post written by: Marc Chernoff
There is little difference in people, but that little difference makes a big difference. The little difference is attitude. The big difference is whether it is positive or negative.
―W. Clement Stone
Why do we think negatively when we know better?
Because thinking negatively, expecting “the worst,” seeing the downside of positive situations, and even downright expecting failure, all convey a kind of backwards-thinking, emotional insurance policy. It goes something like, “If I expect a tragedy, then I won’t be disappointed when it takes place.”
Our desire to want to be right is another common reason we subconsciously choose negative thinking. Sometimes, as foolish as it sounds, we would rather be right about our negative predictions than have a positive outcome prove us wrong. And since negative thinking leads to negative actions, or no action at all in many cases, by thinking negatively we create a self-fulfilling prediction for ourselves. In other words, we think negatively, predict a negative outcome, act negatively, and then receive a negative outcome that fulfills our prediction.
Of course, none of this is what we truly want or need in our lives. So how can we stop talking ourselves into these thinking traps? Let’s take a look at four powerful ways to quiet the negative, inner voice that leads us astray:
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1. Start focusing on the grey area between the extremes.
Life simply isn’t black or white – 100% of this or 100% of that – all or nothing. Thinking in extremes like this is a fast way to misery, because negative thinking tends to view any situation that’s less than perfect as being extremely bad. For example:
- Rather than the rainstorm slowing down my commute home from work, instead “it wasted my whole evening and ruined my night!”
- Instead of my business venture taking a while to gain traction, “it’s never going to work, and it’s going to completely ruin my financial future.”
- Rather than just accepting the nervousness of meeting a new group of people, “I know these people are not going to like me.”
Since 99.9% of all situations in life are less than perfect, black and white thinking tends to make us focus on the negative – the drama, the failures, and the worst case scenarios. Sure catastrophes occur on occasion, but contrary to what you many see on the evening news, most of life occurs in a grey area between the extremes of bliss and devastation.
If you struggle with seeing the grey area of a situation, sit down with a pen and paper, write down the best-case outcome, the worst-case outcome, and at least one realistic outcome that falls between the two extremes. For example, say you’ve been worrying about a new intimate relationship, write down:
- Worst-case outcome (unlikely extreme): “The relationship is a total disaster that ends with two broken hearts.”
- Best-case outcome (unlikely extreme): “The relationship is total bliss with zero arguments until the end of time.”
- Realistic-case outcome (highly likely): “There will be great times, good times, and not so good times, but we will work together, respect each other, and give our relationship a fair chance before drawing any conclusions.”
Make the realistic-case outcome as detailed and long as you like, or list more than one realistic-case outcome. Giving your mind more options to consider will help reduce extreme emotions and allow you to think more clearly and realistically. (Read The Happiness Advantage.)
2. Stop looking for negative signs from others.
Too often we jump to conclusions, only to cause ourselves and others unnecessary worry, hurt, and anger. If someone says one thing, don’t assume they mean something else. If they say nothing at all, don’t assume their silence has some hidden, negative connotation.
Thinking negatively will inevitably lead you to interpret everything another person does as being negative, especially when you are uncertain about what the other person is thinking. For instance, “He hasn’t called, so he must not want to talk to me,” or, “She only said that to be nice, but she doesn’t really mean it.”
Assigning meaning to a situation before you have the whole story makes you more likely to believe that the uncertainty you feel (based on lack of knowing) is a negative sign. On the flip-side, holding off on assigning meaning to an incomplete story is a primary key to overcoming negative thinking. When you think more positively, or simply more clearly about the facts, you’ll be able to evaluate all possible reasons you can think of, not just the negative ones. In other words, you’ll be doing more of: “I don’t know why he hasn’t called, but maybe…”
- “…he’s extremely busy at work.”
- “…his phone battery is dead.”
- “…he’s simply waiting for me to call him.”
You get the get the idea. None of these circumstances are negative and all are as plausible as any other possible explanation.
Next time you feel uncertain and insecure, and you catch yourself stressing about a problem that doesn’t exist, stop yourself and take a deep breath. Then tell yourself, “This problem I’m concerned with only exists in my mind.” Being able to distinguish between what you imagine and what is actually happening in your life is an important step towards living a positive life.
3. Evaluate and eliminate unreasonable rules and expectations.
You must deal with the world the way it is, not the way you expect it to be. Life is under no obligation to give you exactly what you expect. In fact, whatever it is you’re seeking will rarely ever come in the form you’re expecting, but that doesn’t make it any less wonderful.
Stop forcing your own misconstrued expectations and rules on life…
- “He was late, so he must not care about me.” – Or perhaps he just got caught in traffic.
- “If I can’t do this correctly, then I must not be smart enough.” – Or perhaps you just need more practice.
- “I haven’t heard back from my doctor, so the test results must be bad.” – Or perhaps the lab is just really busy and your results aren’t available yet.
Inventing rules like these about how life must be, based on your own stubborn expectations, is a great way to keep your mind stuck in the gutter. This isn’t to say that you should never expect anything at all from yourself and others (diligence, honesty, ambition, etc.), but rather that the rules that govern your expectations should not steer you toward unreasonably negative conclusions.
If you feel dissatisfied or let down by an outcome, then you must have been expecting something different. Rather than get upset, ask yourself, “Were my expectations too narrow?” and “What new truths have I learned?”
The bottom line is that you must see and accept things as they are instead of as you hoped, wished, or expected them to be. Just because it didn’t turn out like you had envisioned, doesn’t mean it isn’t exactly what you need to get to where you ultimately want to go. (Read The Road Less Traveled.)
4. Embrace rejection and use it to find the right opportunities.
As soon as someone critiques and criticizes you, as soon as you are rejected, you might find yourself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am not worthy.” What you need to realize is, these other people are NOT worthy of YOU and your particular journey. Rejection is necessary medicine; it teaches you how to reject opportunities that aren’t going to work, so can quickly find new ones that will.
Rejection doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough; it means the other person failed to notice what you have to offer. It means you have more time to improve your thing – to build upon your ideas, to perfect your craft, and indulge deeper in to the work that moves you.
“Will you be bitter for a moment? Absolutely. Hurt? Of course, you’re human. There isn’t a soul on this planet that doesn’t feel a small fraction of their heart break at the realization of rejection. For a short time afterwards you ask yourself every question you can think of…
- “What did I do wrong?”
- Why didn’t they like me?
- How come?
But then you have to let your emotions fuel you! This is the important part. Let your feelings of rejection drive you, feed you, and inspire one heck of a powerful opening to the next chapter of your journey.
As you look back on your life, you will often realize that many of the times you thought you were being rejected from something good, you were in fact being redirected to something better. You can’t control everything. Sometimes you just need to relax and have faith that things will work out. Let go a little and just let life happen the way it’s supposed to. Because sometimes the outcomes you can’t change, end up changing you and helping you grow far beyond your wildest dreams. (Angel and I discuss this in more detail in the “Adversity” and “Relationships” chapters of “1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.”)
Think positive. Life is good. Too many people miss the silver lining because they’re expecting pure gold. Positive thinking isn’t about expecting the best to always happen, but accepting that whatever happens is the best for the moment. So keep smiling and keep staying true to your heart. Someday, the negative voice inside you will have nothing left to say.