Tag Archives: positive

How Negative Thinking Can Twist Your Reality And Ruin Your Life

There are many things I’ve had to work on and address as part of my self-improvement journey, but one of the main things was being able to spot and change my negative thinking.  For as long as I can remember I suffered from chronic negative emotions such as anger and fear.  As a result of this I unintentionally ended up hurting people I loved with my words and actions.  I wanted to change these negative patterns of behavior but I didn’t know how to go about it.  At one point I came across a book by Matthew McKay, Martha Davis, and Patrick Fanning called “Thoughts and Feelings – Taking Control of Your Moods & Your Life.”  This book helped me tremendously and was an excellent tool for what I wanted to accomplish.

One of the first things I learned was that thoughts and thought patterns, rather than people, circumstances or events, were the cause behind my negative emotions.  As easy as it would be to blame my anger, fear, frustration, sadness, irritation, or whatever it was on a person or situation, it was always a thought or a series of thoughts that would precede and give birth to my emotions, and subsequently to my behavior.

I learned that situations in and of themselves are neutral and have no emotional content; but it is our interpretation of those situations that causes our emotions.  This was a little bit difficult for me to accept and process at first.  Surely if something appeared to me to be negative, it had to be! Looking at a situation and judging it for what it was, it was clear to me that the situation was the trigger behind my negative emotions.  But I quickly learned that that was my black-and-white mentality speaking, and a little bit of logic proved me wrong.

If in fact it the situation was the cause behind my negative emotions, absolutely everyone experiencing that situation would also experience the same negative emotions, isn’t that so?  Allow me to illustrate.  Let’s say that my teenage son has a 10 PM curfew, and he has broken the curfew several times in the past; the last time he did this I let him off with a stern warning.  Today he decided that he would not respect the curfew yet again, and came home well after midnight.  When he walked in I reacted by getting upset and irritated at him for disrespecting me and being careless and dismissive of the household rules.

But let’s say that a stranger was walking by the house just as my son was returning home, well after midnight.  Would the stranger have reacted in the same manner? It would be weird if he had.  The stranger is not emotionally involved with my son or the situation, so he would have no emotional reaction even though he observed the exact same situation I observed. Although very simplistic, this is a good example that demonstrates that the situation itself was not the cause of my angry outburst.

What then, was the real cause behind my anger and irritation about this situation? The answer? My interpretation of it; the meaning that this situation had to me, or put another way, my thoughts about the situation, regardless of how fleeting or unnoticed those thoughts were.

Here’s where I learned that if I changed my thoughts, it would logically follow that I would also change my emotions.  The tricky part was being able to identify the thoughts because they seemed to happen so quick and almost unnoticed, as if my brain was bypassed altogether and my emotions spontaneously expressed themselves.

But cognitive therapy tells us that that doesn’t happen.  There is always a thought behind every feeling, and being able to spot those thoughts is the first step towards changing behavioral patterns.  This is a skill I would recommend to anyone looking to improve their lives.  And it is indeed a skill, for it takes dedication and practice.

The situation->thoughts->emotions->behavior sequence is not always as clear as in the example I described above. Sometimes, our own emotions and behaviors join the cycle and create yet another situation which is followed by additional thoughts which then give birth to additional emotions and behavior, which then become another situation….and the cycle goes on and on.

For instance, imagine that you are on your way to work, but your car doesn’t start.  What is a possible emotional cycle that may result from this?

  1. Situation: Car does not start.
  2. Thought: “I can’t believe this. I’ll be late for work again! And my boss warned me that I’d be fired if I came in late again.”
  3. Emotions: anxiety, fear, irritation; sweaty palms, heart beating fast.
  4. Thought: “If I lose my job we won’t be able to pay the bills. It will be very difficult for me to find another job, especially these days. We will lose the house!
  5. Emotions: more anxiety, more fear; feeling sick to your stomach, dizziness.
  6. Thought: “We’ll be homeless. We’ll have to move to my in-laws and they don’t like me already. They’ll blame this entire situation on me. My mother-in-law will drive me crazy!”
  7. Emotions: sheer panic.

You can see how easy it is to get carried away by these cycles.  We’re constantly making interpretations and assigning meaning to the situations that we encounter in our lives. We judge events as good or bad, pleasurable or painful, relaxing or stressful. These judgments and labels are the result of the constant chatter going on in our minds, and this is why these thoughts are very subtle and rarely noticeable.

Since childhood we have practiced habitual patterns of thinking and have been conditioned to interpret our lives’ circumstances and events a certain way.  There will always be situations and events which will have some level of negative meaning to us; and unless we learn to identify the cycle and put into practice some techniques to break it, we’ll be in a highly stressful state most of our lives.

In my next post I will share with you some of the most common characteristics of these automatic negative thought patterns to which most of us fall prey to one degree or another, and then we’ll start looking at some techniques that we can implement right away to help us get out of the cycle. In the meantime share with us! Do you believe you’ve fallen into the automatic negative thinking trap? When does it usually happen? What have you done to get out of it?

I’d love to hear from you!

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Why Having A Magic Lamp Wouldn’t Make You Happy

magic lamp, wishes, dreams, Aladdin, dreams, goals

Imagine for a moment that you found Aladddin’s lamp. I know. Humor me. Imagine that one day you’re taking a relaxing stroll around your neighborhood and you suddenly spot something shiny hiding in the bushes.  At first you ignore it and dismiss it as something unimportant (perhaps an empty soda can?).

You continue stroll but a few moments later you can’t shake the feeling that you were meant to see that, whatever it was.  What if it was something important?  “I better make sure,” you think.  So you walk back to retrieve the shiny object and to your surprise you find yourself staring at what appears to be a magic lamp.  Could it be?  “Yeah, right.” You let out a sarcastic chuckle and laugh at yourself for thinking such a ridiculous thing. “Still… what if it is?”  You take an inconspicuous look around to make sure no one is looking, and carefully rub the sides of the lamp.

As soon as you do that, smoke starts oozing from the lamp and suddenly, out comes a genie who, to your amazement, utters those amazing words you’ve been waiting to hear all your life, “Your wish is my command.” He then tells you that he’s there to grant you all of your heart’s desires.  Not just 3 wishes, but all of them.

Now think for a moment. What would you ask for?  You’d probably ask for all the major things right away. Love, health, money, success, vacations to exotic locations, mansions, more money, more love, etc. etc. etc.  You would basically ask for all the things that you believe would make your life easy, happy, pain-free, and struggle-free.  You’d go wild, testing the waters to see if you would really be able to get all you want.

You’d then realize that you can ask not only for you but for everyone else around you.  So you’d become the biggest philanthropist, sharing your good fortune with everyone around you.  At some point, however, you’d start running out of things to ask for.  You’ve had all the vacations you could think of, helped everyone in the world (work with me here), have more money than you know what to do with, all the success and love you can imagine, all coming instantly to you without any amount of effort or struggle on your part.

How long could you live like this? Honestly. How long? A year? Ten years? Twenty?  How long would it be before you were bored out of your mind and were left feeling depressed and worthless?  How long would your mind be able to live without a challenge or a worthy goal?  How long before you felt like you were no better than an inanimate object that adds no value to anything?

Sooner or later you’d start looking for things to do, challenges to face, goals to pursue, problems to solve.  But you wouldn’t ask the genie to bring these to you, you’d want to go out and find them yourself.  We would all want to do this.  And do you know why?  Because that’s our nature.  We think that we want life to be a breeze; we think that we’d just as soon be without the worries, the pain, the suffering, the sorrow, the struggle.  From our vintage point, we’d trade our lives for the imaginary scenario I described above in a heartbeat. But how quickly we would tire of it.  We’d soon find out that a life like that is not much fun.  You probably know by now that the things we value the most are those that required some involvement or contribution from us, no matter how small; and the higher our contribution, the greater its value to us.

There is a lesson in all of this.  I’m not saying that life has to be difficult in order for it to be fun, exciting, exhilarating or rewarding.  What I’m saying is that life is not supposed to be pain or struggle free.  I’m saying that the pain, the struggle, the challenges and all the emotions associated with these things, the good and the bad, are what make the human life such a magnificent experience.

The true joy of living does not stem from never experiencing difficulties or struggles, but from overcoming them.  So don’t get all bummed out about how life may be right now.  It won’t stay that way forever.  In spite of what it seems like at times, there is perfect balance and order in the universe. The seemingly negative experiences we encounter are meant to help us become better versions of ourselves. Embrace the challenge and push forward with confidence.

Pain may be inevitable, but suffering is optional.

Decide today that you will suffer no more.  Decide today that you don’t need to wait to find Aladdin’s lamp to be happy.  Decide today that no matter what situations you encounter in life, you will make it your dominant intent to look for the good in them, for there is good to be found if we only look hard enough.  Decide today that you will take on every day with unshakable confidence, and the determination to feel good, to spread love, to experience joy in everything you do. Decide today that you will go after your goals and your dreams, and that you will enjoy and appreciate the ride as much as, if not more than, getting there.  Decide today to share your gifts with the world, which no one but you can share.  Decide today to leave your mark in this world.

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How Our Thoughts Affect Our Reality

When I began my self-improvement journey several years ago I came across a book that inspired me and gave me much needed clarity about how to change my life for the better.  In my opinion this book is a must-have for anyone looking to understand how our thoughts affect our world and shape our reality.  It is written in plain English without the jargon commonly associated with the study of the mind, so it’s easy enough for anyone to understand.

I still revisit this book now and then because from time to time I need a reminder of how important it is to be mindful of what we entertain in our minds.   The book is a very short read, and it can be found in audio form as well.  The audio version of the book is less than an hour long, so I can easily listen to the entire recording in a day just driving to and from work.

The book I’m referring to is “The Strangest Secret” by Earl Nightingale.  There is great information in the entire book but there is one segment in particular that always grabs my attention for its truthfulness and simplicity.  The segment begins by stating this:

Let me tell you something which if you really understand it, will alter your life immediately…Here’s the key to success and the key to failure: We become what we think about.

The author then proceeds to explain exactly how this works, and gives the analogy of a situation that parallels the human mind using a farmer and fertile soil.  In his example, Earl asks us imagine that a farmer has a piece of fertile land in which he plants a seed of corn and a seed of poison.  The land, being impartial to what is being planted, will invariably return to the farmer exactly the “fruits” of what he has planted, a plant of corn and a plant of poison. He compares this fertile land to the human mind and the seeds to our thoughts because the mind – like the land – does not care what you plant in it; it will return what you plant, but it doesn’t care what you plant.

While it’s true that the mind is far more complex and mysterious than the land, the principle is the same.  Whether we plant thoughts (seeds) of success (corn) or thoughts (seeds) of failure (poison) the mind (land) will return to us exactly what we plant in it in the form of our experiences in all areas our lives such as work, family, love, finances, etc.

For me this was a wake-up call.  If this was true (and I had no reason to believe that it wasn’t) it meant that I needed to become aware of my thoughts throughout the day.  I needed to make sure that whatever thoughts I was entertaining were seeds that would produce the type of experiences I wanted to have in my life.

This proved to be easier said than done.  It was easy at the beginning of the day because I would start off with a clean slate and a positive attitude, but as I gradually got busy and distracted with my daily activities, I found myself repeating old thought patterns that were sure to produce unwanted results if left unattended.

At first I would get bummed up about it, because I thought that no matter how hard I tried I somehow managed to end up back at square one.  This would only cause me to feel more like a failure and, you guessed it, negative tapes to start playing again.

But I later learned that it is impossible to watch what we are thinking 24 hours a day (or however many hours we spend awake), so getting temporarily distracted was perfectly normal.  In fact, a recent study revealed that, astonishingly, humans are on autopilot nearly half of their waking hours!

Our mind is designed to jump on autopilot whenever possible in order to automate mundane tasks.  You do something long enough and it eventually becomes a habit, making it a task that you no longer have to think about.  If you’ve ever driven from one place to another and had no recollection of how you got there, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  I can certainly relate to that.  There were times when I suddenly realized I had arrived, and thanked God I was alive and prayed that I hadn’t committed any violations while driving.  Yikes!

Whenever I think of this I realize what a wonderful design the mind is.  I’m speechless when I think of all the intricate wiring and programs that are running to ensure that we follow all the traffic laws and make critical decisions almost unconsciously!  Of course this works to our advantage when our mind is engaged in something positive or uplifting, but it can just as well work against us when it’s engaged in something negative or undesirable.

But the good news is that we can change our thought habits just like we change any other habit: with repetition and persistence.  How do we know this?  Because that’s how our negative or pessimistic thinking became so natural to begin with.  It all started with thoughts that we entertained, then entertained some more, then recalled and entertained again, until now those thoughts just seem to naturally come to us on their own, and when we least expect it we find ourselves on a train to Looserville.

Like everything else, making a change in thought patterns takes practice and persistence, but it all begins with awareness.  If you’ve determined that you want to change the thought seeds that you’re planting in your mind, make it a point to become more aware of your thoughts throughout the day; whenever you catch yourself thinking less than favorable thoughts, don’t beat yourself up for it.  Instead, be glad that you caught yourself and reach for a better thought.

But if you are feeling a strong negative emotion associated with the thoughts you’re thinking, remember our river analogy from a previous post and make the jump gradually so that you don’t end up in the river.  With practice and persistence you’ll soon turn your new thought patters into a habit, and the less than desirable thoughts will fade away.

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The Stigma Associated With Sacrifice

Have you ever met a person who says “I’ve sacrificed xyz for xyz” with a smile on their face?  I haven’t.  I can usually tell by the tone of their voice or the look on their face that the feeling associated with their sacrifice is not a positive one, and I’m beginning to think it has something to do with the stigma associated with the word itself.

The dictionary defines sacrifice as:

An act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy.

That makes sense to me.  But why then do we have this somewhat negative emotion associated with it?  Shouldn’t the emotion elicited from the true recognition of the worthier cause be joy or something similar?

I thought about this, and realized that generally when I say that I’m making a sacrifice I may feel a somewhat negative emotion because I may be focused on what I’m losing or giving up rather than on the worthier cause; I may be, therefore, feeling the loss or absence of what I’m giving up instead of the joy of why I’m giving it up.

The stigma generally associated with sacrifice is one of loss, suffering, or going without. This in itself has the potential to create feelings of resentment or self-glorification.  I may consider myself a nobler person because I’ve made sacrifices.  Therefore, you must look upon me as a nobler person, too, and praise me for my ability to make such a sacrifice. On the other hand, if I‘m focused on my loss, and the worthier cause for which I gave up something ends up going south, the feeling of loss may turn to resentment.  “I sacrificed [fill in the blank] for this? What a waste!”

I’m sure not everyone views sacrifices this way, but my experience has been that when people (including me) speak of sacrifices, they generally do so with an almost sarcastic tone.   I’ve decided that I would like to change that about myself.  I would like to change my perspective so that when I sacrifice something for the sake of a worthier cause, I am so intently focused on the worthier cause itself that whatever it is that I’m giving up no longer even matters.

When parents work in order to earn money to support their family, aren’t they sacrificing something?  They certainly are. They are sacrificing family time, or fun time, or “me” time.  Yet we normally don’t call that a sacrifice.  Even parents themselves don’t call it a sacrifice.  Why? Because the focus is not on what they are giving up but on the worthier cause, taking care of their families.  No body even thinks of the time and energy that is being expended or given, because the focus is not on the loss, but on the gain that results from the loss.

These are the types of sacrifices that I’d like to make.  To others it may seem like I’m making a sacrifice, but to me it would simply feel like the most natural thing to do.  I want to get to the point where, having acknowledged and assimilated the worthier cause, the absence of what is being offered simply no longer matters.

How will I go about making this change?  I don’t know yet, but while I figure it out I’ll start by making it a point to change my perspective.  Perhaps that is all that is needed!

What does sacrifice mean to you?  What feelings have you experienced as a result of the sacrifices you’ve made?

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Embracing A Better Version Of Me

beach_sunset

I grew up in a household where hard feelings were harbored against anyone whom you perceived had done something wrong to you, whether it was done intentionally or otherwise; a household where people didn’t talk about their feelings, but instead acted them out.

Instead of verbally articulating that someone’s words and actions were hurtful in some way, my family members would either bottle up their feelings never speaking of them and allowing them to turn into resentment and bitterness, or they would express their hurt by lashing out verbally and sometimes even physically, against the perceived aggressor.

But of course, it wasn’t only the perceived aggressor that felt the effects of the lashing out.  The bitter effects would be felt by everyone around, and slowly but surely, everyone around would be caught up in that cycle of anger, bitterness, resentment, and victimhood.

This atmosphere is bad enough for an adult to experience, but for a growing child it can be devastating.  In time the effects of such an environment become so deeply rooted in the subconscious that sooner or later the growing child begins to act in just the same manner he observed others behave.

By the time the child becomes an adult, these negative and destructive patterns have become second nature, and without knowing why, he or she becomes a living copy of the adults from his childhood, hurting and alienating the people he or she loves the most.

That was me not that long ago.  As far back as I can remember, I observed this destructive behavior in most if not all of my family members.  I became afraid that people would hurt me, and put up all kids of walls to prevent them from doing so.  As I grew older it became difficult for me to make and keep friendships, because I scrutinized every word and every action, to determine whether they were trying to hurt me somehow.  Most of the time, I decided that they were.  The stories I told myself included lies such as:

“I’m not good enough for them.”

“They are just pretending to be my friend because they want something from me.”

“They’ll probably stab me in the back the first chance they get.”

“They are judging me for my appearance.”

“I’m not cool enough, smart enough, […] enough to be their friend.”

…and many others.  Doubting or questioning someone’s loyalty, friendship, honesty, etc. was my predominant attitude.  I also felt that in order to keep the few friends that I managed to make, I needed to make them feel sorry for me; I did not feel like I was good enough for them just as I was so I caused them to pity me so that they would not leave me, by faking illness, sadness, and pain.  Of course that did not work for long because people eventually saw right through me or got tired of my pity parties.   No wonder I was alone most of the time.

That’s what I thought the rest of my life was going to be like. It took many years for me to realize that I was creating the very circumstances that I wanted to avoid.  I didn’t want my friends to leave me, but my behavior would push them away.

These thought and behavior patterns were not limited to friendships, however.  When I got married I had the exact same attitude towards my wife. I took everything way too seriously, and often took offense when she was merely joking or being playful with me. I bottled up my feelings and harbored resentment. Were it not for the fact that my wife was extremely patient with me and held on for so long, I wouldn’t have a marriage right now.

I think I always knew that I wanted to change; I knew that these thought and behavior patterns were destructive and hurtful to me and to those I loved.  I wanted to change, but didn’t know how to go about it.

Deep inside I knew it was possible, and I believed that I could do it if only I was shown the way.  Well, nobody came along to take me by the hand or show me the way; I had to look for it myself.

I started reading a lot of personal development material.  I watched personal development videos; I listened to self-improvement lectures and recorded seminars.  Over the years I learned many techniques that helped me to heal old wounds, forgive the people who hurt me intentionally or unintentionally, develop my self-esteem, learn to love and accept myself, and overall, let go of the past; in other words, I learned to quite literally recreate myself.

I had to muster up the courage to take a hard and honest look at myself and accept that change was needed; then I had to forgive myself. This was probably the hardest part of my journey.  Being a perfectionist at heart, it was extremely difficult for me to accept that I was imperfect. That I had character flaws that needed to be addressed and changed. That people around me, people I loved, got hurt as a result of my words and actions.

The process was painful and anything but easy, but the rewards have proven to be more than worth it. As a result of what I’ve learned and applied in my journey, I am a lighter, happier, more relaxed person. I am able to smile and laugh more and frown less, and I am no longer overcome with stress or worry.  I’ve also learned that I am more of an introvert, but this does not prevent me from making and nurturing friendships.

The person who has truly experienced my transformation first hand is my wife.  She now considers me the ideal husband, and after everything I put her through, after all the pain and anguish I caused her over the years, to have her say “I would do it all over again to get to this moment” fills my heart with immeasurable joy and gratitude.

Have I arrived? Am I now at the point where I can say that there’s nothing else to change? Far from it. But I am no longer afraid to take a look at myself, because I no longer fear finding imperfections.  I am more tuned in to my thoughts and feelings. I’ve learned to spot destructive or negative thought patterns, and I know what I need to do to change them.

I know that I am imperfect, but I also know that I am human, and making mistakes is a part of the human perfection. It is how we grow and evolve into better versions of ourselves, and how we begin to realize our full potential.

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