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No matter what you hope to be successful at, your attitude plays a big role. You’re not likely to get ahead if you’re constantly depressed, pessimistic, and jealous of those who do well. Unfortunately, those seem to be the default settings for far too many people, and it takes a lot of work to undo that and view the world as a neutral or even friendly place full of opportunity.
What’s worse, many people spend tons of time and money reworking their attitude, only to find out it doesn’t change their situation. They’re still the same old broke, project-abandoning, constantly rejected people they always were – even though they’re getting up every day and exercising, reading something positive, and trying to view things in a more positive light.
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Why Isn’t Positive Thinking Working for YOU?
A simple mindset shift DOES help most people, but that’s where most mindset talk ends. The truth is that it doesn’t work for everyone, at least not that simply and easily. There are several reasons why.
You haven’t really bought in.
We all have mental baggage, some more than others. If you’ve had a pretty normal, uncomplicated life, a bit of positive thinking may be all it takes to give you that little push to work harder and do better.
Other people, however, may be dealing with years of disbelief, poverty, rejection, struggle, and failure. You can’t always undo that so easily. Even though you’re telling yourself you’ll succeed, your personal history keeps creeping back into your mind, telling you it’s not possible.
The answer? From what I’ve seen, it’s action + gradually increasing minor wins. Start with small action items, little things you can’t help but win at. Increase the stakes and difficulty as you go, and you’ll help retrain your brain to focus on these new patterns instead of the old ones.
All the while, you need to keep up whatever positivity routines you’ve established. That way, when you do have little setbacks, you’ll be primed to look at them as just that – minor setbacks in the midst of great progress, action, and growing momentum. Don’t let in the temptation to view these little wins as little wins. Remind yourself that you’re not just doing something small, you’re also doing the monumentally important work of rewiring how you think about yourself.
It’s a two-pronged approach, and it takes time and conscious effort to make it happen, but you CAN undo a lifetime of bad mental habits if you work with a strategy that takes them into account.
You’re using positive thinking and motivation work as a substitute for action.
Getting your mind in order is an essential part of being successful. That said, it’s not the ONLY work. Too many people read a lot of motivation books and take a lot of classes from people who loudly say things like, “You’re a badass!” and make them feel good, but then they don’t do the actual work on whatever their goal is. They wear themselves out trying to think happy thoughts, and reward themselves for doing it…so they get that payoff, they feel good, and they call it a day.
Even worse, some people get caught up in Facebook groups that just reinforce this, and they go around in circles being told they’re awesome and telling other people they’re awesome – with nothing behind those compliments. It may feel good for a while, but deep down, you know all that, “I love you because you’re you and you’re unique!” nonsense is hollow. That’s not to say you’re not awesome and unique and that we’re not all cool in our own ways, but if you’re constantly getting the “reward” without doing anything for it, that can really screw up the way you think about yourself and taking action.
If any of this sounds like you, figure out a way to restructure your days. Cut back on the motivational materials and Facebook groups and schedule some other work towards your goals. Check in with yourself daily to make sure you’re making progress in BOTH areas.
You’re pursuing the wrong goals.
If the goal you’re shooting for isn’t one that really excites you on a deep level, you’re not as likely to be successful no matter what’s going on in your head. You won’t have the endurance to handle as many setbacks, and you won’t do things with 100% enthusiasm. Some little part of your mind will always try to hold you back because it knows you don’t really want what you’re trying to get.
You’re a defensive pessimist.
If you’ve ever done much research on the science of optimism and pessimism, you’ve likely seen studies talking about how optimism isn’t always the best strategy. It’s true, especially for people who fall into the category of “defensive pessimists”. These people thrive on a level of anxiety and fear that comes from assuming they won’t do well. If you encourage them, they actually perform worse on many tasks. They’re turning negative thinking into action, and for them, it often works.
That said, strategic optimists and defensive pessimists thrive in different types of settings and tasks (and optimism is DEFINITELY more fun). One study found that more than 80% of CEOs score as “very optimistic”. You need that kind of thinking for tasks and careers that involve a lot of rejection and criticism.
Pessimists tend to take those things very personally, and because the defensive pessimist is a pessimist, he or she is more likely to give up after repeated rejection. Meanwhile, optimists can hang in there, feeling the big win is just around the next corner. Instead of saying, “They all hate me and I’m not cut out for this and I knew I would fail,” they’ve trained themselves to think, “The more people who say no to me, the closer I’m getting to the one who will say yes, and the better I’m getting at asking.” Both get stronger the more they’re reinforced.
The line between strategic optimist and defensive pessimist is actually quite small. The strategic optimist says, “I can do this. These are the steps I need to take,” while the defensive pessimist says, “I’m probably going to fail at this, but here’s what I can do to minimize the likelihood and the impact of that failure.” Some studies suggest that strategic optimists, on average, will plan a little less in advance, but that’s something we can control and adjust as we learn what gives us the best results.
Like we said before, defensive pessimists can thrive under many conditions, but they’re not going to do as well when something requires a lot of rejection and failure before success – in other words, freelancing is a lot more difficult if you operate as a defensive pessimist. Positive thinking alone won’t do it for you, though.
The problem with encouragement and relaxation and positive thinking for defensive pessimists is that their habit is to transform anxiety into preparation. Take away the anxiety, you take away the preparation. If you recognize this in yourself, work to retrain yourself to be more like the strategic optimist. Get yourself in a good frame of mind, and make a special point of always following that up with actions that will better help you succeed.
By being AWARE of your tendency to get too comfortable when feeling good about something, you can combat the negative effects of positive thinking. It will take time to form the new habits so they feel natural, but again, repeated small successes will help shift your thinking over time.
You’re still surrounded by depressed people.
One of the biggest challenges to re-shaping your thoughts is dealing with the influence of the people who surround you. Depending on your background, this may be more or less of a factor.
In motivational circles, the traditional wisdom is that you should cut negative thinkers out of your life because you’re the sum of the 5 people around you the most. There’s a lot of truth to that, but it’s not always practical. What do you do if your mother is a total buzzkill who’s constantly quoting the very worst things in the news and constantly expecting the worst possible things to happen? Are you really going to say, “Hey mom, you’re totally harshing my mellow…so it was nice knowing you, but bye.” If it’s a friend or significant other, however, you may have to think seriously about getting rid of them if they’re holding you back from the life you want (and they’re unwilling to try being more positive).
Personally, I came from one of those dreadful little Midwestern towns where life used to be good, but it isn’t anymore. Most of the businesses are gone, but there’s a Wal-Mart, and a McDonald’s, and everyone and their brother has some sort of opioid addiction and criminal record. It’s not the kind of place where positive thinking thrives. Even visiting and chatting with people there can be enough to give me a lingering sense of doom that takes a few days to shake after leaving.
Negativity is highly contagious, and if you’re not carefully monitoring and counteracting what you let in, it can swallow you and thwart all your best efforts. Though I try to minimize the negative people I’m around, I know it’s not totally possible, and I also know that in small amounts, exposure can help you build immunity. I just make sure to follow up with a routine that lets me get back to a good place quickly. I try to minimize news, spend time with positive people and my animals, and do a little extra reading on topics of motivation and ethics – and of course, I dive back into work, because few things make you feel better than meaningful action.
Assess Your Mindset Work Regularly
Like anything, your mindset work will be most effective if you assess its effectiveness regularly. If you’re doing the work and not getting results, try to figure out where you may be falling short, and how you can improve. With time and practice, you’ll get there.
If this is something you've struggled with in the past, please share your tips and tricks in the comments!
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