There are a million messages around you every day beckoning you to do better, compete harder, work longer, be more________(you fill in the blank), buy more stuff to get you there, and remain positive, despite how you really feel.
Plus, there are the additional pressures of work, family, friends, mates, and yes, of course, your own mind. How can you stay on top of all of these things and keep abreast of what is actually going on in the world around you?
How can you stay on top of all of these things and lead a quality, fruitful, basically happy existence?
Well, in all honesty, it is difficult. But the good news is that it is possible. Learning how to stay positive is something that can be cultivated!
Learning to shift your energy, and your thinking, can lighten your mood and your burdens and ground you firmly in your unique strength.
This ultimate guide will combine all the factors you need to show you the way home to a stronger, happier you. However, it requires a certain fortitude to take on the challenge of negative messaging, whether internally or externally driven.
Shall we begin?
PHASE 1: Understand the Challenge
What’s going on with all this negativity?
We are living in unprecedented times where the blurred lines and spun up excuses are hard to reckon. There’s much to be said about the negativity that surrounds us daily in a world connected through the dotted line of social media and soundbites forgotten as quickly as they arrived. This crazy-making is affecting all of us whether we know it or not. And it’s a part of the challenge we face in living a more fulfilling life.
But before we embark upon solutions, we start by looking at ourselves and our role in it all.
All humans are survivors of some thing or another. All humans are also perpetrators of some kind of negativity too.
Whether it is abuse, neglect, unkindness, bullying, or some other trauma; all of us have survived and overcome hardship and difficulties. Even people that decide to behave terribly have survived trauma. They’ve just made choices, as we all do, to heal or remain stuck in destructive or unhealthy patterns.
Choosing to heal doesn’t mean that things fall into place easily or quickly though, nor does it mean that positivity is a given. It’s a process that ebbs and flows over a lifetime with plateaus and valleys, interspersed with peak moments of great progress. Healing is the day to day choices you make that honor your values, feed your soul, and celebrate the ones you love.
But you have to train your mind, like potty-training a puppy, in order to remember these choices on a daily basis. It will happen over time, but there will always be relapses and mistakes.
I know when I’m choosing negativity, as I’m sure you do too. I choose to be negative in a thousand little ways that blindside me on a regular basis from muttering curses at the radio when certain people are speaking, indulging in silent rage and witholding forgiveness, rolling my eyes behind someone’s back or maybe just something as simple as ignoring someone I don’t think important enough to acknowledge.
More importantly though, it’s the derogatory self-talk, internal shaming, comparisons to others and the overwhelm of self-defeating thinking that really takes me down a bad path.
Hopefully, if you are reading this, you’re already aware enough to be reflective and honest with yourself. We all engage in this type of thinking, but you’re 5 steps ahead if you know it!
Neither I nor you are ever going to be free of all negativity and its sneaky ways of pulling us down, but we can learn to work with it, shift it, acknowledge it and keep moving forward. You can turn negativity into a tool that helps you with your mind. You can turn it into a different kind of lens for viewing and understanding the world around you.
Negativity given a little love and understanding can become empathy.
How science equips us with the ability to find answers
The First Law of Thermodynamics states that “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change forms.” This has always been comforting to me, as it means that we have many chances to get it right.
It also means that despite all the ways we fall apart and mess things up, mother nature is in control and it’s ultimately up to her. We just change and shift forms in relationship to a force bigger than ourselves.
In the last 20 years amazing research has come forward in the field of neuroscience. Bessel van der Kolk, MD, in The Body Keeps Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma offers some of the most significant information to date on how the brain works, especially in relation to processing trauma. The book explains the causes and consequences of trauma and how people can heal by using the neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to form and/or reorganize synaptic connections), as a means of activating new pathways to healing. We’ll explore some of those means in a following section.
The roots of trauma, acknowledged or unacknowledged, create a “profound disconnection” described by Peter Levine in Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma. This sense of disconnection to ourselves, others and the earth leave us unable to trust and know what or how we feel, and what is actually going on within ourselves.
Trauma affects the integrity and well-being of an organism when there are perceived or real threats of danger. Complex trauma occurs when a person experiences multiple traumatic exposures or events that happen over a period of time that create layers of biological impact upon the body and mind. What makes it complex is not only the layers of traumatic experience endured and the coping mechanisms created, but how the numerous survival responses negatively impact a person’s health and well-being.
The good news here is that each of our bodies is also equipped with the superpower of homeostasis. Simply put, this superpower helps your body and mind calibrate naturally and maintain equilibrium. When something occurs that increases your heart rate and breathing, homeostasis kicks in to bring you back to normal. Homeostasis works without you trying or making any effort.
We also know through recent research that trauma affects generations of related people, as humans can carry trauma endured by previous generations in our genetic make-up. This knowledge helps us understand why it is sometimes so difficult to overcome patterns that have been existent in our families for generations.
Additionally, there is also societal trauma where whole groups of people are affected by oppression and mistreatment. In response, a kind of hyper-vigilant state becomes a way of life, and people carry a high degree of various coping mechanisms to deal with this sense of negativity and despair. To a greater or lesser degree, we are all affected by the influence of societal trauma, dependent upon what we have endured.
The pain that’s around us affects us, so in order to deal with an increasingly negative, and often scary world, we have to build new ways, internally and externally, to heighten our awareness. We have to use all the science and research available to help us pave the way for more connection and greater health.
We’re all walking around in a world of hurt.
PHASE 2: Encounter the Obstacles
Below is a list of 18 potential negativity builders divided into two categories of lifestyle habits and thinking habits. Each one will have a little description and a question to ask yourself to see if it fits for you.
1. Unhealthy lifestyle habits:
This includes anything that might feel good in the moment but makes you feel bad later on. It could be excessive drinking, drug use, over-partying of any type, going home with strangers for sex, and binges of food, shopping, and pretty much anything you can think of that I haven’t mentioned.
Another type of an unhealthy lifestyle habit is distraction enhancers. These distraction enhancers include being constantly plugged into electronics, social media, email, constant working, movies, and anything else used to avoid feeling. The entertainment and media could be positive or negative, what matters is how it’s used to distract from feeling or as a tool to numb out.
Question yourself: What types of unhealthy lifestyle habits do you have that you want to change?
2. Behavior that gets you nowhere:
These behaviors take you down a spiral that looks like righteous indignation in the beginning, but usually turns into something more ugly.
- Dishonesty with yourself and others
- Addiction to a heightened state of rage or intensity, aka drama addiction
- Blaming others for things you’re uncomfortable with, or projecting your wrongdoing on someone else to make you feel better
- Rushing around and not paying attention
- Playing the victim and all types of “poor me”
- Tough talk to pump yourself up at someone else’s expense
- Overreacting before examining the situation (also falls under unnecessary drama)
- Reinforcing negative talk and gossiping about others; spreading rumors
- Forcing the fake face
Everyone gets involved with these behaviors at some time or another. It’s part of being a human. The challenge is to know when you’re engaging in negative thinking or behaviors. We all judge, we project our perceived inadequacies onto others, and we can be pretty ugly, but do we know it when we’re doing it. Can we change it if we want?
Sometimes these behaviors get rewarded by the state of the world we live in. Nevertheless, in time they will drain your character and diminish your soul. Better to know them and deal with them as they arise.
Question yourself: Which of these behaviors do you struggle with the most?
3. Unhelpful things you tell yourself:
This is the section that I struggle with the most, as it’s a habit from childhood with which I’ve grown accustomed. In adulthood, I’ve had to train myself to see it as it arises. Many of you may have the same experience.
I think of this as the “What About Bob?” syndrome. (The hysterically funny movie from the 90’s about an anxious neurotic man who follows his psychiatrist on vacation in order to alleviate his anxiety symptoms and winds up healing himself at his doctor’s expense.)
When you’re caught up in anxiety or feeling the onset of a panic attack, you’re unable to focus on anything else. Your body goes into complete survival mode and your mind goes along for the ride. In this type of state, you’re unable to see things clearly.
If you’re in an anxiety cycle that lasts for days, or months, then you become physically and mentally exhausted. Sometimes this cycle takes you right into a depression. Once you’re in one of these cycles, it is difficult to remember when you were not in it. Everything is a blur and your thoughts become extremely dark and limiting. In fact, you might not remember ever feeling good.
Sometimes negative thoughts take you into one of these cycles and sometimes those thoughts become the result of the cycle. Either way, your thoughts soon become the major problem.
These automatic negative thoughts get in the way of experiencing life fully. My daughter, who also struggles with anxiety, calls them “unwelcome thoughts”. They’re also called “intrusive thoughts” as they come upon you in such a shocking way.
Claire Weekes was one of the first people to ever put these scary, disturbing thoughts into perspective for me in her book, More Help For Your Nerves. My twenties were so absorbed in anxiety, depression and the recurrence of intrusive thinking that I thought I was going mad. Claire Weekes probably saved my life. I carried her little paperback around with me everywhere until I was no longer afraid of my mind.
There are other challenges of thinking too. Constant self-criticism, self-deprecating in order to be accepted by others, over-thinking things, and either/or types of thinking severely limit you and turn the mind into a negative dwelling place. Catastrophizing and hypochondria also fall into this category.
Learning to overcome the pattern of negative thinking is an act of bravery. I say this because in order to do so, you must really get to know, accept and have compassion for your mind. If you learn to face your personal darkness with grace, there is no manner of fear that can take you down.
It’s important to note that if you suffer from automatic negative thinking of any kind, it may be as a result of complex trauma or post traumatic stress disorder. Please do not minimize your symptoms but seek assistance. So much more information and assistance are available these days than in prior decades.
Question yourself: In what ways do you experience negative thinking?
4. The snare of self-importance or the pit of self-defeat, (either way it’s a trap):
Living in a world hellbent on getting ahead regardless of who gets left behind, you can see how it’s easy to fall into one of two traps. The trap of self-importance is really the societal blossoming and encouraging of narcissism. The trap of self-defeat is bitterness and rage.
How you live, how you raise your children, how you conduct yourself and learn civility are all vitally important. If you live and conduct yourself without ethics, principles, or even just basic good manners, then you risk thinking you’re above others, and above societal norms of behavior.
Similarly, if you feel overwhelmed and see a bleak future, then you risk allowing yourself to be defeated by life, and think your actions and behaviors are insignificant.
All of us fall into both of these traps now and then, but the way out is to recognize it and do something about it.
Have a good laugh with your humanness, and recognize the choices you make on a daily basis.
Question yourself: What trap do you most often fall into, and how do you get out?
PHASE 3: Gather Your Resources
Now that you’ve taken a good look at how a negative mindset affects you, it’s time to switch gears and figure out how to live a happy and positive life, despite it all. These tips to stay positive are also divided into lifestyle habits and thinking habits.
1. Lifestyle habits that’ll make you smile:
Things habits can cleanse your body, mind, spirit, and if regularly practiced and can help you feel great.
- Eat healthy whenever you can. (It really does help.)
- Get enough sleep.
- Set boundaries on your time spent watching television, news, video games and other distractions.
- Have a regular routine that you stick to most days.
- Slow down. Practice letting cars ahead of you in traffic. Slow down when you see a yellow light. Walk slower. Look around. Pay attention to what’s going on around you. This is the birth of mindfulness.
- Becoming more mindful basically just means that you practice seeing, listening and noticing. If you practice slowing down, you can begin cultivating a mindfulness practice. It’s not a big deal, but it has big results and anyone can do it.
- Breathe deeply whenever you think of it. Practice reminding yourself to take a deep breath before reacting to anything.
- Get physical exercise of some sort regularly.
- Exercise your mind and learn something new daily. Curiosity is contagious and the more questions you ask, the more you’ll want to know.
There are numerous other activities and habits that can bolster your outlook and mood, thereby increasing your positive energy output.
As a practitioner of yoga for over 20 years, and an instructor for 10, I love the impact of yoga in my life. I’m not a great one for practicing traditional meditation though, so I find other ways to have a meditative practice including sitting every morning with a cup of coffee in silence before I begin my day or taking a long walk in the evening, noticing birds and trees.
Having a basic daily routine which includes hygiene, sustenance and preparing yourself for the day ahead will take you miles toward staying positive when you encounter setbacks. Having a routine is the key, but if you fall out of it, just start over.
Question yourself: What lifestyle habits do you practice regularly? What ones could you add?
2. Connect to people and activities that increase your energy:
It’s easy to have contact with people, but ultimately lonely and unsatisfying if those connections lack depth. Forming authentic connections is not always easy but those connections, when made, will greatly enhance your wellbeing and energy.
Hanging out with hopeful, energetic people doesn’t mean you’re never down. On the contrary, it means that you can feel a whole range of emotional states without judgment or shame. Being able to show vulnerability and feel safe is a hallmark of relationships with genuinely optimistic people. It’s not a pollyanna state of fakeness and “everything is so great”, instead it’s a practice where judgment, shame, and ridicule are not encouraged to take up space. Authentically hopeful people know when they’re being unkind, and they own it right away.
Limiting contact with those people in your life that drain you will also be helpful. Additionally, it’s vital to connect with activities that increase your wellbeing. Here are a few ideas:
- Give and receive hugs (with those you want to hug)
- Physical contact, including massage
- Spend time in nature
- Spend time with animals
- Laugh more often, and laugh at yourself too
- Encourage others
- Share struggles
- Practice being kind to everyone
- Practice listening intently and quiz yourself later on what you heard
- Live with virtue
Question yourself: Who in your life is an authentic connection? How many activities to increase wellbeing have you engaged in today?
3. Hold yourself accountable, but be kind too:
You are the only one who really knows your mind and so it’s a better all the way around if you befriend it. Befriending your mind isn’t necessarily an easy process though, especially if you’ve been warring with yourself off and on over a lifetime.
Below are a few tips for being kind to your mind while still holding yourself accountable for your responsibilities and goals.
- Practice shifting your focus when your mind falls into a negative trap
- Assume the best in a situation
- Practice self compassion when you screw up
- Learn to take criticism
- Acknowledge when you get defensive
- Make your home a positive environment that nourishes your spirit
- Do things that challenge your comfort zone
- Practice acceptance
- Be honest with you
- Have a beginner’s mind or in other words, be curious in all things
- List your strengths and challenges
- Set boundaries with your time and energy
- Give grace to yourself and others
Challenge yourself: Pick 5-6 things from the above list to practice regularly.
4. Find the divine:
This strategy is perhaps the most personal and the most significant for each of us. You’ll need to find the best way for yourself to connect with something bigger than yourself. Whatever you call that loving force that permeates our world, catch it’s coattails and hang on!
Connect with those things that bring you into a state of flow and joy. Play music, sing, pray, move your body, run, meditate—do those brilliant things that make you happy to be alive.
Create a small ritual to begin your day. Get into the habit of saying “thank you” often, even if no one is around, just say thank you to the space that surrounds you. A million sounds of thanks echoing through the ethers can only help this world!
Celebrate your life, and in the process understand that what you honor grows and expands. Let your celebration encompass others and create a positive social impact with the simplicity of your presence.
Question yourself: What is one new thing you can do to enhance your connection to something bigger than yourself.
5. Hug your shadow:
For many years I ran from my shadow, but it always had an uncanny way of catching up with me and throwing me to the ground. Now, I choose to know that shadow and love it regardless. When it sneaks up on me, I know there is something I need to pay attention to, or maybe I need to be a little kinder to myself.
You’re not going to be happy all the time no matter how positive you choose to live. But the point is that you choose. If you are worn out from the freakiness of the world we live in, exhausted from working too much or too hard, feel overwhelmed by your responsibilities, or struggling with other personal, professional or relational challenges, then you are vulnerable to some subtle or not so subtle shadow sabotage.
When sabotaged by your shadow, take a deep breath, look at it squarely and try to understand the message it offers. Take off the glasses of fear that limit your vision and see what you need to see. From that place, all foreboding darkness loses its grip on you.
It is quite fine to be inadequate sometimes.
It’s okay to mess up, make mistakes and look ridiculous too.
Feeling pain will not kill you, so when it comes to visit you, don’t push it away.
Habits of mind, like all habits, can be changed.
Shadows, when examined, are not so frightening.
Question yourself: What shadows are you avoiding that need acknowledging?
6. Feed your soul some good nourishment
I love to dance. It always helps to dance when my spirits are low. But sometimes the best thing for me is the thing I avoid the most in those moments of low energy.
To keep up positivity, do those things that nurture your wellbeing. Some of my favorites are listed below, but make your own list of nourishing activities to remind yourself during those more difficult times.
- Take a nap.
- Cuddle up with a book that you love, maybe one that makes you hopeful or happy.
- Dance in your living room.
- Take a class and learn something new.
PHASE 4: Joy to the world is a little action, every day
Like the flight attendants always say, “put your own mask on first…” But of course, once you’ve helped yourself, you can help others. These tips to stay positive are meant to help you be the best person that you can be, and if you do that, then you are poised to do the work needed of you in the world.
Recently, I spent an entire afternoon in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Hundreds of people moved through the exhibits in relative silence, as if facing off with evil to ensure the triumph of goodness. At one exhibit, I shared space with another woman reading the story of a young girl who survived a concentration camp and her small acts of defiance that kept her alive. We finished reading at the same time and looked up, locking tearful eyes for just a second. A brief moment of two souls uniting in both horror and hope is one not easily forgotten. We are all connected. We lose our way when we forget.
It’s not whether or not you encounter the negative, the painful, your own suffering, the suffering of others– you will. It’s how you encounter these things that help you stay positive in a negative world. Do battle with your own demons, whatever they are, and then focus your sites outside of yourself to a world of others that need you. You don’t have to fix anything or anyone, you just show up and ask, “How can I help?” What you have to offer is unique and necessary. It’s the small acts of goodness and kindness that make the most difference, and they have a cumulative effect.
Understand the privileges you have because of where you live, who you were born to, what you look like, your age, gender, ethnicity and education. It’s all relative though and always changing. Being aware helps you understand this.
Acknowledging privilege is not meant to shame, although it gets a bad rap because it’s often used in such a way. Acknowledging privilege comes with a responsibility to those who don’t have the same privileges. It’s awareness and action. We all carry privilege in some ways and not in other ways, so be responsible with the power you hold and know how it affects others, but don’t trip out. There’s a fine line between being sensitive and being fragile.
Joy is a defiant state of being. It isn’t easily minimized and it laughs in the face of hate and fear. You can’t capture it either. You just have to jump into it with both feet and let it take you. It will, and you too, will join its ever-present, but elusive brigade.
Drop your cynicism, and all your other isms that hold you apart from the “other”, whoever they may be. Ours is a world that need heroines and heroes willing to stand together despite differences for the sake of a healthier world.
Make your energy and spirit count for something positive, and may you live it boldly.