“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance” (Viktor Frankl).
We’ve all had those moments when we think we just can’t bear anymore. When it seems the walls are crashing down and we’re powerless to stop it. “What now?” we wonder, “What else can I do?” Surprisingly, in these exact moments we have a lot more power than it seems. This is when our influence on our perception is apparent and tested. Our experiences can be greatly altered depending on how we perceive them and what meaning we give them. Essentially, if we can modify – even just slightly – our mindset and then our entire experience will be transformed. What makes us feel desperation, grief and hopelessness, can evolve into an opportunity for feelings of happiness, relaxation, hope and even contentment.
Yes, there will most certainly be those days where it helps to give in and hide under the covers. Being “positive” and upbeat all the time simply isn’t authentic. Part of self care can include giving yourself permission to feel grumpy or indulge in a day spent vegging out and eating ice cream. But when it overtakes you and acts as a barrier to living and partaking in life, it’s just not helpful anymore and a mind shift is needed.
The glass half empty vs. half full
Positive thinking requires you to pay attention to how your mind is reacting to stressful scenarios. Notice the labels and meanings you give these stressful moments. Something is only “good” or “bad” if you define it as so. The frequently used metaphor of the glass as half empty or half full is a wonderful illustration of this concept. Both are true but it is the perspective you choose that gives the same situation a label of good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, happy or sad.
Viktor Frankl spoke and wrote frequently about this point. As a psychiatrist his philosophy was molded by his experience as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl noticed that even in the camps a rich life and existence was possible if one can give meaning to these experiences in a way that was satisfying and real.
Let’s understand what it means to partake in positive thinking. It is not simply forcing a smile on your face and declaring that everything will be just fine (although some studies indicate that this can help, in my work with clients I haven’t found it to be everlasting). The key to positive thinking is believing it. You have to find the evidence that convinces you that there is something good in the situation. Merely telling yourself, “Everything will be ok” doesn’t usually cut it – it’s not particularly convincing.
To paint a picture of this point, I’ll take an everyday occurrence that I’m sure most of us can relate to. Let’s say today has been one of those days – the one when it seems that everything that can go wrong does. On the way to work you got stuck in the rain. Your clothes are soaked and you don’t have a spare outfit. You are late, the boss is upset, and there is an overwhelming pile of paperwork sitting on your desk. After you make it through the day, you come home to find your child sick with a stomach virus. You follow her around cleaning up the mess as she gets sick, but when you retreat to the washing machine to begin the endless loads of laundry you discover it is broken. What can the positive spin possibly be to a day like this?
Some ideas are: “Well, I certainly learned that I can survive a day under such intense pressure” or “I discovered I have a skill of cleaning puke without a washing machine!” or “This definitely calls for a personal day tomorrow – a break I wouldn’t usually give myself but now I’ve earned it and I’ll enjoy it” or “I’ll definitely appreciate whatever tomorrow brings, it can’t be as bad as today” or “I may have come late to work today, but those extra few minutes spared me even more stressful work at the office.” Whatever perspective you choose, it has to be convincing, therefore support it with “evidence.”