifies our belief that we aren’t measuring up to our own standards. Over time, this can become worse than the original negative thoughts.
Please remember this; that statements which deliberately contradict a person's self-image (and we have thousands of self-images – one for every single thing we can do), no matter how rallying the intention, sometimes may boomerang.
So, what can we do when faced with crippling situations that attack how we see ourselves? Well, other studies, specifically out of the University of Michigan have discovered that we fare better if we allow ourselves to consider the ways our positive assertions may not be completely true. So…. perceiving our intermittent negative thoughts as expected and normal can actually be liberating.
In addition, studies from the University of Pennsylvania, have discovered that the key element in learning to be more optimistic lies in the decisions we make when hard times happen to us!
In his book, “Learned Optimism,” Dr. Martin Seligmann looks at how pessimists behave very differently when they are faced with really hard times; and the reason they behave differently is because they think differently.
In fact, it is the reason I have shared these wonderful discoveries with over 31,000 people over the past ten years. I believe that the most profound and life-changing discovery which psychology has made since it began as a science back in 1879 is that we can “change the way we think.”
That would seem obvious, but it isn’t! How many times have we said to ourselves, “I’m just this way!” or “This is the way I was brought up” or “I’ve always felt this way!” or “I’ve always been this way!” or “I’m stuck being this way!” or “I can’t change who I am!”
Wrong! Remember dear reader, that it is an incontrovertible psychological fact that our brain believes what we tell it, without question. So, when we do say, “I’m just this way!” or “This is the way I was brought up” or “I’ve always felt this way!” or “I’ve always been this way!” or “I’m stuck being this way!” or “I can’t change who I am,” our brains immediately agree with us, and then become obsessed with making sure that these false statements become true in our lives.
Now hold onto your seat dear reader! Everything we can do today is primarily based on what we are saying to ourselves, about ourselves, today! This means that we can change what we are saying to ourselves, about ourselves, today!!! This includes, “I’m just this way!” or “This is the way I was brought up” or “I’ve always felt this way!” or “I’ve always been this way!” or “I’m stuck being this way!” or “I can’t change who I am,”
So, how do optimists think differently when faced with really difficult situations?
They do three things.
1 They isolate
“Yes,” they agree. This part of my life is really hard. But everything in my life is NOT bad. In fact, there are parts which are very good, or healthy, or moving in the right direction. I have decided not to allow the bad in my life be an umbrella that shades out the good.
2 They temporalize
“Yes,” they say. “My life is really hard right now….and it will take me a while to get back on my feet, but I am in the process of doing so, and someday I will! Life is a moving picture, and things are always changing!
3 And they say, “Stuff happens in life! (There is a better word than ‘stuff,” but I won’t use it here.)
Optimists do not allow themselves to carry all the blame. They have recognized that they alone are not the source of all their problems. Stuff happens to ALL of us!
What is even more exiting is that it is another incontrovertible fact that our feelings follow our beliefs. When we change what we are believing, our feelings, over time, gradually change.
Steven Campbell is the author of “Making Your Mind Magnificent” and conducts “The Winners Circle” every two months at Sonoma Mountain Village in RP. Contact Steven at 480-5007 or go his website at stevenrcampbell.com to ask about his one-day free monthly seminar.