The Power of Positive Thinking
Think. We do it around 60,000 times a day. Our internal dialogue is a constant stream of commentaries about ourselves and the world around us, but we often go through life never listening to the quality of our thoughts. If we did, we’d find that many are the same as those the day before and the day before that. We would discover it’s frequently some version of “What’s wrong with me, other people or my life?” that is repeated over and over like a scratched CD.
That’s how it played for Lisa Schueler. Negative thinking had been a way of life for this 37-year-old Madison business credit analyst. For most of her life negative situations, and resulting negative thoughts, had taken a toll on her self-esteem and physical health, and self-doubt held her back from opportunities. Despite many positive achievements—she was a success in her profession and had even been a collegiate All-American softball player and conference Player of the Year—Schueler still thought she hadn’t accomplished enough. She questioned whether she was good enough and internalized negative things people said about her. Schueler knew that negative thinking was a problem, but until two years ago, had no clue how to change it.
Then, one evening—Oct. 2, 2012, to be exact—she tired of saying to herself the same negative things that got her nowhere. So Schueler did something different. She brought out her journal and wrote a simple phrase: “Remember to be kind to yourself.” And that is where her positive mindset started.
“When I first wrote that phrase,” she says now, “I was not being kind to myself. I didn’t believe I could be kind to myself. I was beating myself up about what I could do better versus enjoying what I was accomplishing. I felt whatever I did was not good enough; therefore, I wasn’t even sure if I deserved kindness.”
But she kept at it, writing this same phrase down night and each morning.
At first nothing happened, but then ever so slowly, a shift began. Schueler noticed subtle changes, and then the negative self-talk dissipated, and she could quiet her inner critic and stop her self-criticism.
With her first steps toward self-acceptance, Schueler also found it easier to dismiss negative comments from others. And, she felt stirrings of self-compassion. Buoyed by this change, she wrote herself a new message of encouragement.
Continuing to write and change phrases as she felt things progress, Schueler slowly retrained her brain to think positively. She reflects, “This new way of thinking allowed me to begin to accept myself just as I was. I began to advocate for myself and went outside my comfort zone to meet new people and explore new hobbies. The key for me in turning things around was developing an acceptance of myself.”
Our thoughts become the lens through which we see the world, but it’s a lens that is often distorted, self-limiting and of narrow perspective. Our patterns of thinking are shaped by the nature of the mind, the ways we were socialized as women and the families in which we were raised. When we think repetitive, negative thoughts, we only see part of the full picture. It’s like looking at the night sky through a straw. Sure, we may see a star or two, but we miss the vast galaxy that surrounds us.
The human brain has a negativity bias that has helped us survive as a species. Our brains are primed to notice, remember and scan the environment for threats. This vigilance served us well in prehistoric times, but in modern society, leaves us vulnerable to attending to and holding onto negative things that occur. Negative experiences stick in our mind like Velcro, leading us to worry or focus on them long after they occur.
Women also have a tendency toward rumination. We are socialized to value our personal connections. As girls, we learned about ourselves while growing up through connecting with our circle of friends and family. But if there isn’t enough support, or if there is more criticism than acceptance from peers and adults, a disconnection from self occurs. Fitting-in can come at a price. Vulnerable girls can internalize criticism and rejection and look to others, instead of themselves, for validation.
Many negative beliefs we hold about ourselves and the way the world works are inherited. Certain thoughts are passed through generations and driven by our culture. We may have learned beliefs—“life is unfair,” “bad things always happen to me,” “don’t trust other people,” “there is something wrong with me”—that run like a program in the background keeping our lives constricted and smaller. We can achieve only that which we believe, and unless we work on unlearning those programmed thoughts, negative beliefs can inadvertently become self-fulfilling prophesies.
The widely researched field of cognitive psychology has demonstrated that thoughts matter. Our mind actively categorizes and organizes information to create representations of the world around us. Research conducted during the past 45 years has shown that what we think about internal and external stimuli affects our emotions and behaviors and shapes our experiences of life. Our thinking and beliefs drive the results we are getting, but we often undermine ourselves. How we perceive a situation or even day-to-day life can contribute to higher stress levels. If we engage in negative self-talk or distorted thinking about a situation, we experience a lower mood and energy, and tend to respond less effectively. Studies have shown that distorted or unrealistic thinking can precipitate and maintain psychological disorders, especially depression and anxiety, and even eating disorders, substance abuse and adjustment issues.
The oft-prescribed remedy is to ‘just think positively.’ But research shows that blind optimism actually does not motivate us and, actually, lowers our energy and leads to complacency.
Instead, it’s balanced thinking and self-compassion that create and support an optimal mindset.
Like a muscle we strengthen by lifting weights, we can train our brain by editing and restructuring our distorted, negative thoughts to be adaptive and realistic. It’s important to remain positive about certain things, such as our abilities, hopes and dreams, but also to clearly anticipate obstacles and barriers that may get in the way. When we practice this balanced thinking, we foster a belief in ourselves and our capacity to handle the challenges of life, and we build a mindset that fuels motivation, improves our mood and health, boosts energy and is a far more effective way of achieving our goals than ‘just thinking positively.’
We can develop core strength by practicing self-compassion, which is associated with higher levels of positive affect, optimism and happiness, lower levels of anxiety and depression, and better functioning in romantic relationships. If life is like a boat that can be blown around by heavy winds, capsizing when seas get rough, self-compassion can act like an anchor, providing strength and stability even during the stormiest seasons. That anchor helps us develop a solid sense of self and self-esteem, allowing us to turn inward and trust ourselves for validation and reinforcement during those storms instead of seeking the world’s approval.
When our thoughts support and encourage us, and when we have clarity about how we might handle challenges, we have an inner strength and more inner peace to better navigate our life and the world. We are better able to advocate for ourselves, take more chances, speak up and disagree. We learn how to hang in there with ourselves when life gets tough. We choose to remember our significance, rather than our shortcomings.
So it was for Schueler. “Until I accepted myself, I couldn’t truly be happy. I could be positive for other people. I could be optimistic despite challenges, but I couldn’t be truly happy.”
She still writes a phrase every morning and every night. “These phrases, she explains, are reminders of my intention and the reality I want to create for myself.”
Her new more balanced mindset has created an inner and outer transformation. Now two years after penning her first positive phrase, the change in Schueler is evident. Friends and family have noticed she is more at peace with herself. This year she was inducted into the UW-Eau Claire Athletic Hall of Fame for her college softball and professional career accomplishments. As she stood on stage to accept her award, she realized that she really has accomplished a lot, including creating an unwavering belief in herself—and for that reason she could truly enjoy the moment and take it all in. She also saw that her striving for constant improvement was not a negative attribute, as it appeared to be in the past. It is a positive part of who she is.
It can take some work to retrain our brain, but as Schueler has demonstrated, the results are palpable and worth it. We are the single biggest influence on our own lives. And so we should consider the types of thoughts we want to guide our lives, drive our direction and reflect the women we want to be. It means we can be just one thought away from changing our lives for the better.
- Be Mindful of Your Thoughts: Mindful awareness is like soaking a cooking pan in warm water to allow the grunge that’s been stuck on the pan to soften so you can clear it away. Pausing and listening to your internal dialogue allows you to step back and not get trapped in irrational, self-critical or negative thoughts. Remember they are only thoughts; they are not truths. Practice unhooking from these thoughts and bringing your mind back into the present moment. Our minds can handle only one thought at a time.
- Examine the Evidence: As you notice your automatic internal dialogue, ask yourself, is this thought true? Did I choose this thought or did I inherit it? Is this thought helping me become the person I want to be and getting me to where I want to go? Is it
bringing peace of mind and helping or holding me back? Does it build me up or tear me down? Let go of the negative thoughts that no longer serve you.Your thoughts become your experience.
- Restructure Your Thoughts: Catch yourself when you start to think negatively and practice editing your thoughts. Replace them with balanced and nourishing thoughts that promote peace of mind, make you feel good, create the motivation you need, or are in alignment with how you want to show up in the world. Short, positive phrases can help in stressful situations. Saying something like, “It’s going to be okay,” “This too will pass” or “I’m doing the best I can,” can help shift your thinking. Never underestimate the power of your thoughts to help or hurt you.
- Work with Affirmations: Use affirmations to build new pathways of thinking. Affirmations are strong, positive statements that
something is already so. It’s a way of building a new belief system based on what you want to have happen and the direction you want to go. Affirmations can be helpful at any time. Say affirmations silently in meditation. Write them down in a journal or post them in visible places. Tell them aloud to yourself throughout the day or while looking into your eyes in a mirror. Ask someone you trust to speak them to you.
– Shilah Mirgain
Shilah Mirgain is a UW-Health psychologist.