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It probably comes as no surprise that what we think and say to ourselves day in and day out, over weeks and years and decades, can have a big impact on how we feel about ourselves and on our sense of worth. It may be more surprising to learn that the words that we say to ourselves, positive or negative, can actually change our brains in significant ways. According to Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, even single positive or negative words can alter the expression of genes, influence the release of hormones and neurotransmitters, and turn on or off the circuitry that can help us build resilience or experience heightened stress.
If we really begin to bring awareness to the thoughts we have as we go through the day, we may discover that many of our thoughts can be self-critical, inaccurate, distorted, exaggerated and even untrue. This can be especially so when, inevitably, things don’t go as well as we would like.
Think about the last time you made a mistake.
Are any of these phrases familiar: “That was so stupid. I’m such an idiot; I can’t believe I did that – what’s wrong with me?”
On the other hand, when we do things well it is often easy to gloss over these things or to think “that wasn’t a big deal.” Often the small, positive things we do during the day don’t register at all, because we are much more focused on what has gone wrong.
If any of this sounds familiar, don’t worry — you are not alone.
This is part of the human condition. Our brains are wired to overestimate “threat” and danger, to make big things out of little things, and to hold onto negative experiences and overlook positive ones. Our ancestors back in cave person times who faced daily predators wouldn’t have survived and passed their genes onto us if they hadn’t assumed the worst and given more attention to negatives.
So how can we best work with our thoughts in ways that can help nurture and cultivate an accurate sense of worth and greater resilience, without feeling fake and disingenuous or leaving us feeling falsely inflated?
In my book Dancing on the Tightrope: Transcending the Habits of Your Mind and Awakening to Your Fullest Life, I share a tool that I call “The Diet.” The diet can help us work with negative thinking, and I will share an example here of how we can use the diet to help us when we come up against inevitable mistakes, upsets, and things that don’t go well.
When we are challenged by our own inevitable short-comings, we can use one of the “diets” that I refer to as the diet of specific, accurate and self-compassionate thoughts.
Begin to watch the language you use when things go wrong. Often it can be generalized, inaccurate and self-critical, as in the thought “I’m so stupid,” “I’m such an idiot,” or “what’s wrong with me?” These all imply something globally wrong with you as a person, and while these phrases may seem like no big deal, over time they can add up and begin to affect you in ways you may not even realize. As Martin Seligman describes, the language we use to explain why events happen, or our “explanatory style” can directly contribute to optimistic or pessimistic mindsets that affect our emotions and behaviors.
Take a moment and say the above negative phrases from the previous paragraph out loud to yourself.
What happens in your body? What happens to your energy and mood? There isn’t a lot of room to move forward when we make these global statements about our own (inaccurate) defectiveness as a person.
Here is how a healthier diet might sound:
“I’m really disappointed that I made this mistake today. I wasn’t paying as much attention as I could have, and I overlooked something I wish I hadn’t. I often pay attention to detail, but today I didn’t. I’m quite upset, but at least I’ll know what to do next time.”
Do you hear how those words are much more specific to the situation (it’s about today and the actual situation that happened), accurate (taking into account that this was one mistake in a context of many successes), and self-compassionate (acknowledging the situation and issue, but not in an attacking way; instead speaking in a way that you might talk to a friend you deeply care about).
Note that this person didn’t say “this was no big deal” or “I’m great at what I do so it doesn’t matter.” Our diet needs to be honest, genuine and believable in order to be most helpful. If you are upset about something, it is important to acknowledge that and not push those negative feelings away. But note how those words in the second example make you feel when you say them out loud, compared to the more negative diet in the first example.
We can also cultivate resilience when we work with our successes using a tool I refer to in my book Dancing on the Tightrope as “the Magnifying Glass” (a tool inspired by Rick Hanson’s work on positive neuroplasticity).
Because of the negativity bias of our brains, we need to work harder to notice the small, positive moments in our day. That also extends to our own successes, which we often overlook.
When a situation goes well, when you do something you feel good about, act in a way that makes you feel proud, or experience a small “success” in your day (for example, not procrastinating on something you normally might, or performing a task well) take some time to consider the following:
Don’t gloss over the moment, disregard it, or let it pass unnoticed. We may be in the habit of saying “that was no big deal” or “well that’s how I expect I should be all the time so why should I pat myself on the back?” Notice this tendency, but take a few moments to magnify the positive action nonetheless.
Some things you might ask yourself include:
How did I handle this situation in a positive way that I can recognize?
– What did I think, do or say that was helpful here?
– Is there any way in which I stepped out of my comfort zone just a bit, and if so, what helped me do that?
– What inner resources did I use in this situation that I can acknowledge and appreciate (perhaps patience, kindness, creativity, inner strength, grit, perseverance, or something else).
Whatever positive emotions arise from answering these questions, spend at least a minute or two magnifying those positive emotions in your body, with your full attention. Feel these positive emotions as sensations in your body.
Try to appreciate the small, positive things that you do throughout the day that you might otherwise overlook, instead of just waiting for those big achievements (for example, you might appreciate that you were patient with a family member even though you were frustrated, or that you stopped and helped someone even though you were in a hurry).
Be specific and accurate regarding your successes.
Don’t just say “I did a good job with that presentation today.” Recognize and name why it went well (for example, I took a lot of time to prepare for this ahead of time instead of waiting until the night before, I used some creative strategies to captivate the audience, or I raised some provocative questions that led to engaging dialogue).
These changes, while seemingly small, can add up over time and contribute in significant ways to appreciating our strengths and being more compassionate about our short-comings. Day after day, these small steps can become the building blocks upon which our resilience grows.
Note: This post was adapted from an article originally posted on Mind Mastery Lab.