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Changing our perspective

Last week, a friend posted a meme that said, “New approach to self care - start talking to myself the way I talk to my dog...”


And – why do we talk to dogs (and cats) the way we do?  Because they respond!  Don’t believe me?  Just look at these dogs who are told they are a “good boy.”


The interesting thing is that people are the same way!  Research shows that our brains actually function better in the positive than they do in the negative. So, why do we focus so much on what is wrong?  Well, one thought is that our brains are programed to look at negative events and respond, in order to keep us safe.  For instance, when we are children, and we touch a hot burner, we learn that it hurts when we do that.  Thus, our brains “learn” from that event – and we stop touching burners.  So – our brains are programmed to look out for potential danger, and to “learn” from it. 

But, maybe we also got less than positive feedback when we were kids.  I was thinking about this when I was walking.  I laughed to myself that my mother seemed to think I was both a genius and an idiot.  My mom was very good at telling me, “you can do anything that you set your mind to do.”  However, my mom also routinely told me things like, “you’re an airy-fairy” (i.e., get lost in day-dreams and don’t accomplish anything), “you’re worthless,” “you’ll never amount to anything.”  It’s a hard about-face when you’re a kid.  What I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older is that for me personally, it wasn’t my mom who was the most damaging.  I think I learned pretty early that the negative talk occurred when she was angry – and that I had to take that with a grain of salt.  Don’t get me wrong – it was hurtful. But, I learned to let it go.  My father, on the other hand was kind and often came around to console me after one of my mother’s outbursts.  The way he hurt my esteem was in trying to be helpful.  He’d “help” me edit a paper by rewriting my paper.  He’d take over science or math projects – partially because he found them interesting, but I learned I couldn't be trusted to do these on my own.  As an adult, I realized that some of the messaging I received from those actions were that I couldn't do much right.  I needed someone to follow after me and correct everything (and if you’ve been following my blog for a minute – some of that overthinking/self-criticism might begin to make sense). 


I know, however, that overall, I had it pretty good. Not that I didn’t experience difficult stuff, but because I DID hear positive feedback. I know many people who never heard anything positive growing up.  It isn’t just parents who are influencing this.  Depending on income level, skin color, ethnicity, culture, you might have gotten more or less positive feedback from your community (peers, teachers, community members, etc.) And, how much do we internalize all those messages we received? I feel like half of my client base are battling the messaging they heard as a child – either messages received from family, or from society (classmates, teachers, the community). 

I think the cool thing about what I do though – is I help people learn to change the messaging they give themselves.  That’s the best news.  We can rewire our brain.  We just have to be open to the idea that there is positive stuff that happens in the world.  We all have positive qualities.  Positive Psychology says that it is not our external environment that predicts our happiness levels.  In fact, it is posited that even if I know EVERYTHING about your outside environment, I can only predict 10% of your happiness.  90% of how happy we are is due to how we process what is occurring.  But, how cool is that?  (A really amazing video on this topic, and where I pulled these stats is from Sean Achor’s Ted talk, which can be found here:


When I think about all of this, it is finding reality-based affirmations for ourselves.  For instance, I’m never going to tell myself that I’m a super model.  But, I can, at the end of the day think about what went well.  I can think about things I did well.  I can think about things I’m happy about.  I can think about things that I’m grateful for.  If I focus on making sure that I’m picking different things every day – and that I’m not just “happy to be alive” – then my brain starts scanning my environment to find those positive aspects. Try it for a month! See if you start thinking any differently.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you never think about the challenges.  Obviously, that is unrealistic.  Life has a lot of challenges.  But, my brain in the positive is more likely to feel like I can conquer/deal with those challenges. 


Also – how many jobs focus on what is wrong rather than what is going well?  I have had one boss who was incredibly supportive and complimentary - so much so, that I often thought she was being unrealistic.  I owe a lot to her for my own growth.  I don’t know if she reads this – but I hope she does.  But, how many of us get those pats on the back?  Do we always hear compliments as being “unrealistic” and critiques as being correct?


I was thinking recently about the time when I worked at a substance use disorder treatment program.  It used to drive me a little crazy because often clients would talk about how god was responsible for all the good in their life, but they were personally responsible for everything bad.  Don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to make an argument for or against religion.  Believe what you will.  BUT, if choices you made led you down a dark path – take comfort in knowing that you aren’t a terrible person because of those choices, but you have the power to make other decisions.  It’s not to take the glory away from any god – but it is important to appreciate your own effort can impact your success. 

So – go ahead!  Talk to yourself the same way you’d talk to your dog!  Appreciate your fun nature, your fluffy belly, your love for others, your devotion, your kindheartedness, the way you love.  Appreciate your intelligence and your achievements.  Pat yourself on the back for getting through some of those insane days when you just wanted to curl into a ball and cry.  High-five yourself for those days where you had to drag yourself out of bed – for actually getting out of bed and brushing your teeth.  Laugh to yourself about that ridiculous time where you felt like you made a complete ass of yourself, but you still moved your feet forward. 


Today, I’m grateful that I used some of my most challenging days as fuel for doing the work I do now.  And, I’m not the best therapist every day – but, I think more days than not, I’m pretty good at what I do.  That’s pretty cool.  What about you?  What is one success that you can pat yourself on the back for?  What is something you’re grateful for?  What is one thing that you’re can smile at about in your day?

“If you want to sing out, sign out.  If you want to be free, be free.  There are a million things to be, you know that there are.”  ~Cat Stevens~

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