BY JULIE CHIPMAN, LCSW SOCIAL WORKER, FAMILY SERVICES OF THE CHAUTAUQUA REGION
For some people the ability to think positively requires very little effort. Each day is a new opportunity to do great things, conquer challenges and to celebrate being alive! Their optimism fills them with thoughts of confidence, motivation to get things done, and the ability to think creatively. Their internal thoughts are self-supportive, and they look on the bright side. They have a view of themselves as masters of their own fate.
But for some people life is a completely different picture. Their outlook on life is pessimistic, and they have adopted a pattern of expecting the worst, and seeing only the negative side of a situation. They often view themselves as victims of fate. Their internal thoughts can be full of self-criticism and feelings of powerlessness to make any positive changes in their lives. They may project blame onto external factors (other people, events, bad luck, etc.) for their misfortunes. It becomes a pattern of thinking that seems impossible to change.
These opposite personality styles are presented as an illustration of extremes of positive and negative thinking patterns and attitudes. Most people probably fall somewhere in between or have varying patterns, depending on circumstances. But if you are a person who would like to think more positively and see that your negativity is making your life difficult, there is hope. You can learn to change your outlook. This attitude adjustment requires being mindful of your thoughts, purposefully editing out any negativity and replacing it with more realistic and positive thinking.
The difference between a positive and negative attitude is not just limited to how a person thinks. It snowballs into how we feel, how we interpret events, how we react to and interact with others and, as a result, how others perceive us. Our thinking patterns and attitudes develop over time and become habitual and automatic. Because the process is so automatic, we get the impression that an event causes our reaction. In reality, it is the thoughts we have about the event that cause our reaction. We can create a lot of grief for ourselves when our habitual pattern of thinking is full of negativity.
As with any unhealthy habit, it is not an easy task to make changes. It requires learning the new skills and self-awareness to put them into practice and self-discipline to continue to practice the new skills until they become automatic.
Here are some basic steps to get you started:
1. Monitor your thoughts, especially when you are feeling discomfort or displeasure or anger. What are the negative messages you are telling yourself?
2. In relation to the triggering event, notice any unrealistic messages or assumptions that you are having and get rid of them!
3. Identify the triggering event in factual terms free of assumptions and emotion.
4. Think of how you would prefer to feel in this situation and develop an internal message that promotes the desired emotion, so you can respond accordingly.
It is important to remember in this process is that changing your internal dialogue is for your personal benefit. The goal is for you to feel better and ultimately feel better about yourself. Therefore, it does not matter if the new script that you are telling yourself in Step 4 is hard for you to accept at first. Just pay attention to how the new script changes the way you feel and the way you respond.
There are also some behavioral changes that can help with the development of a more positive attitude. Here is a brief list:
• Use humor to soften the impact of the problems that you do encounter. Laughter changes the chemicals in your brain to really help you feel better.
• Focus on and invest more time in the positives in your life, such as people, situations, events and activities where you feel good about yourself.
• Get rid of the clutter in your life, whether it be those unused, nonessential possessions or the multiple commitments or involvements that you’ve been drawn into. Simplify your life!
• Stay busy with your necessary tasks. Set goals for yourself and keep focused on them until they are achieved.
• Exercise. This is another activity that has an immediate benefit of boosting those mood-enhancing brain chemicals and also the longer-term benefit of giving you overall better health.
• Refuse to assume responsibility for other people’s problems.
• Limit your involvement in the negative drama of others.
• Use your spiritual resources.
• Engage in a special hobby on a regular basis. Recreation is an important part of effective stress management.
• Give your positive attitude to others, that is, do something nice for someone else.
• Take care of yourself, not only your physical health but also becoming content with who you are and how you appear to others. Work on feeling good about yourself.
• Picture positive outcomes in your mind. Get as much detail in your mind’s eye until it “feels” real. See yourself accomplishing your goals.
There are many resources and self-help materials available to further your efforts at positive personal growth. A few of my favorites are The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, Zen and the Art of Happiness by Chris Prentiss and 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself by Steve Chandler. If you feel that you need more help with this process of change, or if you find you are unable to maintain positive changes, you may be in need of counseling services. Sometimes difficulties with chronic negative thinking can indicate the possibility of depression or anxiety problems. An evaluation by a qualified mental health professional can assess that and help you meet your personal goals as well.