This article is part of a series called
Antivirus For Your Mind.
NEXT TIME you feel a negative emotion, get two pens of different
color, say red and black. In red, write a negative thought you
have about the situation. For example, Harold writes, Nobody
loves me. Any negative thought is likely to be an explanation
of a setback. In this case, someone was rude to Harold, and he
felt bad about it because of his thought, Nobody loves
Now using the black pen, Harold argues
with his statement. He imagines his least favorite person (his
worst enemy) said to him, Nobody loves you.
Once the statement is outside his head,
it becomes more objective (and less subjective) so it becomes
easier to argue with. When it is inside his head, part of him,
something he thinks, it is harder to recognize a thought as mistaken.
Harold stares at his written statement
(nobody loves me) and tries to find something wrong with it.
What can he say to that statement? How could he argue with it?
Why is it a stupid thing to think? What is mistaken about it?
When you do this, you force the statement
to stand trial. Really all of your thoughts ought to get this
kind of scrutiny. But nobody has time for that, so only take
the time when your thoughts are handicapping you (demoralizing
you, making you feel upset, etc.)
So he stares at his statement and eventually
writes, Thats really not true. I can think of at
least two people who love me for sure.
Thats pretty good. Harold has found
a mistake. Good for him. Do you see how that is different than
trying to look on the bright side or repeating to himself, I
am loved I am loved I am loved? Introducing legitimate
doubt about a negative statement has far more emotional impact,
and the impact is instant.
So he discovered his first mistake: His
negative thought isnt really true. Excellent.
But he shouldnt stop there. He should
come up with as many arguments as he can against his statement.
He might write, Maybe there is something I could do
some action I could take that would make me more lovable.
Being loved isnt all-or-nothing anyway. And so on.
The method is simple: Write something you
think about the situation (something negative you believe about
the situation) and then try find something wrong with your belief.
This is a very effective way to change
the way you think about something. Its kind of fun too,
once you get going. And you can feel the negative emotion dissipate
as you destroy the validity of the pessimistic assumptions that
have been ruining your attitude.
Let me remind you that your arguments must
be real. Youre not just playing the devils
advocate here. Really look at the statement and find what
is truly wrong with it. This is not glossing things over with
Something many writers on positive thinking
dont make clear is that negative thinking is not just counterproductive;
it is often objectively wrong. The negative thoughts are incorrect.
They are exaggerations, overstatements, conclusions you have
jumped to, rumors you have heard, or merely bad habits of thinking
you picked up while growing up.
Your goal with the exercise is to scrutinize
your own written statements long enough to discover if there
is anything wrong with them. As Carl Sagan said, Skeptical
scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which
deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.
You might have deep nonsense in one area
but not another. You might make good explanations for setbacks
in your marriage but make lousy explanations for setbacks at
work. The place where this antivirus of the mind is most useful
is where youre having difficulties.
Are you having a hard time losing weight?
Quitting smoking? Getting in shape? Advancing your career? Feeling
close to your kids? Where do you feel defeated? Where have you
given up on a goal? Get out your two pens and work on that one.
When you feel thwarted or frustrated, check
your explanations of setbacks. When you feel like giving up on
a goal of yours, check your explanations. If you ever decide
to do something and then later feel disappointed in yourself
because you didnt follow through, that is a time where
checking for mistakes in your explanations will make a huge difference.
Pull out those two pens and go to work.
Working with the pens like this is not
difficult. It is easy to be negative about negative thoughts
easier than being positive. Especially when you feel negative
Handwriting your explanations and arguments
with two colored pens is one way. Another is to write out everything
you think about whats bothering you. And then go back and
argue with each sentence one at a time. This is a good variation
to use on a computer. Type out every negative thought you have
about the situation. And then go back and separate out a sentence
and scrutinize it in a different font. Then take the next sentence
and search for mistakes in that one. And so on.
Take your whole argument and print it out.
Carry it around in your pocket for a few weeks. Reread it a couple
of times a day for even more reinforcement and faster change.
trying even harder
If someone is in the habit of explaining
setbacks poorly (with lots of mistakes), she will experience
frequent feelings of demoralization and she will often
give up on her goal, starting projects but not sticking with
them, deciding they were foolish goals anyway, and wondering
why she came up with them in the first place.
On the other extreme, with a habit of making
sensible explanations of setbacks, the same setbacks will make
her feel more determined than ever. Many people wonder about
this. How can a setback make someone more determined?
In my book, Self-Help Stuff That Works, I mention a study
of the Berkeley swim team. The researchers timed each athlete
as they swam a familiar distance. At the end of the timed
heat, the coach told them a slower time than they really
swam (in order to give them a setback).
They were all experienced competitors and
they knew how their swim felt and what their time should be,
so it was a small failure to discover they didnt swim as
fast as they thought they did.
After the setback, the athletes swam another
heat. Prior to all of this swimming, the researchers gave the
athletes a test to find out how each one explained setbacks.
Heres the interesting thing: Those
who made mistakes in their explanations felt defeated after the
setback and swam their next heat slower. Those with few or no
mistakes in their explanations swam their next heat faster. They
actually tried harder after a defeat.
Why would someone try harder after a setback?
For the same reason you would try harder if you played tennis
with someone you know you can beat and your opponent scored a
couple points in a row. Youd get riled up rather than feeling
defeated. Your opponents scores would focus you and increase
your determination to win.
For Norman Vincent Peale, his manuscript
was rejected by a long string of publishers. One possible explanation
is nobody wants it. Can you see how that takes away determination?
Its a thought-mistake. Has he tried everybody? No? Then
he cant say nobody wants it. Its an overgeneralization.
A more reasonable explanation might be I havent found the
right publisher yet. Notice with this explanation, it might make
him want to try even harder. It would increase his determination.
(Read more about Peale and his manuscript here.)
If you try to talk to your teenager and
he is distant and resentful, one possible way to explain that
setback is thats just the way teenagers are. That is a
thought-mistake (overconfidence in a mere guess) and it reduces
determination. A more reasonable explanation is I havent
found the right approach yet. And notice again, this explanation
could easily make you want to try harder, increasing determination.
A swimmer has a time slower than it should
be. One swimmer might think to himself, Im past my prime;
Im losing my edge. Can you feel how that would just suck
the life right out of him? Contrast that with an explanation
such as, I didnt get enough sleep last night. You cant
do anything about being past your prime. But you
can get more sleep.
I knew a woman who had two failed marriages.
Her explanation was, all men are pigs. Very demoralizing. With
a belief like that, would she feel motivated to date again? No,
and she wasnt. But what about an explanation like this:
My strategy for choosing men needs improvement. Do you see how
dramatically different that explanation is? What different results
she would get with it?
Or how about a man who has had a heart
attack. One way to explain that is Im destined to die young.
With an explanation like that, would the man change his diet?
Change his attitude? Improve his marriage? Probably not. He would
be too demoralized to do anything. As opposed to an explanation
like this: Up until now, I havent been motivated to take
good care of my health. Do you see how that leaves room for change?
How it motivates? How it doesnt at all demoralize?
And I know this is being repetitive, but
I need to hammer on this: The second explanation has a better
result, but it is also truer. Do not, I repeat: DO NOT just try
to come up with a positive explanation. If you dont
really believe it, your new improved explanation wont help
you one little bit.
A salesman has ten people in a row say
no. One explanation is, Im the worst salesman who ever
lived. Not very inspiring. Not likely to help get someone to
say yes. As opposed to, I need to learn more about sales. Or
even the typical sales principle, this is a numbers game. Its
just the odds. If I keep trying, Ill get someone to say
yes. Its a better explanation because it is truer and gives
you a better result.
I once wanted to speak in public but even
the thought of it made me nervous. My explanation of it was I
am constitutionally shy; my fear proves I cant do it. That
is full of thought-mistakes (overgeneralization, false permanence,
mistaken unchangeability, extremism). A more reasonable explanation
that did in fact make me want to try harder was it is normal
to feel nervous; it is merely a lack of experience. It made me
want to get more experience speaking.
Read the next chapter: Your
Feelings Will Change Quickly
This series has been published as a book.
Check it out here.