Focus on the Positives to Rewire Your Brain
If you are a person who downplays the positive things in your life, this blog is for you. When someone compliments your outfit, do outright reject the comment? Do you add a qualifier, such as, “Yeah, but it’s really old,” to subtly (or not so subtly) dismiss what the person is saying? Many people have become “good” at apologetically accepting compliments. This isn’t really accepting them at all, and you are doing yourself a disservice.
On the other hand, you likely have that one friend who keeps telling you to be positive ad nauseam. You might want to scream at your sunshiny friend and just tune out what they are saying. While you may feel like being self-deprecating and focusing on negatives is simply just part of your personality, you very well could be doing yourself more harm than good. Focusing so heavily on negative things while dismissing the good can rob you of the enjoyment you could be getting out of your life, the little AND the big things.
What’s the Big Deal about Being Negative Anyway?
We seem to live in a culture that rewards us for being unhappy and leads us to believe that it is humorous to be self-deprecating. Facebook memes promote commiserating about how much you hate your job. Women “connect” with each other by lamenting about their weight and how much of it they need to lose. We may feel like we are supposed to be this way and find it hard to separate these tendencies from the core of who we are. What is scary is that negative thinking can rewire your brain and like a snowball effect, the more you do it, the more your brain automatically gravitates toward pointing out the negatives. So why does this matter?
Continually discounting the positive for the negative:
- Robs us of joy
- Disconnects us from others around us
- Increases stress
- Keeps us stuck ruminating, instead of growing and evolving
- Leads us to depression and anxiety
- Tricks us into thinking “this is just the way I am”
- Leads to low self-esteem
Especially if you have been hurt in the past, your brain tries to be super helpful by focusing on what hurt you in the hopes of preventing it from ever happening again. This might be a good intention, but focusing so much on negatives and throwing away small positives can lead you to completely discounting even BIG positives, like starting a new relationship (“they’ll probably leave me anyway”) or getting the job you wanted (“I was probably the only one in the running”). This self-protective mechanism is your brain’s way of trying to keep you from getting hurt, but it keeps you from living fully. We don’t want you to become a naive Pollyanna who is unrecognizable to yourself. That is not what this is about. You can absolutely find a way not to discount positives that fits within the core of who you are.
Balancing Humility and Self-Criticism
Self-criticism has become encouraged in our culture and is an accepted way to motivate you to improve. This might work for some people, but it’s important to look at your ways of presenting constructive criticism to yourself. Would you say the same thing out loud to someone else? If you say to yourself “I’m such an idiot!” instead of “that didn’t go as I wanted, but I believe I can do this differently next time,” you likely have some shifting to do in your focus. One is much more helpful and motivating than the other. The latter acknowledges the disappointment, but still holds positive regard for self.
If you find yourself thinking, “well, I don’t want to become full of myself,” good! We don’t want that for you either, but it is a far distance from discounting positives to becoming vain. Accepting a compliment from someone and feeling good about yourself doesn’t mean that you should automatically assume yourself to be vain (see what you’re doing there?). Give yourself permission to feel good about yourself without feeling SUPERIOR to others and you will likely find that sweet spot of flow where you feel you belong in the world. You will feel as though you have something worthwhile to contribute, as does everyone else. Your uniqueness will become meaningful to YOU when you no longer brush off the positive parts of yourself and your day.
How Do I Think More Positively?
Though thinking more positively seems fairly straightforward, it actually takes a lot of practice, particularly if you’ve been in a pattern of focusing on the negatives for a long time. You likely discount the positives on autopilot! Spend the energy to correct your negative thoughts to get the positives back. This might look like asking for a redo after someone compliments you and you dismiss it. Check out our list of tips on how to accomplish this.
Tips to think more positively
- Practice saying thank you. Period.
- Put affirmations where you will SEE them (ex: sticky note saying “I’m creative” on your desk)
- Mediate/spend time thinking about what went WELL during your day
- Practice thought–stopping when you notice negative loops starting
- Try to see yourself the way a loved one sees you (spouse, pet, friend, family member, higher power)
- Intentionally do nice things for yourself to practice guilt-free self–care
Additionally, your individual therapist can help you work through some of your tendencies to discount the positives, or negative thought patterns. It can be extremely helpful to have a neutral person give you feedback about what you’re thinking and saying, because sometimes these pesky types of patterns become so ingrained that they are difficult for us to notice within ourselves! There is help available, and you can try some of the above suggestions to be on your way to more positive thinking.
Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University & therapist at Angelus Therapeutic Services