I’m one of those people who always appears positive to others. You know the type. Glass half full, Hakuna Matata (or YOLO, these days), ‘everything will be all right’, ’just smile’, type of people. Actually, as I write this I’m listening to Bob Marley and drinking English Tea, as I relax in our kitchen and enjoy another wonderful Tuesday morning. Friends often thank me for this positivity and exclaim that they also want to incorporate more of it into their lives. So what’s the secret to such a positive worldview? You might be surprised.
Past Experiences Determine Present Philosophy
Notice the use of the word “appear” in the first sentence above. Just because I appear positive to others much of the time does not mean I am. In fact, there are days when I feel utterly crappy, crappier than most people around me, but I don’t show it. I have these crappy days because I have a generalized anxiety problem of worrying too much and criticizing myself too much. Those closest to me are aware of this, and know this has been a part of who I am. Just like all anxieties, mine stems from a variety of sources, but one of the biggest seems to be the fact that I witnessed and lived through the worst of humanity (war). A psychiatrist I saw in Germany when I was in elementary school told my parents my experiences during the Bosnian war were a big part of a stuttering problem I had back then. I connected the dots and am assuming those experiences have partly led to my other anxieties as well. The anxieties I’ve had in the past are the reason I actively strive to be so positive today.
You see, I’ve had to consciously think about my anxieties for a long time. I had no choice. If I would have allowed them to continue unabated, my entire days would have been consumed by negative though processes during which I criticize myself too much and worry about all of life’s little problems. Thus, the reason that I am so positive today (most of the time), is because I have seen the dark side (and still do from time to time) and I have actively worked to change how I live my life so that I stay away from it. There is a silly taboo in our society that makes it weird to talk about negative mental habits. It’s perfectly fine to talk about smoking and overeating, for example, because those are negative physical habits. However, people shy away from talking about negative mental patterns. The fact is, our minds are just as important as our bodies if we truly want to live a positive lifestyle, and actively examining our thought processes and changing them for the better is as necessary as actively examining our diets/physical habits.
I know I’m not alone and I know there are many out there who also struggle with anxieties. One of the reasons I study Communication is because of my realization that the way we communicate with ourselves, or intrapersonal communication, is one of the keys to changing our whole world view. This realization can be life-changing. The world does not affect how you feel and think. YOU affect how you feel and think. Experts agree.
Negative Self-Talk and Counter Statements
In his widely read and highly acclaimed anxiety workbook, Dr. Edmund Bourne describes four personality types that are prone to high anxiety: The Worrier, The Critic, The Victim, and The Perfectionist.
The Worrier always imagines the worst possible scenario in any situation they are involved in or that they might have caused through their mistakes, The Critic constantly judges and evaluates themselves negatively, The Victim feels helpless and hopeless to solve life’s problems, and The Perfectionist constantly pushes themselves to be better and to do their best, even when it’s unrealistic and overly demanding. While some of these traits can be helpful at certain times in our lives, those who have anxious habits of thinking use them far too frequently and in situations during which they are not needed. I’m definitely a Worrier and a Critic, with a dash of Perfectionist every now and then.
All of these are usually the result of mental habits, not actual physiological problems with our brains. This is a great thing because it means we have complete control over the anxieties, although it may not seem like it when in the heat of an anxious feeling. These habits are created through consistent self-talk that is negative. Dr. Bourne describes self-talk as “each individual’s internal monologue” (p. 179); thus it’s another word for intrapersonal communication.
The ‘aha’ moment for me, and the moment that led to my positive attitude today, was the realization that what happens to us does not really matter most of the time, it has no direct impact on our thoughts and feelings. It’s how we respond to the events in our lives that matters, and those personal responses determine how we feel.
Dr. Bourne uses the example of being stuck in traffic. The overly anxious person may freak out and may say things such as, “I can’t stand this”, “Why did I ever get myself into this commute?”; this internal monologue will lead to feelings of anxiety and frustration. The person in the car next to them who has learned to deal with anxiety may respond to the situation by looking at it as an opportunity to relax and lie back, they may say things such as, “I might as well just relax and adjust to the pace of the traffic” and, “I can unwind by doing some deep breathing”; this person will be calm and relaxed, and will arrive to wherever they are going in a much happier state (p. 179).
The way we respond to situations is a direct result of how we think about those situations. And how we respond and think about them can affect how we feel. It’s very easy to create habits of negative self-talk, just like it’s very easy to create a smoking habit. Many people who have anxiety have created such mental habits without realizing it.
A few days ago I heard someone say we can talk about exercising as much as we want, but it will not do anything to actually improve our physical health. The same applies for changing negative mental habits. You can talk about how you need a more positive life attitude as much as you want, but that’s not going to change anything. The secret is to actively work on changing your negative mental habits into positive ones.
We must sit down and write down the types of negative things we say to ourselves in certain situations and then we must not just eliminate them, but replace them with positive statements that will start a habit of positive self-talk. We must practice a new self-talk, a positive self-talk, and we must consciously realize when we are not doing it. We have to self-reflect, and we have to set time aside to think about our mental habits. As Dr. Bourne also alludes to, it will be time extremely well spent.
A positive life attitude will not just start one day when you wake up and it will not magically happen if you keep talking about how you want it, the secret is that you have to make it happen, just like you would have to make going to the gym happen or like you would have to actively work to quit smoking.
On Friday I will go into more detail about how to replace negative-self talk with positive self-talk. You must realize that self-talk is not the only factor that creates negative mental habits, however. For example, a holistic approach to the health of your mind, body, and spirit can be a crucial factor in creating positive thinking habits as well. If you do suffer from high anxiety, I recommend buying the book I link to above, written by Dr. Bourne, and I recommend that you look at all aspects of your life (including negative self-talk and your physical health choices) as you work to finally begin living the positive lifestyle you know you are capable of.
Also, listen to some Marley and drink some tea.