Most people would agree that negative thinking is to be avoided, but perhaps not for the reasons you suspect. Yes, negative thinking can make us feel worse about things. But it also robs us of our freedom and separates us from reality such that it makes it harder, if not impossible, to develop a healthy sense of meaning, purpose, awareness, attachment, and identity in life. This Provision will show you what to watch out for and why.
The theme of our 2005 coaching intensive, “The Art of Zestful Living,” is not far off from the focus of our current Provisions’ series on spiritual wellness. Since our definition of and approach to spiritual wellness is non-sectarian, we are focusing on those things that make for the well being of human individuality, that vital force in each of us which animates and expresses our presence in the world.
From this vantage point, spiritual wellness is all about the art of zestful living. To be spiritually well is to pursue not only survival but also the things that make life worth living. Maslow spoke of this in terms of “self-actualization,” Jesus in terms of “eternal life,” and Buddha in terms of “Dharma.” Whatever we call it , we infuse life with zest by paying attention to our sense of meaning, purpose, awareness, attachment, and identity in life.
To encourage such noble attention, or what is sometimes called “right thinking,” we have been writing about things to avoid because they lead to or stem from spiritual illness. In the past three weeks, we have coached you to avoid magical, cynical, and positive thinking as systems of interpretation and control over the course of life. They too often add insult to injury, fail to work, and take the fun out of life. They certainly tread on thin ice when it comes to meaning, purpose, awareness, attachment, and identity.
So too when it comes to negative thinking. As a system of interpretation and control over the course of life, negative thinking too often adds insult to injury, fails to work, and is just no fun. It leads to whining, having a victim-mentality, and “catastrophizing,” or irrationally and fearfully turning one bad thing into a much bigger bad thing.
Unfortunately, extrapolating from one localized instance to dire generalized thinking is all too common. When something bad happens, many people have a tendency to assume the worst. Consider the following examples, to mention only a few:
- We try a new food after which we experience indigestion or gastrointestinal problems. As a result, we develop negative thinking about that food and may never be willing to try it again.
- We experience a disabling or disfiguring injury after which we experience both limitation and embarrassment. As a result, we develop negative thinking about public situations and may never be willing to go out again.
- We have a run-in with a co-worker after which we experience changed office dynamics. As a result, we develop negative thinking about that person and may never be willing to interact with them again.
- We suffer a slump in sales after which we experience a significant dip in our personal income. As a result, we develop negative thinking about sales and may leave the profession altogether.
- We lose our job after which we experience a protracted time of searching for new employment. As a result, we develop negative thinking about the economy and may give up looking for work altogether.
- We clean up our office or home environment after which things get messed up again. As a result, we develop negative thinking about environmental modification and may abandon such efforts altogether (until we can’t stand it anymore).
- We work really hard to meet a deadline after which the project is put on hold. As a result, we develop negative thinking about management and may never be willing to work that hard again.
These examples reveal that the problem with negative thinking is not much different from the problem with positive thinking: both approaches garble our awareness and appreciation of life based upon either our fear (that nothing will work out) or our faith (that everything will work out). By filtering things through our favorite lens (are you a pessimist or an optimist?), we distort our responsibility, usually make matters worse, and miss many opportunities for discovering meaning, purpose, awareness, attachment, and identity in the here and now.
When it comes to distorting responsibility, the problem with negative thinking is the inverse of the problem with positive thinking. As we discussed last week Click, the problem with positive thinking is an overdeveloped sense of control. We make ourselves, and our positive thoughts, responsible for everything. So when things don’t work out, we have no one to blame but ourselves. What fun is that?
The problem with negative thinking is an underdeveloped sense of control. We make others, and our negative thoughts, responsible for everything. So when things don’t work out, as we knew would happen, we blame everyone and everything except ourselves. Which is also no fun and a far stretch from the truth. The world, both externally and internally, is just not that blameworthy.
It’s probably easy to see how this works when it comes to the external world. If you believe that the world is out to get you (“The food was just too tempting.”), then you have become a victim of the world. And victims, by definition, lack control.
The same dynamics play out when it comes to the internal world. If we believe that we are tragically flawed (“I just can’t stop eating.”), then we have become a victim of our own negative thinking. And such victims not only lack control, they also lack the ability to discover a healthy sense of meaning, purpose, awareness, attachment, and identity in life.
In his classic book, The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck notes that most people who come to see psychiatrists are suffering from “disorders of responsibility. The neurotic assumes too much responsibility; the person with a character disorder not enough. When neurotics are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that they are at fault. When those with character disorders are in conflict with the world they automatically assume that the world is at fault.”
In other words, neuroses and character disorders represent opposite ends of the responsibility spectrum. Neurotics think they can control everything (extreme positive thinking) while those with character disorders think they can control nothing (extreme negative thinking). And, as Peck so ably describes, both extremes represent mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual illness.
Both extremes also have a way of making matters worse. Trying to control everything, with extreme positive thinking or any other system, is as bad as trying to control nothing, with extreme negative thinking. They both set us up for failure.
We can see how this works in the examples given above, where negative thinking generates a clear constriction of life. Avoiding foods, situations, people, professions, systems, solutions, or superiors because of some prior experience that has been “catastrophized” into the present moment makes us lose not only opportunities but also our very freedom in life.
That is the real tragedy behind both positive and negative thinking. We become slaves to our thinking profile rather than students of life. And there is so much to be discovered, learned, and shared once we are free to explore the universe as we find it, with neither the overconfidence of positive thinking nor the under confidence of negative thinking.
Christopher Reeve is an example of a person who could have easily adopted or justified negative thinking, after suffering a fall in an equestrian competition in 1995 that left him paralyzed from the neck down. But that would have denied his zest for life. Instead, he learned to accept and work with his situation in order pursue the opportunities available to him. And pursue them he did.
In 1997 he made his award-winning directorial debut with “In the Gloaming.” In 1998 he published his bestselling autobiography, Still Me. In 1999 he won a Grammy for the audio recording of that autobiography. And the best was yet to come. It was then that he became a prominent activist on behalf of research to develop effective treatments and a cure for paralysis caused by spinal cord injury and other central nervous system disorders. As a result, many have benefited from his work and many more know of his legacy.
Reeve is an example of someone who went beyond half-full or half-empty thinking to seeing the glass itself. He was the epitome of someone who took responsibility for the things he could change, who accepted the things he could not change, and who had the wisdom to know the difference. The world grieved when Reeve died on October 10, 2004 precisely because his pursuit of meaning, purpose, awareness, detachment, and identity in life had become so coupled with our own.
May that be a lesson for us all! Whatever our situation in life, avoid negative thinking. Avoid positive thinking. Just think about what is going on in the here and now. Look for signs of new life and new creation. Work on things that build up and heal. Pursue opportunities that express the best of what it means to be human. Avoid taking too much or too little responsibility. Take off your favorite lens in order to come to our senses with love.
Coaching Inquiries: Are you prone to positive or negative thinking? Do you try to muscle your way through life with willpower? Or do you whine your way through life as the victim? What could you do to shed these roles in order to enhance your sense of meaning, purpose, awareness, attachment, and identity?
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To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form on the Web for a complimentary coaching session.
Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob..
This series is getting dangerously close to Eastern Religions! Vipassana meditation has correlates in Buddhism and Mahayana-type meditation, where simple mindfulness and awareness of the world is stressed. Thich Nhat Hanh urges meditating upon the miracle of life and what is everyday, and bringing that awareness inside of ourselves.
Being nonjudgmental, in his approach, is very important: “you can kill one, two, five with a gun, but you can kill millions with an ideology”. This is an invitation to “nonjudgmental witnessing awareness” as a way to prepare ourselves for a larger mission in the world.
Interestingly, many Americans think Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy, either by confusing it with Confucianism, or because it is does not invoke magic. If you have one sentence to distinguish Eastern from Semitic religions, it is the emphasis on personally adapting to an awesome but impersonal universe. If you have two sentences, it is also complete lack of exclusivity; you don’t have to join a club to be on God’s good side.
Once again, excellent series and very thought provoking. I hope you do not lose many readers who are looking for “quick and dirty” answers.
I agree some with your Provision on positive thinking. I have thought the same thing about people saying their prayers had been answered…I always thought…what about the people who had the opposite of what they were praying for happened…did it mean their prayers weren’t answered and G-d only answered some prayers? The people who survived cancer because of their prayers??? What about the people who didn’t survive?
I know there is more to this and people say it is G-d’s will but it still seems like more guilt and pressure to get the prayers right. I find much of organized religion tries to take this path…believe in positive, prayers or in specific beliefs and you will survive, not just now but for an eternity. The G-d I believe in wants me to experience all life…good, bad, ugly and will still love and care for me.. How can I not look at the earth that was created and say, “Isn’t it fascinating!” in beauty and in storms.
I believe in prayers, meditation and sharing for other people. I just try not to have expectations for them and want the highest good for all.
I’ve been a subscriber to your weekly Life Trek Provision series for a long time now and have found them to be of great value with useful topics and thought provoking ideas. I have often thought of engaging in a coaching relationship but have not gone through with it for one reason or another. I particularly found your series on listening very helpful in my work as a social worker and have bought the e-books from your site. Thanks so much for your service.
I’m greatly enjoying your “Avoid … ” series. How about doing one on avoiding affirmations? Or I could do one for you if you are interested?
Your poem titled “Deep” is truly wonderful. I’m currently reading “The Purpose Driven Life.” This writing takes me deeper in thought of truly finding my purpose. I also write poetry. Keep writing.
As a comment on Wellness Pathway #255: Start Fidgeting. I saw the article you referred to in The Washington Post several days ago. I am a world-class fidgeter, constantly in motion. I work as Director of Research for a food flavor company and basically, I eat for a living. We are always tasting something. I always wondered how I managed to stay slim. Now I know. It also gives me a great come back when my wife complains about the fidgeting. Thanks.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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