When you get to the end of the day, how do you feel? As you get into bed, do you tend to feel like you’ve had a good day, or is your mind busy collating a list of all the things you haven’t done? Do you find yourself beating yourself up over your perceived failures, or do you focus on the wins of the day?
Our brains are pretty well wired to focus on the negative. From an evolutionary standpoint, this was vital. Our ancestors would have needed to be able to remember the risks and threats in the world with absolute clarity. Wondering if the tiger in front of you was as dangerous as the last one would probably be the last thought you would have had. You would have just had to assume it was, and run or fight. The brain’s capacity to remember and focus on the negative is almost certainly one of the reasons we humans survived our early days.
Nowadays, though, most of us don’t tend to face daily threats to life. Most of us aren’t in situations that call our survival into doubt. Focusing on the negative when life is not a constant battle for survival is not helpful. It gives rise to anxiety, depression, insecurity, and fear based decisions.
I know this to be true, because I have lived through it myself, and do still fall victim to it.
I have wasted and lost many opportunities for happiness, success and growth because my fears and negativity overpowered my desire to try. It is something I still struggle with at times. And I know I am not alone.
In the current political climate, for example, I am sometimes finding it hard to maintain positivity. Things are happening that make me fearful and anxious. These feelings are the perfect breeding ground for fear based decisions that will harm my life, and not serve anyone else either.
It is always worth remembering that while we might not have much influence over external events and circumstances, we can control one thing about them. We can control how we respond to them. That is, indeed, the only thing we can ever control.
One powerful way we can improve our reaction to the world, besides conscious breathing, is through the conscious development of a positive attitude. Ancient wisdom tells us that contentment, Santosha, is the feeling that regardless of what is going on in the world, we are ok. This does not mean that we don’t take action when it is needed, or that we sit back and allow terrible things to happen, but that we don’t place our sense of who we are, or how we are, in the hands of external events or other people.
This is not an easy attitude to adopt, but one that, I think, is vital.
In a world that wants us to feel bad about ourselves so we will buy products we don’t need, and hate people we can blame for our troubles, contentment feels like a revolutionary act.
If I am ok with myself, I don’t need to spend my money on ‘beauty’ products. I don’t need to look for someone to blame for my life. I don’t need to indulge in ‘retail therapy’ that will ultimately lead to clutter in my home, more waste, less money, and regret. I don’t need to work myself up into a state of anxiety about all the things that are wrong with my life. I can see where I need to make changes, where I need to improve myself, but I can do that from a state of acceptance, love and gratitude for myself.
Much is written and known about the importance and power of gratitude. But I think that gratitude has to begin with ourselves. It is all very well me feeling gratitude because the weather is nice, because my friends are wonderful, and that someone smiled at me in the street. These are great things to be grateful for, and I am not saying we shouldn’t be grateful for the good things that happen to us. But if I am only ever looking outside myself for my reasons to be grateful, then I am missing the point somewhat.
True happiness comes from feeling content in who you are. It comes from owning the flaws that make us so beautifully human, and saying ‘Yes, I have these flaws, AND I am good and valuable and worthy of love and happiness’.
I have ADHD. I have spent most of my life beating myself up, and being blamed by others, for characteristics and ‘flaws’ that are simply textbook traits of that condition. I struggle with structure, routine, organisation, timekeeping, domestic chores, repetitive tasks, focus, discipline and so much more. Look up ‘traits of ADHD’, and you will essentially see a pen portrait of me.
I have struggled with all these things almost all my life. I have defined myself to a large extent by the things I and others told me were ‘wrong with me’. It led me to great unhappiness, addiction, and a painful lack of self worth.
Awareness leads to acceptance
Knowing I have ADHD was a great help because it showed me that I am not to blame for these aspects of myself. I need to learn to manage the condition, but these traits are not who I am. It is something I have, just like I am not ‘olive skin and dark hair’… I HAVE olive skin and dark hair.
A really powerful way to reverse the impact of negative thinking about yourself is to consciously focus on the good things you are and do, rather than the bad. It is a habit, and one which may be quite hard to develop if you are prone to self recrimination like me. But if we can be our own worst enemies, we can learn to become our own best friends.
It is a process rather than something you can change overnight, but it is well worth the effort to change your thinking.
Begin by paying attention to your thoughts. Simply notice the messages you are giving yourself. What is the nature of these thoughts? Are they critical? Are you judging yourself or others? Are you comparing yourself to others? Are you beating yourself up for past mistakes?
Swami Gitananda taught 3 ‘rules of Yoga’ – Don’t judge, don’t compare, don’t beat yourself up.
When I began to apply this as something of a mantra to my life, and used it to assess the thoughts I was having, I was shocked to discover that most of my thinking was judging, comparing or beating myself up. This was a real eye opener and one that prompted me to want to change. I knew I wouldn’t stay friends with someone who talked to me like that, so I had to ‘unfriend’ the part of me that was doing that.
Of course, we can’t really ‘unfriend’ our inner bitch, so we need to employ other tactics. And this is where we come to….
Reverse the negative
Yoga philosophy has a solution to every problem of the human condition. Pratipaksha Bhavana means ‘cultivate the opposite’. So in those early days of noticing my negative thoughts, I would try to find an opposing thought. This was very helpful for the judging and comparing posts, but I found the most benefit with the self recriminating.
One common phrase I started to notice about my life was ‘oh God, I’m such an idiot, I f***ing hate being me*. This often came out of my mouth when I was unable to find my keys yet again. Realising I was saying this was shocking, and I resolved to change it. I found a way to change the behaviour that was causing the outburst. I started putting my keys in a certain place, so I would always know where to find them. And whenever I noticed myself saying those words or similar, I would gently reassure myself that maybe I got it wrong this time, but I was trying my best and getting better.
This reversal of negative thinking can then lead us to be able to enjoy the next step in this process….
Celebrate the wins
This is where we can begin to develop the gratitude and appreciation that can lead to that state of acceptance and contentment within.
At the end of the day, or at any point throughout the day, you can take a moment to reflect on good things that you have done for yourself, for others, for the world. It doesn’t have to be big things. In fact, if you’re feeling low, the small things can be worth the biggest celebration.
Did you get showered and dressed even though you wanted to just stay in bed in your pyjamas all day? Yay, you’re doing great!
You made that phone call you’ve been putting off? Hooray, you’re a superstar!
Did you take the medication you need to be well? Go you!
You phoned a friend and shared your worries about your problems? Awesome, that takes real strength!
Oh wow, you washed the dishes and made your bed? Good job!
You can celebrate anything about you, you are totally worthy of celebration.
Your body, your mind, your smile, your love, the way you show up in the world, the way you take care of yourself, the work you do…. all are worth celebrating, even if you might not always feel like it.
It might feel weird and uncomfortable at first, but like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it will become. Some people advocate standing in front of the mirror and saying ‘I love you’ to yourself. This is great, but if you are following that up with ‘…but….’ each time it is probably counterproductive. Far better I think to start with the small things. Sometimes we need to learn how to even like ourselves a little bit before we can progress to that.
Self acceptance and appreciation is possible, it really is. It might take a bit of work to undo the years of habitual self criticism and negativity, but you can do it. And once you are ok within yourself, the outside world can do you much less damage!
Questions for reflection
Journaling is a powerful way to uncover the hidden fears, beliefs and patterns that underly our behaviour. Why not spend 5 minutes sitting with your breath, then grab your notebook and reflect on some of these questions.
- How can I be kinder to myself?
- Whose voice do I hear when I am critical of myself?
- Who is really judging me?
- What do I criticise myself most about?
- How can I take action to change the things I know I can improve on?
- What scares me about others judgement of me?
- What have I done to care for me today?
- What lessons have I learned today?
- What have I overcome that I didn’t think I would be able to?
- How have I shown care to others today?
- What have I done in life that I am proud of?
- What would someone who loves me say about me?
You may be able to think of other questions to ask yourself to explore this topic. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do feel free to share in the comments.
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