changing a negative mindset

I was in a group where someone was having trouble changing a negative mindset, and as a result, she complained. Everything was negative, and according to her there was nothing to be done about it.

At first, I felt nothing but overwhelming empathy for what she was going through. Complaining, I’d long ago learned, was always a symptom of a person’s desire to be heard in areas where they felt powerless. So I listened; we all listened. But on it went, again and again, until I noticed that when this person spoke up, everyone in the group shifted.

As a group I believe we wanted sincerely to offer empathy, but as each week went on, offering empathy didn’t seem to do anything but encourage the spiral. Slowly, we began pivoting to questions about what she might do, differently in her life—at which point, she became angry that we dared suggest there were things that she could do.

For instance, her sleep was terrible, she said, because her three-year-old was still co-sleeping and moved around a lot. We asked how we could support her, she said she wanted some suggestions, we suggested no longer co-sleeping–and she shot us down, furious that we would suggest such a thing. So we suggested reframing how she felt about it–and she shot that down, too.

And on it went, the anger when we suggested change–change she had asked for. How dare we not recognize her struggles? How dare we suggest that she simply recite positive thoughts, as if that was a cure-all? (No one was suggesting that she “simply recite positive thoughts,” by the way, but when she was angry with us, all of our suggestions became reduced in this way, as if we were flighty, superficial people suggesting worthless, overly-hopeful options).

What felt so tricky was that at the same time we knew she was suffering, very much, and at the same time that we knew that things like sleep deprivation were hijacking some of her responses, making it harder for her to see what else might be possible…she was also fighting with everything she had, to maintain the status quo.

What we know about most aspects of human experience—happiness, habit-formation, etc.—is that there is a clinical, biochemical, genetic component in which yes, there’s a certain range that each unique human being is born with. With happiness, for instance, it’s generally understood that about 50% of the happiness you feel is hard-wired, as in, it’s what you’re born with. Psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky reports that only 10% of your happiness is due to circumstance, and a whopping 40% is due to your outlook.

In other words…the research indicates that shifting your outlook, changing a negative mindset, can lead to more happiness.

Yes, changing a negative—one of the few places where we have absolute responsibility—can actually make a difference in our lives.

When someone is sad or angry, it’s easy to write off shifting your mindset as a frivolous response to a life or a world that is full of problems. Let me be first in line to share that I spent years of my life arguing with people, telling them how their suggestions that shifting a negative mindset could help me to feel happier were ridiculous, overly-optimistic, Pollyanna thinking that didn’t realistically look at the problems that I and so many others were facing.

I had plenty of evidence to point to that the world was falling apart. I had a high-minded idea that it was somehow smarter and more intellectual to maintain constant awareness of my own or the world’s failings and that people who were happy were privileged idiots who either had never experienced true hardship, or who stuck their heads in the sand, refusing to see reality for what it was—a world that was falling apart, one life at a time.

What was the result of that way of thinking and behaving? The majority of all people who were in contact with me stopped trying to help.

My world got lonelier.

And all of that pessimism and focus on what was wrong in the world didn’t make my life any better, nor did it help anyone else.

Finally, I came to see that at least for myself, the negative outlook that I was clinging to was a sort of armor that I was suiting up in every day. To be pessimistic about what was possible was a way of staving off the disappointment that might come if I were to hope for something and not see it arise.

The challenge is that until someone is willing to really reconcile within themselves that a.) they’ve got a negative outlook (not a high-minded, uber-intellectual, “seeing reality for what it is” outlook), and b.) they need to change it because it isn’t doing anything for them…nothing will change.

I can say from experience that few people will love you enough to fight with your pessimism and try to get you to see that something needs to give. Most people will try for awhile, and then leave, and the spiral worsens.

It’s our job to take off our own armor; it’s our job because we are the only ones who can. We’ve got to stop ruminating and start looking at the fears that are underneath that armor—that’s where we’ll need to get savvy to the fears we’ve been trying to hold back, such as the fear that things won’t work out, the fear that things could get worse, the fear that there is no hope.

To ruminate on fear is different than really getting curious about and investigating fear. Ruminating looks like, “I’m so afraid that things won’t work out! It’s so hard! And what if XYZ happens, and then it’s all worse! I’m so overwhelmed!” Curiosity looks like, “How interesting that I’m so afraid that things won’t work out—why would I believe that, in the first place, and why would I decide to define my future that way when I can’t predict the future?”

At first, the work of changing a negative mindset is arduous work. It will initially feel like an uphill battle, one where near-constant vigilance is required and that vigilance feels exhausting. Also? At first you might fail at it a lot, catching yourself again and again going into the old negative outlook and needing to reframe.

That prognosis might seem…a little negative. But here’s the silver lining: you will get better at it, and as you get better at it, you will build on that capacity and find yourself able to think about possibility over pessimism, more and more and more. It literally is, practice makes possible, and then practice makes probable, and then practice makes perfect.