LEARNING FROM POSITIVE PSYCHOLOGY
In recent years the positive psychology movement has been gathering speed and power. Sometimes it feels like a welcome breath of fresh air into a field long filled with issues of clinical pathology. Sometimes it feels like a “pie in the sky” approach to life that urges us to just smile more and laugh a lot. We have all had our fill of “cheer up” advice which doesn’t seem to be very effective especially when we’re not feeling very cheerful. When I am overwhelmed with negative feelings, a bunch of “feel good” saying just doesn’t cut it.
However, we need to take a closer look at the body of work that falls under the title “positive psychology.” A lot of very serious, diligent work and research is going on in this area. I believe that overall this effort will provide a much needed balance to our tendency to ignore the good news and to really dwell on the depressing and discouraging emphasis on clinical pathology.
I came across an interesting bit of research from the positive psychology folk recently. They looked first at what happens when people are told to cheer up, recite mantras about how things are getting better, etc. The effort confirms what most of us know: people who have high levels of self-esteem can raise those even higher by reciting these “feel good” mantras. However, people whose self-esteem is low will lower their self-esteem even more by making these feel good comments to themselves.
Then the researchers took another tact. They asked people to replace their negative self-talk with various positive comments which they themselves had devised. The results were dramatically different. People with low self-esteem were able to raise their self-esteem when they developed their own mantras to replace their usual negative and self-derogatory comments.
A person who routinely describes herself as ugly will feel even worse if she tries to repeat her friends’ suggestions that she is really beautiful. However, if she decides to stress a positive characteristic of her own and tell herself that instead of being ugly that she is dedicated and compassionate, then the detrimental effect of the word “ugly’ disappears along with the word.
Think about the ways you talk about yourself to yourself. Take note of the self-defeating, self-critical and self-deprecating comments you repeat constantly. Then take some time to make a list of some of your skills, gifts, talents, and strengths. Pick a few of the more powerful words from this second list and use them to replace all that negative junk you’re so good at verbalizing. You probably won’t find the items on my list of good things to say very helpful, but you will get a lot of benefit from your own list of positive comments. We have a lot of power to shift our thinking if we will allow ourselves to highlight the nice things we really already know about ourselves. Try it. The only thing you have to lose is your low self-esteem.