Declare War on Your Thoughts
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill
You’ve received a mostly positive review, with one criticism that ruins your day and sticks with you months later. Sound familiar? As humans we tend to accentuate the negatives. Psychologists call it negativity bias. Our selective memory harbors negative encounters more than positive ones because they provoke more intense reactions, which makes us more timid and less willing to take risks. Thankfully, we can take steps to overcome our negative propensity so we can escape the disease of pessimism without having to ascribe to that worn-out axiom of believing the “glass half full.”
Have you ever tried renewing your mind by declaring war on your thinking? Maybe or maybe not, but perhaps it’s time to do so. It starts with remaining hopeful, which tends to attract resources for fulfilling your hope. Oftentimes increased hope signifies that the renewing of the mind is working.
Several experts suggest that we review our past accomplishments to remind of us of how we are capable of accomplishing much. So remember what you’ve done well in the past to give hope for the future. Second, being grateful impresses a powerful influence on your thinking. It not only makes you feel better, but it reverses your focus on the positive.
There’s no need to ignore all of the problems around you, but if you can think of them as challenges or better yet opportunities, your brain will subconsciously replace the paradigm of failure, which the word “problem” evokes, and replace it with a more encouraging outlook. Psychologists have also found that humor and just being silly can replace negative impulses with a more childlike optimism.
Can you re-think of your obstacles as opportunities, even laugh at them as in, “Here goes another one – been there, done that!” It is not that easy, is it – especially in the heat of the moment, but when we begin to trivialize problems, even laugh at them (even if we don’t feel like joking about the problem), our brain accepts that dismissive attitude as acceptable. And the more we laugh at our problems, the more capable we become to perceive the solution. That’s because our mind will start viewing challenges as insignificant in comparison to our ability to find a better way. When we get serious about determining a better approach, and trivialize the problem, only the answer seems relevant. One depressed businessman I know decided to join a comedy club and discovered that his disposition changed dramatically in the process. Another friend of mine is a teacher who dresses up as a clown and entertains kids.
Positive awareness can be like a game in which you make a habit of actively searching for the positive side in everything. Looking for the here-to-fore unseen good around you can awaken you to the reasons for being optimistic by moving attention from the dark side of life. Also use more positive speech, by replacing words like “things will never get better,” to “it will be better tomorrow.” If you act like an optimistic person, your mind will accept that as your reality. Also, people will be attracted to your brighter outlook in life and will respond with more encouragement back to you. Our attitude toward life determines others’ attitude toward us.
Another way of declaring war on our thoughts is reframing. It starts with a thought: Most of the disappointments we worry about are baseless, as amusingly expressed in a quote from Mark Twain, “My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” Our minds imagined them due to negative self-speak. Those trials that did actually occur made us stronger. Had we used a powerful renewal technique for those imagined or real disappointments, our attitude would have been transformed. That technique, reframing, involves identifying our destructive thoughts and replacing them with adaptive ones. Positive reframing means trying to reconsider things in a positive light, and it is a powerful way to transform our thinking.
Seeing a problem as a place to shine requires that we place it in a different setting. Look at setbacks as times to learn and change direction. Out of the box thinking challenges assumptions, but it also reframes ideas to consider them in a new way, and it uses lateral thinking to look at problems from many angles instead of tackling it head-on.
A situation might include someone who is procrastinator saying, “I never have time to eat breakfast,” and reframing it as, “I can wake-up a little earlier to eat something.” Or an overgeneralizer might stub her toe and say, “I can never get a break,” and then thoughtfully reframe the mishap as, “This is just a little fluke; usually I’m free of pain, and this is not the end of the world.” Overachievers often need to reframe their high expectations that “I need to do more” with something like, “I’m not always perfect, but I accomplish a lot and I’m always trying.“ Those who are poor self-esteemers often misread situations as with, “My friend hasn’t called me in forever – she must not like me anymore,” and reframe those thoughts with a view such as, “Maybe she feels that I’m too busy with all of my work, so I’ll just call her to check-in and see if she’s OK.“
Self-pityers are often saying, “Nobody cares about me”; the reframing would be to think something like, “I need to be more vulnerable with others so that they can be more open with me.“ And then there are the clairvoyants, who can predict the future by saying, “I know he’s going to reject me”; they can respond with a positive future-focused statement as “I can’t predict the outcome, but if he doesn’t like me, he’s obviously not the one for me, and I’ll eventually find the right person.“
If you are afraid to do something new, try reframing your resistance to the situation by remembering how good you felt after getting something else accomplished that was once daunting. Think of the task as enjoyable, and you’re more likely to do it. Also, try reframing the cause of your stress with a more positive perspective, such as looking at that traffic jam as a time to think through things and listen to some good music. Think long-term – is this really something that will be important in a month or year? If what causes you stress is something you need to live with, such as an illness or a job loss, just try to accept it and look for the silver lining, share your feelings with others, learn to move on, and find time for relaxation.
You can reframe literally any thought you ever experience into something more positive. Self-critical thoughts that limit our potential, such as “I’m not good enough for the job,” can be reframed by first understanding that situations do not have any intrinsic meaning. They can only be internalized once we interpret a situation as having meaning. As humans we tend to second-guess ourselves, as in that meeting seemed to go well, but then we start remembering all the things we could have said or done to make it better. To reframe the event, we need to understand that our interpretation of a failure is only because of the way we look at it.
This is not to say that our emotions are not valid – they certainly are! However, we can interpret even a bad situation as having a good meaning. For example, it may be raining outside which can spoil an outdoor event, but reframing this as an opportunity to go to the gym in order to meet your weight loss goal gives the rainy outcome a positive meaning.
Each thought carries with it a frame of mind – our underlying beliefs and assumptions implied by that thought. For example, when you think, “I never do well taking tests because I get too nervous,” the frame is that nervousness causes people to fail at tests. In reality, most people get nervous taking tests, so the opportunity may be to limit that nervousness through a more disciplined study process.
Behind each negative thought lies some positive purpose. That negative speak has deceived you into thinking that it will help. By finding the positive purposes behind this inner speak, you can retrain your mind to uncover a positive reframe. So don’t ridicule yourself for those negative thoughts; rather, turn them around. Journaling can be an effective way for reframing thoughts by noting consistently negative thought patterns that you can turn around.
Words matter. So try to soften some negatives by using accurate descriptions of how they make you feel rather than making general indictments; like, instead of saying “I can’t stand pushy people,” you might say something like, “When people keep telling me to do something more than once, it makes me feel like they don’t trust me to do whatever they’re requesting.” Maintain a forward focus toward some resolution, such as, “In the future, I’m going to confirm what others tell me so that they know that I am hearing them.” By practicing a forward thinking solutions approach, people tend to feel that they are growing as in, “I can see if this new approach makes a positive difference.“
As humans, we invariably make assumptions, but through reframing we can challenge these assumptions by changing our perspective about any situation to give it a more positive meaning. Turning assumptions into forward thinking solutions helps us provide meaning to situations that have no intrinsic meaning. Opportunity happens when we replace our negative thoughts with more positive ones by challenging them.
The final way of declaring war on our thoughts is to think with an abundant attitude. Many societies operate from an attitude of scarcity. It’s an attitude that says there is a deficit of possibilities in life that the potential for more than what environment, abilities, and fortune can provide are close to nil. Our world economies are constructed mostly from a perspective based on the “Law of Scarcity,” which states that there exists seemingly unlimited human wants in a world of limited resources. If everyone got what they wanted and needed, those resources required to fill these demands would eventually dry up. Advertisers play off of this belief in scarcity, implying through their ads that “We can only offer so much, so you had better buy our product before it runs out,” which drives demand and cost.
From an early age, teachers and institutions, instead of encouraging the student to establish learning goals in relationship to life goals, teach us the law of scarcity as students vie for limited opportunities within an educational system where goals are established for them. However, new research now confirms that self-directed learners, or “autodidacts,” will be the most successful persons in the 21st century and beyond. In an article published in Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, researchers Todd Gurecki and Douglas Markant discovered that self-directed learning exposes people to information they wouldn’t normally learn through traditional means. Hence, autodidacts tend to assimilate information better than conventional students. In addition, they develop a more optimistic attitude because their primary interests and training fuel them in the direction of their genuine vocational choices, and that tends to make them more motivated and successful.
On the other hand, people who are “spoon-fed” information often view their possibilities from a narrowed perspective. They see their opportunities in comparison to others, versus through the lenses of their unique composition. Scarcity says that we all need to be made proficient through the same limited resources. Only advanced degrees, for example, qualify a person for a high-level position, when in fact, studies have shown that competency is better advanced out of an abundant perspective that qualifies candidates based on what they know, rather than what they are taught.
The attitude of scarcity teaches us that possibilities are always restricted by time, opportunity and potential. An attitude of optimism encourages the individual to search out their uniqueness, and then to tailor their opportunities based on unlimited resources available to them. That we must all drink from the same proverbial pool in order to succeed can be quite painful for the individual, and creates a lot of unnecessary fear, anxiety and desperation.
An attitude of optimism, on the other hand, tells you that there are always new chances and opportunities. This relieves much of the pressure someone may feel if they have a scarcity attitude that makes them think that they’ve only got one path toward success and one shot at success right now. Or an attitude of scarcity can make them feel like a complete failure just because they temporarily failed and something didn’t work out. An attitude of optimism can help anyone improve their success since with it you’re seeing the boundless possibilities that can be gained through learning to adjust one’s approach.
Here are a few ideas to create and reinforce your own attitude of optimism:
1. Identify an attitude of scarcity. If you are continually stressed, controlled and pressured, chances are your attitude is one of scarcity. You may consider failure as the end, rather than seeing it as a stepping-stone to your goal. An attitude of scarcity may cause you to lose sleep over an important event, like a test, a presentation, an interview, or a meeting. Develop an attitude of optimism by reminding yourself that regardless of whether you succeed or fail, all that you’ve learned will inspire your next journey, and the possibilities to continue your growth and contributions are endless.
2. Focus on possibilities, not probabilities. Possibilities evoke a future-focus within our mind that triggers unencumbered thoughts of what can be that here-to-fore seemed unattainable. Probabilities, on the flip side, factor in past experiences that create a cause-and-effect mentality that discounts previously untapped realities. What we focus on will determine how we view our options, and if our options are innumerable, we often stop limiting our prejudiced responses from a perspective of simply “what worked and didn’t work,” to “what might work that we’ve never tried before.”
3. Be thankful. An attitude of scarcity sees what we do not have, while an optimistic attitude looks at what we have as being a treasure to invest into something even greater. Being thankful frees us from a sense of feeling that enough is never enough, to a feeling that what exists, in terms of our relationships, possessions and our overall being is quite enough – for now. Being content wherein we stand creates a springboard toward possibilities that will benefit us through our sure footing. If we cannot be thankful in even the small things, then how can we expect to be happy when bigger opportunities arise? Being thankful in all things frees us to expect a deeper appreciation for the next big thing.
4. Greet everyone you meet with optimism. There’s a common thread of behavior that when people respond to us with an optimistic attitude, in saying something like, “I am confident that you’ll succeed,” or “I know in the end that we’ll prevail,” we feel empowered. The same happens when we express optimism about a situation to others. In fact, others will perceive us in a more positive light as well. It’s a well-known fact that people like hanging around optimistic people, because that attitude is contagious. Even if you don’t feel optimistic, try faking it. That’s right, even if you fake optimism, as we’ve learned through several studies, we will begin developing a stronger attitude of optimism. And if your present circle of friends is typically comprised of naysayers, consider hanging around some more optimistic people to help offset those other negative influences.
5. Give. An optimist cannot be out-given, because the optimist’s source of abundance never can be exhausted. Even with limited resources, there’s a principle of giving that has been proven to increase one’s wealth. At a Family Philanthropy Conference in San Diego, Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of the book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism, shared extensive research, which shows that giving leads to happiness and to more wealth. He found that even a 1% increase in charitable giving leads to more than a 200% return. As to how giving feels, studies show that giving releases endorphins that makes us happier. What’s more, those who give their resources and time to help others are generally perceived as leaders, and leaders attract success.
6. Look for the win-win. People with a scarcity attitude continually perceive choices as either a win or a loss, and relationships as either give or take. An optimistic attitude looks for the win-win, by creating a possibility well-beyond what the present situation affords – such as instead of allotting less money to growing teams in order to budget what’s in the bank, investing that money into growth funds so that everyone can be given more money. People with an optimistic attitude seek a collaborative relationship that shares success, as well as failures. They expand possibilities by seeking to expand resources rather than allocate limited resources.
7. Overcome losses by releasing yourself to think anew. After losing a loved one, or a job, or a relationship, instead of grieving over the loss for long periods of time, or worse yet, resenting what happened, look to fulfill those dreams that had been dormant. For example, a broken relationship may free you to find the person of your dreams. The loss of a job may free you to move to your ideal home – perhaps even to a resort location. A crisis that robs you of your wealth may open the door to a new entrepreneurial endeavor, or to get closer to supportive family and friends. Use the opportunity of a loss to find the time, space, and freedom to consider what might never have been possible before.