Quite often, the way we feel about a situation comes from our perception of it. Often that perception is right, but sometimes it isn’t.
For instance, sometimes we’re unreasonably harsh with ourselves, or we can jump to wrong conclusions about people’s motives. This can cause problems and make us unhappy, and it can lead us to be unfair to others.
Positive Thinking, Thought Awareness, and Rational Thinking are simple tools that help you turn this around.
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A commonly accepted definition of stress, developed by Richard S. Lazarus in his book “Psychological of Stress and the Coping Process,” is that it occurs when someone thinks that the demands on them “exceed the personal and social resources that the individual is able to mobilize.”
In becoming stressed, people must make two main judgments:
- First, they must feel threatened by the situation.
- They must judge whether their capabilities and resources are sufficient to meet the threat.
How stressed someone feels depends on how much damage they think the situation can cause them, and how far their resources meet the demands of the situation.
Perception is key to this as (technically) situations are not stressful in their own right. Rather it’s our interpretation of the situation that drives the level of stress that we feel. Quite obviously, sometimes we are right in what we say to ourselves. Some situations may actually be dangerous, and may threaten us physically, socially, or in our career. Here, stress and emotion are part of the “early warning system” that alerts us to the threat from these situations.
Very often, however, we are overly harsh and unjust to ourselves, in a way that we would never be with friends or team members. This, along with other negative thinking, can cause intense stress and unhappiness, and can severely undermine our self-confidence.
Stress can cause severe health problems and, in extreme cases, death. While these stress management techniques have been shown to have a positive effect on reducing stress, they are for guidance only, and readers should take the advice of suitably qualified health professionals if they have any concerns over stress-related illnesses or if stress is causing significant or persistent unhappiness. Health professionals should also be consulted before any major change in diet or levels of exercise.
Three Steps to Positive Thinking
1. Understanding Thought Awareness
You’re thinking negatively when you fear the future, put yourself down, criticize yourself for errors, doubt your abilities, or expect failure. Negative thinking damages your confidence, harms your performance, and paralyzes your mental skills.
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A major problem with this is that negative thoughts tend to flit into our consciousness, do their damage and flit back out again, with their significance having barely been noticed. Since we do not challenge them, they can be completely incorrect and wrong. However, this does not diminish their harmful effect.
Thought Awareness is the process by which you observe your thoughts and become aware of what is going through your head.
One way to become more aware of your thoughts is to observe your stream of consciousness as you think about a stressful situation. Do not suppress any thoughts: instead, just let them run their course while you watch them, and write them down on our free worksheet as they occur.
Another more general approach to Thought Awareness comes with logging stress in a Stress Diary. One of the benefits of using a Stress Diary is that, for one or two weeks, you log all of the unpleasant things in your life that cause you stress. This will include negative thoughts and anxieties, and can also include difficult or unpleasant memories and situations that you perceive as negative.
By logging your negative thoughts for a reasonable period of time, you can quickly see patterns in your negative thinking. When you analyze your diary at the end of the period, you should be able to see the most common and most damaging thoughts. Tackle these as a priority.
Thought awareness is the first step in the process of managing negative thoughts, as you can only manage thoughts that you’re aware of.
2. Developing Rational Thinking
The next step in dealing with negative thinking is to challenge the negative thoughts that you identified using the Thought Awareness technique. Look at every thought you wrote down and rationally challenge it. Ask yourself whether the thought is reasonable, and does it stand up to fair scrutiny?
As an example, by analyzing your Stress Diary you might identify that you have frequently had the following negative thoughts:
- Feelings of inadequacy.
- Worries that your performance in your job will not be good enough.
- An anxiety that things outside your control will undermine your efforts.
- Worries about other people’s reactions to your work.
Starting with these, you might challenge these negative thoughts in the ways shown:
- Feelings of inadequacy: Have you trained and educated yourself as well as you reasonably should to do the job? Do you have the experience and resources you need to do it? Have you planned, prepared and rehearsed appropriately? If you’ve done all of this, then you’ve done everything that you should sensibly do. If you’re still worried, are you setting yourself unattainably high standards for doing the job?
- Worries about performance: Do you have the training that a reasonable person would think is needed to do a good job? Have you planned appropriately? Do you have the information and resources that you need? Have you cleared the time you need, and cued up your support team appropriately? Have you prepared thoroughly? If you haven’t, then you need to do these things quickly. If you have, then you are well positioned to give the best performance that you can.
- Problems with issues outside your control: Have you conducted appropriate contingency planning? Have you thought through and managed all likely risks and contingencies appropriately? If so, you will be well prepared to handle potential problems.
- Worry about other people’s reactions: If you have put in good preparation, and you do the best you can, then that is all that you need to know. If you perform as well as you reasonably can, and you stay focused on the needs of your audience, then fair people are likely to respond well. If people are not fair, then this is something outside your control.
Don’t make the mistake of generalizing a single incident. OK, you made a mistake at work, but that doesn’t mean that you’re bad at your job.
Similarly, make sure you take the long view about incidents that you’re finding stressful. Just because you’re finding new responsibilities stressful now, doesn’t mean that they will always be stressful in the future.
Often, the best thing to do is to rise above unfair comments. Write your rational response to each negative thought in the Rational Thought column on the worksheet.
If you find it difficult to look at your negative thoughts objectively, imagine that you are your best friend or a respected coach or mentor. Look at the list of negative thoughts. Imagine that they were written down by someone you were giving objective advice to, and think about how you’d challenge these thoughts.
When you challenge negative thoughts rationally, you should be able to see quickly whether the thoughts are wrong, or whether they have some substance to them. Where there is some substance, take appropriate action. In these cases, negative thinking has given you an early warning of action that you need to take.
3. Positive Thinking Exercises
Where you have used Rational Thinking to challenge incorrect negative thinking, it’s often useful to use rational, positive thoughts and affirmations to counter them. It’s also useful to look at the situation and see if there are any opportunities that are offered by it.
Affirmations help you to build self-confidence. By basing your affirmations on the clear, rational assessments of facts that you made using Rational Thinking, you can undo the damage that negative thinking may have done to your self-confidence.
Your affirmations will be strongest if they are specific, are expressed in the present tense, and have strong emotional content.
Continuing the examples above, positive affirmations might be:
- Feelings of inadequacy: “I am well trained for this. I have the experience, the tools, and the resources that I need. I have thought-through and prepared for all possible issues. I can do a really good job.”
- Worries about performance: “I have researched and planned well for this, and I thoroughly understand the problem. I have the time, resources and help that I need. I am well prepared to do an excellent job.”
- Problems with issues outside your control: “We have thought about everything that might reasonably happen, and have planned how we can handle all likely contingencies. Everyone is ready to help where necessary. We are very well placed to react flexibly and effectively to unusual events.”
- Worry about other people’s reaction: “I am well-prepared and am doing the best I can. Fair people will respect this. I will rise above any unfair criticism in a mature and professional way.”
If appropriate, write these affirmations down on your worksheet, so that you can use them when you need them.
As well as allowing you to structure useful affirmations, part of Positive Thinking is to look at opportunities that the situation might offer to you and your team. In the examples above, successfully overcoming these situations will open up opportunities. You’ll gain new skills, you’ll be seen as someone who can handle difficult challenges, and you may open up new career opportunities.
Make sure that you take the time to identify these opportunities and focus on them as part of your positive thoughts.
In the past, people have advocated thinking positively almost recklessly, as if it is a solution to everything. The approach should be used with common sense, though. First, decide rationally what goals you can realistically attain with hard work, and then use positive thinking to reinforce these.
This set of tools helps you to manage and counter the stress of negative thinking.
Thought Awareness helps you identify the negative thinking, unpleasant memories, and misinterpretation of situations that may interfere with your performance and damage your self-confidence. This allows you to deal with them.
Rational Thinking helps you to challenge these negative thoughts and either learn from them, or refute them as incorrect.
You can then use Positive Thinking to create positive affirmations that you can use to counter negative thoughts. These affirmations neutralize negative thoughts and build your self-confidence. You can also use this approach to find the opportunities that are almost always present, to some degree, in a difficult situation.