As we discussed in the last chapter, your beliefs directly impact your attitude, actions, and progress in your life. It is easy then to see why it is so important to have a positive belief system. It’s amazing when I look through my life and can see how impactful this shift in my perspective has been. I am making the conscious decision to believe that I am capable of success, joy, and contribution. How amazing it is to just stop and consider the positive action of that thought.
But where should we focus our beliefs? How can we know what is possible? When I was in the midst of my struggles with my company, it was hard to imagine what was truly possible; my vision and my perspective felt limited by virtue of my circumstances. I felt that, because of my dire situation, the best I could hope for wasn’t much. I took solace in a passage from the book of Philippians:
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable . . . if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think on these things and the peace of God with be with you.” – Philippians 4:8-9
A life filled with peace certainly sounded amazing, and I took the passage to mean that your positive beliefs will unlock the doorway to a more fulfilling life. You may have noticed that people who are usually not happy with life or lead with a negative attitude find life much harder and without fulfillment or success. Everything in this person’s life is someone else’s fault. “The system or the man is holding me down.”
You truly have the freedom to control your thoughts and how they will impact your actions, beliefs, and progress in life. Positive or negative thoughts are a choice within your control. As W. Clement Stone said: “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.”
In order to have a life filled with mostly positive thinking, I believe it’s important to understand the general definitions of positive thinking and negative thinking, along with the benefits of positive thoughts and the burdens of negative ones. Let’s take a closer look.
The generally accepted definition of “negative thinking” is very akin to pessimism. It is the tendency to take the most unfavorable view of situations, or to expect the worst outcome in any circumstance. In other words, it’s always looking on the gloomy and dark side of things.
For many years, the most commonly taught practice was to simply avoid negative thinking altogether—to eliminate it from your thought process. Scholars have taught us to avoid negative thinking, not to focus on positive thinking instead.4 That may not seem like a big difference, but understand it this way:
Do you remember when you were a kid and you were told not to do something, like touching the stove? Those instructions only made you want to try it more. As John Assaraf, author of The Answer, breaks it down, our mind is conditioned to hear information in a certain way. So for example, if I tell you “don’t touch the stove,” your brain actually dismisses the “don’t” and only hears “touch the stove.” It’s definitely a twist in modern thinking to say that we don’t need to eliminate negative thinking. The key is to focus on the positive instead. Rather than say, “don’t touch the stove,” consider saying, “The stove is hot.”
I know that this concept of positive thinking is being forwarded as modern thinking, but as I mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, we have been encouraged to think positively for a very long time. The passage of time has twisted the truth and caused us to focus on the blocking of negative thinking, which actually doesn’t work.
If we focus on not doing what we hate, then our mind is still consumed with negative thinking because that is where we are applying our focus. So what are the physical consequences of negative thinking?
1. You’re unable to deal with stress.
It’s been proven that a negative thought process causes us to be unable to handle stress properly. Stress, along with a negative attitude, leads to problems like panic attacks, outbursts of anger, and depression.
2. Your health suffers.
It’s been shown that people with primarily negative thinking are more likely to have a weaker immune system and more health issues overall. So when you think with a negative outlook, you are more likely to get sick and be prone to disease.
3. You’re less resilient.
A person who is negative generally gives up faster, and they don’t tend to push through and persevere. A negative person gives up; it’s plain and simple.
The most destructive area of negative thinking is when you lose sight of your value and you allow those negative thoughts to control you. Not only is this a lie, but it also leads to:
1. Self-rejection: You’re unable to accept yourself for who you are. You’re not happy with or thankful for the person you are.
2. Self-hatred: You actually hate who you are. You consider yourself ugly, dumb, clumsy, and worse.
3. Being unforgiving or bitter: You constantly hold past things against yourself, especially things that were embarrassing or gross. You’re ashamed of your actions.
4. Being hard on yourself: You always beat yourself up mentally, physically, and emotionally. You see yourself as worthless, or you attempt to reach unrealistic goals just to feel good about yourself.
5. Low self-esteem: You always see yourself as a failure. You’re always comparing yourself to others, and worse yet, you never add up in value.
6. Feeling ugly or stupid: You see yourself as ugly, worthless, stupid, or not worthy of love.
There are so many things to add to the consequences of negative thinking, but these thoughts are real and destructive. If you keep feeding these thoughts, your life will be filled with despair and destruction.
So as I said, for many years we have been taught to avoid negative thinking by just not having negative thoughts. This is ironic, considering that our brains will focus on the information being fed into them. So if we lead with negative, why would we expect any different result? And if we lead with the blocking of negative, our brains are hearing the affirmation of the thought, so this certainly can’t help.
This is a big breakthrough if you understand the point. Negative thinking and negative thought avoidance will ultimately only result in more negative thinking. Don’t be frustrated as you have been in the past when you continue with negative thought. It’s what you are promoting.
So how do we deal with this issue? As scholars of the recent era point out, we need to focus our minds on positive thinking.5 It is better instead to focus our minds on things that are lovely and admirable, noble and right. It is better to focus on the things that will bring us peace.
Positive thinking, like negative thinking, is a proactive choice. What do you choose?
I am truly blessed to have the gift of being able to encourage others. It has served me well. What a funny statement when you think about it! Of course it will serve me well, it’s my gift—a gift from God. I didn’t create this gift. Throughout my adult life, I’ve matured this talent.
As a lawyer who openly cares about people, I have the true blessing to be able to offer someone encouragement regularly. On one occasion, I helped a friend through trouble in his marriage. There was an affair, a bunch of hurt, and all signs pointed to divorce. I gave him advice and encouragement that you can come back from poor decisions. He looked inside and found the courage to fight through the mess he created, and his marriage survived.
I have had the privilege of this exact issue coming to me a few times in my life. I believe that since I knew my gift and how to use it, I was given these opportunities to help. Plus, I’m from a broken family, and I know that the gift of staying together and not accepting the easy way out is the best plan. I recognize there can be very dangerous or hurtful situations that require a couple to break up, but in most cases we give up because we see no other way out.
Positive thinking is critical to a good belief in yourself, a positive outlook to challenges in your life, and being able to see the best in bad situations. I’m not here to suggest that bad things won’t happen. On the contrary, bad things do happen. We are going to be hurt by people—this is a fact. But the act of being hurt by someone does not mean that the world is out to get you or that everyone will hurt you or let you down.
Positive thinking actually looks at a bad situation realistically. It also searches for a way to improve the situation and help you overcome the place you’re in at the moment.
I know you’ve experienced hurt and pain in your life, but there is a truth that I know and I want you to hear it: You are valuable, even in your imperfection. You need to take the time to reflect on this and actually allow yourself to believe this truth. Choose to believe in your value.
By now you may be asking yourself, “How do I deal with all the negative thoughts that are thrust at me in this world?”
Let’s go back to Philippians 4:8-9 for some answers. We are encouraged to think positive thoughts on such matters that are true, honorable, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable. Whenever you are having negative thoughts, don’t try to block out those thoughts. Instead, you are actually encouraged to flood your mind with truthful thoughts. As I discussed earlier, regularly saying good things to yourself improves your attitude and makes positive thinking easier. The feeling of peace you get from positive thinking quickly transcends your feelings of doubt and despair.
You have the power to renew your thinking. If you focus on positive thinking, there are known physical benefits to you that will result.
1. You will be better equipped to deal with stress.
If you look to the right, noble, lovely, and truthful part of a bad situation, then you will be able to handle the hard or stressful parts much more easily and endure through them.
2. Your health will improve.
People who focus on whatever is true or admirable, who focus on positive thinking, have been shown to have a stronger immune system and better overall health.
3. You won’t give up.
A person focused on true positive thinking can withstand negative situations far better. You will be more resilient than the average person, and you won’t let a bad situation cause you to give up altogether.
Just as negative thinking is destructive to your personal belief in yourself, positive thinking about yourself leads to:
1. Acceptance of yourself: You are generally thankful for the person you are.
2. Self-love: You not only accept yourself, you are actually self-loving—you are grateful to be you.
3. Forgiveness: You’re able to forgive your past decisions and bad choices.
4. A good view of yourself: You lift up yourself and think positively about yourself.
5. High self-esteem: You see yourself as a success, with high value to offer others. You do not feel a need to compare yourself to others. You know you are specifically and wonderfully made.
6. High self-worth: You see yourself as attractive, smart, and of high value.
Your thoughts will have a profound impact on the direction you go in life. Positive thinking leads to progress, and negative thinking leads to despair and no movement (at best). Negative thinking actually sees failure as a result, not as a step in your life’s journey.
I really like how Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity, puts it: You are either spiraling up or spiraling down. Your negative thoughts cause a downward spiral, and your positive thoughts cause an upward spiral.
Ok, let’s take a deep breath, because there was a lot there and possibly some new information for you. Also, I recognize that in our potential we are not perfect. We are going to have negative thoughts. The world is a tough place, and bad things happen. If you look honestly at your life, whenever you have focused on positive thoughts your outcome looked peaceful and persevering.
Anyone who tells you to only have happy and fully positive thoughts is being unrealistic. We live in a world where bad things happen. We also live in a world filled with negative thoughts, both from ourselves and from others.
We are going to suffer from the act of negative thinking. The goal is not avoidance, but reduction. We shouldn’t believe that we will never again have any negative thoughts. Instead, we should focus on reducing the number of negative thoughts we have, or find a way to get out of our negative thinking once it starts.
I recall a few times in my life when I was in a downward, negative spiral. It seemed as though I would never break the cycle of negative thinking.
Earlier, I discussed our publishing business failure. During this time, I was locked in a spiral of negative thinking. I was focused on the large debt of over $5 million that we had as a result of the business failing. I got a bunch of bad press. The buyer closing caused defaults on consumer contracts and we got sued by the Attorney General and other vendors. I felt trapped in my situation and was locked into my self-defeating beliefs.
It was during this time when Philippians 4:8-9 was revealed to me. I started to realize that I am going to have struggles in this world. I needed to focus mostly on the truth. When I did, I was more engaged, more productive, had a better attitude, felt more peaceful and willing to help others, and was more joyful in life. Once I knew what right, true, and noble thinking looked like, I was able to recognize the thoughts that were throwing me down.
Your goal should not be to completely eliminate negative thoughts. Since we are not perfect, this goal is destined for failure. More accurately, our goal should be to have more positive thoughts than negative ones. A second goal should be to stop the continuance of a negative thought once you have it, since it’s going to lead to a downward spiral.
My mother passed away a few years ago, and of course I was devastated when I got the news. During the grieving process, I experienced a slew of emotions and thoughts. If you’ve lost a parent, child, or someone close to you, I know you can appreciate how I felt during this time. My thoughts and emotions were all over the place, spiraling up and slamming down again and again.
I remember the crushing disappointment and guilt I started to feel when I thought about how I could have been a better son. I could have called her more. I could have visited more often. I certainly could have written her to tell her I love her. I am not going to say my relationship with my mom was perfect or amazing, but she was my mom, and I started having so many negative thoughts about our relationship and my behavior.
However, even in the midst of my grief, I chose to focus on whatever was true, noble, and praiseworthy in our relationship. Grieving for my mother was certainly not easy but man, how much harder it would have been if I had chosen to focus on that downward spiral of negative thoughts.
(As an aside—Take the extra time starting today to reach out to your loved ones regularly, while you have the chance. You will not regret that decision.)
Not all situations naturally call for a positive response. So, to place the burden upon yourself of always having positive thoughts is unrealistic. Fortunately, there is a solution for this.
In her book Positivity, author Barbara Fredrickson offers a great way to help with your thoughts. Fredrickson promotes the idea of trying to have three out of every four thoughts be positive. When you have more positive than negative thoughts, you are bound to spiral upward!
The truth of the matter was that my mom died and our relationship could have been better. I was a good son, but I certainly had substantial room for improvement. But I chose to focus my thoughts on the talents given to me, and how my mom helped me grow and mature in those talents. Thanks, mom! I also decided to invest in the close relationships that I have now (more on close relationships later in this book). Losing my mother was incredibly hard, but choosing to focus on the positive—the things that I loved her for—helped me to manage my grief.
How we react to our emotions and what we continue to focus on in a situation are critical. It is not the goal to always have happy thoughts. That’s not possible. Plus, I’m not sure any of us can squarely define “happy,” let alone a “happy thought.” So our discussion is centered on this idea of positive thinking and having more positive thoughts than negative ones.
In the first chapter, we discussed the idea of developing good habits to renew our thinking. This idea deserves to be repeated here. If you are not used to naturally having positive thoughts, you need to work at changing this habit. If you are used to having naturally positive thoughts, then you at least want to make sure your ratio is three to one, in favor of positive thinking.
Each day, and each moment for that matter, is a new stop on our journey of life. How we choose to respond to each moment of each day is what we need to focus on, not whether or not the day is going to be a good day!
We can’t control outside factors. We can only choose to have a positive or negative attitude in response to events that are outside of our control. Are you somebody who wakes up and asks, “Is today going to be a good day or a bad day?” or “What is going to happen to me today to ruin my day?”
I will grant that bad things happen. I will also acknowledge that situations that you did not create can be hard to deal with in a positive manner. A defeated approach in life leads to a defeated life.”
I challenge you each day to work on creating a positive ratio of thoughts. Your life will spiral upward and you will see dramatic changes in your progress in life. Developing the habit of maintaining a positive thought ratio is where you should focus your efforts. Having positive thoughts about yourself is critical to effectively helping yourself and others.
Sometimes I still find myself believing the lies the world tells me. I catch myself giving into negative thoughts about myself. One way to address this problem is to have a Gratitude Attitude. Being grateful is an amazing way to bring truth to your thoughts and feelings, and truth is positive upward thinking. What’s interesting about a Gratitude Attitude is that when I find myself believing negative things about myself and then begin applying some positive thoughts to the situation, the reversal affect can be almost instant.
During our business failure, when I had large debt looming over my head, I was in a downward spiral. I turned my focus to the things that would bring me peace. I decided one day not to default on any of our debt, to start believing that we would bounce back and persevere through this tough time. I am happy to report we repaid every debt, and more. We recovered, but during that time focusing on truth pulled me out of some very tough days.
But what if my thoughts go back to a negative ratio? The mind is a powerful (maybe the most powerful) tool, and thought experts suggest that it is extremely hard to retrain your thoughts. So if you have a negative ratio and you want to change it to a positive ratio, you have to work daily at renewing your mind.
EXERCISE: One of the most rewarding tasks in my life has been to write down three things I am grateful for on a daily basis. Take a moment right now and write down three things you are grateful for in your life.
You will quickly discover how much more thankful you feel just from this one exercise. Now take that feeling and compound it daily. This daily habit will produce profound effects of thankfulness in your life. Having a thankful heart does wonders for creating a positive ratio of thoughts. The more thankful you are for where you’re at in life, the better your chances of being positive in how you deal with life moving forward.
Now let’s not get too far away from the main subject in this book: “you.” A positive belief about yourself is crucial to long-term joy and success. Being grateful for the life you have and the many blessings, opportunities, and talents you possess is an amazing way to open your heart and mind to the truth that your are valuable.
When you get beat up by the world, it can be tough to remain positive about yourself. Doubt creeps in and you start to question your value, worth, impact, likeability, and ability to help and love others. Now imagine continually compounding those negative feelings. Before you know it you’re in a pit, possibly even depressed. Your thoughts about yourself are neutral at best, and most likely negative.
I’ve experienced times like this, so you’re not alone. I remember when my parents got divorced, and when I started to question whether I was a good son. Did I cause them to fight more? If I could have been a better family member, would they still be together?
I was in high school during the time. It was tough. I was trying to figure out who I was while dealing with a broken family. Those days significantly impacted the person I am today. I trained my brain to only trust in myself and actually worked hard at not letting others get too close to me so I wouldn’t have to experience the pain of a breakup again. And, just as avoiding negative thinking will only make you find it, this behavior actually caused the result I didn’t want. I was actually encouraging shallow, limited relationships to exist in my life—relationships that were very likely going to break up—all because I didn’t want broken relationships in my life.
I remember looking back at my life in my early 30’s and realizing that I didn’t have any close friends. I worked hard at helping people, but not at letting anyone into my heart and feelings. I had very one-sided relationships. It’s amazing how negative blocking is actually negative thinking and destructive in our lives. Today I work much harder at developing two-sided relationships with my friends and my marriage is much stronger because of this decision to focus on praiseworthy thoughts.
Back to the publishing business failure—it was such a large failure that we just barely avoided bankruptcy. We could have filed, but my wife Debbi and I decided not to throw in the towel in and chose to fight back instead. We were able to work through and overcome the debt load, but during this time I was still emotionally low. I remember thinking that I was a complete failure. I had let my family down. I deserved what was happening (and maybe I really did). Boy, my positivity ratio was bad!
One day I had breakfast with a colleague who really hammered on me, telling me that I really let him down. He looked to me as an example (an unofficial mentor) and I really disappointed him. I had a strong position of leadership in our church, and to get sued by the Attorney General for bad consumer practices made my colleague think I wasn’t the man he thought I was. I was really upset by that afternoon and couldn’t stop thinking about that breakfast meeting.
But then I started thinking, “People like me. I help others. I can make mistakes and people still like me. I am valuable.” The positive thoughts kept piling up, and before I knew it, I was feeling much better about myself! The pain of the conversation didn’t go away, but the way I chose to see myself changed dramatically. The next day, I remember writing down a list of good qualities about myself, as well as good things people say about me. That list really helped, so much so that I now encourage people who are low on their positivity ratio to stop, slow down, and write out a “good list” about their most positive qualities.
Just like being grateful about what you have in your life, what are you grateful for about you? What are those true, honorable, noble, and lovely things about yourself?
EXERCISE: Take a few moments and list out ten things about yourself that are good and you are grateful for. This is a powerful exercise. Take the time, it’s worth the investment!
After the list is done (please go back and do it if you skipped over it!), how do you feel? You will likely find that there truly is a peace that comes over you. This Gratitude Attitude about yourself helps you see yourself in a way that will truly benefit and even motivate you.
A positive belief about your value is a powerful motivator, trust me! I like this exercise so much that I have a laminated 3×5 card with 16 positive affirmation statements that I use as a bookmark in my daily black book. I read this card each and every day. It’s been incredibly uplifting for me, and I promise it will be for you too. It only takes me about one minute to read the list, but that one minute makes all the difference in my day. You have one minute to invest in your positive and thankful beliefs about yourself!
To show you how much I like this and how powerful this is to me, I’ve shared my affirmation list at abetteryou.com/resources.
As you’ll read on my daily affirmation list, I had to work at adding positive thoughts about myself to replace the negative thoughts in my heart and mind. It’s a daily journey, but the journey is an investment in a better me. I encourage you now to create your own affirmation list. You can easily repurpose it from the list you created in the previous exercise.
I am a positive person, but there is a very realistic approach to life in my positivity. I know that list looks aspirational, and in some cases it may still be, but I am truly committed to the renewal of my mind and the truth about myself. To me, that means that I aspire each day to live out the truths of my daily affirmations. Will I occasionally fall short? Of course, but perfection is not my goal.
1. You need to both understand and recognize negative thinking.
2. The only effective way to overcome negative thinking is to have positive thoughts.
3. Focusing on truth is always positive.
4. Having more positive than negative thoughts will allow your ratio to be more positive. We are not perfect. Our goal is to have three out of four thoughts be positive.
5. You are valuable. Positive beliefs in your value lead to progress in your life.
6. List out what makes you valuable. What are your talents?
7. If you need a jumpstart to positive thinking, think about what you are grateful for in your life.
8. Pursuit, not perfection, is your goal.
9. Daily affirmations fill your brain with positive thoughts about yourself.
If you want to explore some great tools and exercises that can help you on your journey, visit abetteryou.com/resources. You can also reach out to us at [email protected] for anything we can help you with on your journey to a better you!