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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

What Are You Writing? A Case For Constructive Thinking

Positive thinkers live healthier and longer lives than people who do not think positively. Many studies show that positive thinkers are better at reaching their goals and dealing with adversity than less positive thinkers. From the renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to professor Tal Ben-Shahar who teaches the largest course at Harvard on “Positive Psychology”. From the work by Dr. Laura Carstensen at  Stanford (author of the book A Long Bright Future) to many of the researches mentioned in the World Book of Happiness, they all conclude that one of the distinguishing factors between healthy, happy people and less happy people is their thinking, their outlook on themselves and on life, and the way they view and interpret themselves, others, and situations. 

From early on in my career as a coach, therapist, and trainer I have used cognitive restructuring techniques and constructive thinking as one of the tools available to assist people in leading more productive, happier, fuller lives. In this post I share with you two ways to shift to more constructive thinking.

First, see the distinction between an external event (such as a heated discussion with a colleague) and your tension at the team meeting afterwards. Your colleague nor the discussion caused your tension. That might be a disappointment and a shock, because many people believe that outside events and other people cause their emotions. “He makes me so mad!” is something you here everywhere.  But it’s not the person making you mad. It’s your beliefs and thoughts about your colleague, your beliefs and thoughts about what he/she says and does, and about the way it was said, that cause your tension.
Why should this help you think more constructively and live heathier? Because you have more influence on your own beliefs and thinking than on the other person. It helps you not to feel and act like a victim. It helps you take responsibility and take action such as examining your beliefs and your thinking patterns. In many cases you might still conclude that the encounter with your colleague had a negative effect on you. In other cases you might conclude that your own beliefs and thoughts caused your tension, such as “No one should say something like that, it’s an outrage!” even though you know your colleague did nothing illegal  and that people, at least some of them, at times behave this way. Getting all worked up because someone doesn’t stick to our “This is the way it should be” – rule isn’t going to get you anywhere except for in an upset mood where clear thinking turns difficult. Rather than believing people shouldn’t act like this and thinking this is a outrage, you can remind yourself that some people think and act this way. You don’t like it, certainly not, but it’s not the end of the world by any means. This will leave you with less extreme emotions and tensions.

In brief the conclusion should not be: My colleague is causing my tension and it makes me raving mad, totally frustrated, and this should not be happening this way – this is unfair! The conclusion could sound like: I don’t like what my colleague just did, but it doesn’t qualify as a major disaster. If I keep my beliefs and thoughts in order I’m just not happy with the way it went. But that’s life and I can try and discuss it or just ignore it. Worse things happen.
Second, practice positive thinking and positive self-talk. Sounds easy? Sounds shallow? Well, it sure is easy and it sure isn’t shallow. Your attitude toward yourself and how you talk to yourself greatly influences your view of yourself, your view of the world, your outlook on life and how you deal with potentially stressful situations. Your answer to the old question “Is your glass half empty or half full?” can greatly affect your health and your well-being.  Positive thinking and positive self-talk does not mean that you’re an ostrich keeping your head in the sand to ignore and deny life’s unpleasant situations. Positive thinking and positive self-talk merely means that you approach the often unavoidable unpleasant encounters in life in a more constructive, productive, yes, positive way.

For positive self-talk to be increased you first have to become aware of the endless stream of thoughts and messages about yourself that go through your head on a daily basis. If these thoughts are mostly negative, your outlook on life is more pessimistic thereby negatively impacting your choices, actions, results, and feelings. If your thoughts are mostly positive, you will likely feel more in control, try different approaches, get support, feel good about yourself, see the possibility in a challenge etc.
Most people know whether they lean more towards positive or towards negative self-talk, but some really don’t. Some common forms of negative self-talk are

-         Exaggerating and catastrophizing – almost automatically expecting the worst, seeing only the negatives and blowing them up to unreal proportions that start leading their own lives. If you exaggerate, catastrophize and fail to laugh and see the big picture, a difficult start of the day with a nagging child, spilled coffee, and un unexpected traffic jam will automatically lead to a horrible day. Everything that happens that day will be viewed in light of “this horrible day, I knew it”.

-         Perfectionism and filtering – looking only or mostly at that one thing that did not go right, filtering out the negatives and ignoring the positives of the situation or the day. This skews your judgment of the situation and of your day and thereby causes stress.

-         Negative attribution and personalizing – attributing mistakes only to yourself and attributing good results to luck or factors outside yourself provides you with a somber view of yourself. In personalizing, you automatically blame yourself when something bad occurs. Holding accountability high as a key attribute of healthy and effective functioning, blaming yourself is not part of effective accountability.

-         Black-and-white thinking or polarizing – you see things only as either black or white, as either good or bad, no grey or middle ground possible. One of the more harmful results is that you have to be perfect, otherwise you’re a failure.

If you tend to be a negative thinker you can learn to practice positive thinking. It’s not complicated but it does take time, effort, and perseverance. It starts with becoming aware of your thoughts, identifying areas to change (such as how you think about something that went wrong), using humor to look at yourself (and others), asking others for feedback, surrounding yourself with positive thinkers, and literally practicing positive self-talk.  Rather than thinking “I’ve never done that, this is impossible” you can say to yourself “I’ve never done that. I can learn something here.” Rather than saying to yourself “No one ever informs me” – which is the victim-attitude – you can switch to “I’ll see if I can open up the channels of communication.” Rather than deciding that something is too complicated to handle you can decide that this complicated matter provides you with an opportunity to look at the situation from many different angles in which you involve other people’s perspectives. Rather than dramatizing that you will never get the hang of something you can tell yourself you’ll give it another try, ask others for ideas, and look closely at why you might not be succeeding yet.
I could continue the examples but I’m sure you get the idea. This is no rocket science, just a new way of believing and thinking which includes awareness of where you are right now, ideas on how to switch to more constructive beliefs and thoughts, and which asks you to mobilize the energy and perseverance needed to succeed in changing your thinking habits.
I’d like to leave you with my belief that we all play the lead role in our own life story, but we also write it ourselves. What are you writing?

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