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Watch Out for that Positive Attitude!

By Alison Finch

I'm going to begin on a positive note, and with a couple of rather bold statements.

Each and every one of us possesses a positive attitude somewhere inside us. If you're not tapping into your positive attitude right now, and don't know where it's hiding, this article is going to help you find it! And, let me reassure you right away, I'm not simply going to twitter on about putting a brave face on adversity and smiling through the pain. Telling yourself, over and over, that "I'm OK" is pretty meaningless if you're not. I'll leave those sorts of recommendations to others, but not before I point out why they usually do more harm than good.

In my view, a positive attitude is not much use when it's applied like make-up, or like paint over a fragile eggshell. A positive attitude is something deep down inside you - in the core of your being - and it's there to be used, actively and wisely, to make your life better.

If you've looked around much on the Internet, you'll know that there is a "wealth" of advice about the power of positive thinking. But I find myself feeling compelled to enclose "wealth" in inverted commas, because a lot of it is worthless (not all of it, of course) and some of it is rubbish!

Isn't "rubbish" being a bit harsh? I have to confess, I did reflect on whether this statement was overly aggressive. I could have been more reticent and called it "questionable" or something like that. But I wanted to convey to you my personal frustration with any philosophy that is based on an avoidance of the truth. And I wanted to get your attention, because this is a critical statement: Pretending something isn't happening does not make your life better!

Let's look at this in a bit more detail... To clear the way for discussing a positive attitude that works, let's take a quick look at some recommended "positive thinking" that is flawed. You can find variations on each of these bullet-points all over the Internet, and you may even have heard one or two of them from your friends and others who would presume to have your best interests at heart.

  • Nothing is sufficiently important for you to get angry about it - just let things wash over you
    Anger can take many forms, most of which are destructive and unpleasant. You see this sort of anger in children and those who have never quite grown out of being children. It is usually an impulsive (and illogical) extension of a sense of frustration that things are not going their way. But anger in its "adult" sense is a powerful emotion that arises when a principle that you hold dear is violated through some sort of injustice. In that case, your sense of anger tells you that you care and helps you find the energy and motivation to do something constructive to put things right. As a human being, you cannot simply let everything wash over you unless you have stopped caring about outcomes.

  • There's good in everyone if you look hard enough
    A very dear friend says that he was often told this by his parents. In middle-age he had begun to question why some people made you look so hard! And, by the way, historians have considerable evidence that Adolf Hitler liked dogs. This was pointed out to me in justification of the "good in everyone" argument, by a supposedly reputable psychotherapist to whom I was once speaking, although I must confess she is no longer in my address book. Yes, I can accept he might have liked dogs, but is that in any way meaningful in the context of his other failings?

  • Don't judge people
    I have a small mental list of favourite absurd statements. Near the top is "she's such a good friend because she never judges me!" If you don't judge someone you have no opinion of them or their actions. You could have no right to like or dislike anything they did or didn't do! There is no doubt you DO judge people, the question is whether you listen to and act wisely upon that judgement or simply let it "wash over you." Judging someone based on your knowledge of him or her is a sensible and logical thing, while pre-judging an individual based on racial or other stereotypes is clearly ridiculous.

  • Always find forgiveness in your heart, no matter what the crime
    Forgiveness carries with it a sense of writing off the past as if it didn't happen. Indeed, some years ago people would refer to "forgiving a debt" in the way we now claim to "write it off." So, I can forgive my son Leo if he breaks something accidentally through the exuberance of being eight years old. Last week he broke a window with a particularly energetic swing of his prized two-foot miniature golf club, but his remorse was genuine and I don't feel a need to take account of the breakage in my future interactions with him. I can literally forget it (which reminds me, I still need to get that pane fixed!) But if someone consciously and deliberately lied to me about an important issue, the betrayal would stay with me forever. It would doubtless make sense for me to move on with my life and deal with the consequences of that betrayal in a positive way, but I don't imagine I would ever reach a point where it was forgotten or where I felt indifferent about the fact that it occurred.

  • Repeat positive affirmations every day and they will change your life
    If the positive affirmations aren't actually true, the only way they can change your life is to take you further and further away from reality. That's the key - look for the truth in what you're telling yourself: if it's true you can believe it; if you believe it you can act on it; if you can act on it you can make things better.

  • Don't read a newspaper or listen to the news on TV as it will only depress you
    There are many variations on this particular theme, but all of them basically tell you not to listen to bad news. But life all around you is influenced by REAL news - good and bad - and you will always make better decisions if the decisions you're making take place in the real world, not some fluffy-cushion fantasy. After all, could any of us really claim that we'd be living a more fulfilled and worthwhile life if we hadn't heard of 9/11 or the subsequent terrorist bombings in Madrid and London? What planet would we be living on?

A better way
I used to work for a man who would habitually classify people as "glass half-full" or "glass half-empty" types, according to how they would supposedly describe identical volumes of water. I'm sure you know how the "logic" runs: the person seeing a half-full glass sees an opportunity ahead, whereas the other is a defeatist who sees resources draining away to nothing. This always struck me as rather nonsensical. The truth is, you'd be perfectly correct in describing the situation either way, and the imagined vessel in the metaphor gives no clue as to whether you are likely to have more or less water in the future.

A person with a genuinely positive attitude looks beyond the "snapshot" situation, because he or she is always striving to bring the best out of whatever is going on in the real world. A genuinely positive attitude requires some understanding of a situation, so that informed choices can be made that give the best chance of a good outcome.

To have a positive attitude you first have to possess positive qualities that you can use effectively and in various ways depending on the circumstances in which you find yourself. The great news is that you already have these qualities, because they're a part of our basic human nature.

Using these qualities comes more naturally to some than others. That's partly because we're all unique and partly because our individual circumstances may have influenced (positively or negatively) our belief in our ability to affect our own lives. Certainly, if your self-esteem is low it is much harder to focus on the positive qualities that you possess, but help is at hand and that's one of the reasons I run "Self-esteem 4 Women"!

A positive attitude can become a natural habit for you, even if you don't consider that you've ever had a positive attitude in the past. You can learn how to achieve this, not by some sort of "act of faith" like repeating a positive affirmation over and over, but by taking practical steps in the real world.

Quite simply, you need to cultivate a number of your qualities, bit by bit, day by day, and there's help at hand if you need some "how to" advice. Here are five qualities I'd like to highlight for you. I chose these in particular because they each contribute significantly to a positive attitude and they're easy for you to remember because they all begin with a "C"!

Curiosity is what motivates us to find out about things, and if we find out about things we can make better decisions because those decisions have a sound foundation. Things usually become less frightening if we begin to understand them better, so allow and encourage your curiosity to let you try new approaches.

We all have an imagination, and we can all put it to good effect in examining possible ways to bring about an improvement in our lives. If thinking about the future frightens you, it's likely that your imagination habitually looks for negative possibilities. You can re-train it to look for positives instead. Just start with some gentle experimentation, and find opportunities to say things like "I have an idea...", "what if we...", or even "erm... there must be a better way, so let's look for it together".

If we allow our fears to overwhelm our desires then we can find ourselves freezing to inactivity while mentally running away, both of which lower our confidence and diminish our self-esteem. Courage is the key to overriding those fears and living life to the full, and the more you use it the easier it gets to use it again because you accumulate evidence to suggest using your courage is the right thing to do. Living in fear is often worse than a painful consequence that may arise from taking a calculated risk. When you're used to using your courage you can actually find that the amount of pleasure you experience rises, even if you occasionally fail.

Here's a simple example: if you're so scared of a visit to the dentist that you put it off until your mouth is in agony then you might live through months of fear, apprehension and foreboding, and still end up with lots of pain at the end. Whereas, if you kept a regular dental appointment, all you'd have to endure is a little nervous anxiety on the day. Tapping into your courage is the same as tapping into a source of pleasure, so have a go today - you won't regret it.

I chose this example because I was well into my adult years here in the UK before I discovered that not all trips to the dentist needed to be painful. Actually, I don't think it was courage that was my problem, but if I had used some curiosity and creativity at an earlier age, I might have decided to try to locate a more competent dentist!

Few things can bring about positive change more quickly than good communication. If you struggle to put your own ideas and feelings into words, or you sometimes suffer from misunderstandings, then we can help. A positive attitude can be infectious, and it carries most readily through conversation. So try to find opportunities to speak with other people whom you think have a positive attitude, and you'll find it boosts your own!

If you've got this far in this article, you've shown some commitment to making things better for yourself. Now you need to decide whether to go further and make real, sustainable improvements in your life by putting into practice what we've talked about here. Commitment can sound like a scary word, but it is actually your powerful ally. It will liberate you from feelings of self-doubt, because it will help you to bounce back, time after time on your road to improvement.

So, make some commitments now. Get off the pity-pot if you're on it, DO something actively to boost your self-esteem, and tap into that positive attitude deep down inside you by developing the core qualities I've listed above.

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