Why I Gave Up “Positive Thinking”

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In my first teaching job, we always began the year by setting a goal.  We would write this goal on an index card and place it in an envelope.  Midway through the year, this goal would turn up in our mailbox, so that we could monitor our own progress.

This was kind of an inside joke between my aide and me, because we always had the same goal: to be more positive.

It wasn’t that we didn’t take our goal seriously or try to be positive.  It’s just that those pesky “negative” thoughts and words always crept in.

And it wasn’t only at work that this was happening.  I noticed negativity in my conversations, in my self-talk, and in my mood, in all aspects of my life.  And during my last winter living in the house in Michigan, I launched an all-out effort to change it.

How did I change it?  I got up early and recited a positive poem to begin my day.  I wrote a gratitude list.  I watched subliminal videos with positive affirmations on You Tube.  I read books about positive thinking.  I recited mantras throughout my day.  I wrote a list of everything I hated about myself and turned it all into the positive, opposite. 

I sought to bombard my mind with positive messages, multiple times a day, so that there would be no room for the negative.  And when I did have negative thoughts, I worked to replace them with positive thoughts, right away.  I worked as hard as I could to fight against that toxic negativity.

And I failed, miserably.  Changing my thoughts was never, could never be so simple. 

After I abandoned my journey toward “positive thinking,” I began a new journey–the journey toward truly understanding my mind.

I learned that in my effort to only think positive thoughts, I was rejecting my own mind.  Negative thoughts are an effort of the mind to communicate something, a cry for help.  And I was attacking my mind for its cries, because they were “negative.”

The alternative course of action is to make peace with these cries for help, and to answer them.

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This is what I learned in my journey to pursue that course:

1.  Negative thoughts are often based on misunderstandings.  When I attacked myself with my thoughts–when I called myself fat, stupid, or a failure–I was misunderstanding myself.  There was something about me that I needed to look at more closely, a misunderstanding that I needed to clear up.  Now, when I think poorly about myself or someone else, I gently ask my mind “why.”  Why am I thinking that?  In looking at the answer and clearing up the misunderstanding, I am able to stop a lot more of those thoughts than I was through “positive thinking.”

2.  Negative thoughts can stem from neglecting our own needs.  If I’m crabby about doing something, helping somebody, or going somewhere, I’ve found that it’s usually because I need to spend some time doing something I want.  In some way, it’s because I need to spend time meeting one of my needs.  Martyrdom and overextension breed such “negative” thoughts, which are really just the mind’s cries for help.

3.  Hopelessness comes from misunderstandings and exhaustion.  “It will never get better; why do I try?” is the mind’s way of saying, “I don’t know what to do, and I need a NAP!”  Learning to relax, then think calmly about a situation has done a lot more to open up my creativity, than any positive affirmations ever did.  And learning to ask for what I need, when I need it, has worked wonders toward stopping that feeling of overwhelm.

In the end, I learned that every negative thought has a purpose, and that simply trying to override them can never work in the long-term.  By abandoning “positive thinking” and moving toward understanding, I have found my outlook to be sunnier and my mind to be calmer.

Lesson 3: No Good Can Come from Overthinking

Note: This is one of my 35 Lessons in 35 Years.  There are links to all the posts I’ve done on this, so far, on my original post.

I remember sitting in Abnormal Psych class, back in my undergrad days.  This was a class of breakthroughs, for every student involved.  The professor, who had worked for years in the field, would describe the characteristics and experiences that would lead to a particular disorder.  During the lecture, we all made connections to ourselves, and somebody would inevitably be near tears by the time the professor, said, “And so it goes.”

Was there anything wrong with any of us?  No.  We were overthinking, overanalyzing.

Our brains love to work, and love to make connections.  And in doing so, they often complicate the simplest aspects of our lives, and lead us to suffer needlessly.

I’ve found that spending time in the house, with nothing else to do, tends to lead me toward overthinking.  My brain will make me absolutely miserable, if I don’t take measures to prevent it.

Here are some of the ways that I overthink:

1.  Diagnosing myself.  All right, so I don’t actually diagnose myself with psychological disorders, but sitting alone, it is very easy to start picking apart and trying to fix myself.  It’s good for us to always strive to be the best we can be, but we need to begin from the assumption that we are improving on what is already good.  When I’m overthinking, I “find” deficiencies all over, and try to fix them.  I’ll end up apologizing for the most ridiculous things, and basically driving myself nuts.

2.  Overanalyzing the reactions of others.  After I’m done with myself, I’ll start picking apart my interactions with my friends and co-workers.  Did I say something wrong?  Am I giving them the wrong impression?  Am I annoying them?  Am I too open?  Too aloof?  This kind of thinking leads to second guessing everything, and keeps me from being authentic around others.  People like other people by default, so my assumptions are probably incorrect anyway.

3.  Diminishing experiences with meaning.  We like to give meaning to everything.  What does the sunset mean?  I’ve seen some powerful images, in my mind, and my mind likes to try and assign meaning to them, and use them to figure out what I need to do.  Meaning and words can really diminish experiences and feelings.  Some things just are.  And we need to enjoy them.

4.  Exaggerating experiences with meaning.  The flip side of #3 holds true as well.  If something unpleasant happens, my mind will try and figure out what it means.  Is it because I did something wrong?  Good things just happen, and bad things just happen.  When we don’t assign meaning to them, we’re able to weather the storms much better.

5.  Barking up the wrong tree.  We don’t like to say “I don’t know.”  So, when I’m faced with a challenge, my mind will search for an explanation, even if it isn’t the correct one.  It’s harder to realize when I’m heading down this road, and I often need to be told by someone else that I’m doing this.  When I’m in the middle of trying to make an answer fit a problem, I have to stop myself and make sure I’m not approaching it from the wrong angle.

No good comes from overthinking.  So how have I been able to avoid it?  Here are some ways:

  • Get out of the house!  I go out and experience life, rather than staying inside.
  • Pauses during the day.  I try to stop and spend a minute or two clearing my mind every 30 minutes or so.
  • Exercise.  I don’t think when I’m riding my bike to work.  It’s a great way to rest my mind.

Have you ever caught yourself overthinking?  What are some ways that you’ve learned to avoid it?

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Thoughts from the Land of (Extreme) Minimalism

So here we are.

If you ignore our storage unit in Michigan (as we are unlikely to even have the means to bring any of that stuff down here), we are unquestionably living minimalistically.  We sleep on mattresses on the floor, we own 3 bowls and no plates, my wardrobe consists of 5 outfits, and we probably actually do have less than 100 possessions per person (unless you count each of Rob’s tools).  We’ve “arrived.”

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The funny thing is that it isn’t that important.  We don’t call ourselves “minimalists.”  In the end, we weren’t decluttering just to declutter.  And we’ve done larger things, than get rid of most of our possessions.

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Oh, minimalism has had its benefits.  It is an important part of the picture.

Minimalism:

  • Has drastically reduced the amount of time we spend on housework.  We spend about 45 minutes a day, managing possessions.
  • Has increased our mobility.  When we’re ready to move on next time, it will be much easier.
  • Has decreased the financial stress that we face, as well as the stresses of maintaining possessions (home repairs, etc.).
  • Has decreased the number of decisions that we have to make in a day, thus reducing mental strain.
  • Has decreased our overall stress load, which has allowed me to begin to recover from years of chronic stress.

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However, minimalism is only one part of the picture–it is not an end in itself.  The reason that we love our life right now, is not just because we don’t have a lot of stuff.  Here in the city, we’re living both a simple and joyful life.

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We enjoy many simple pleasures, on a daily basis:

  • Sipping coffee with Rob, in the mornings, on the balcony.
  • Enjoying fresh, organic food.
  • Discovering the next adventure that life has in store for me, in my new job.
  • Driving over crazy overpasses, with ease.
  • Challenging Beanie to a round of Mario Kart (yes, we bought a Wii!  Hey, we’re living intentionally…we have our reasons!).
  • The daily ritual of getting the mail, which always has surprise packages for us!
  • The weekly ritual of doing the laundry, and the different people I meet on the way.
  • Grilling out by the pool.
  • Daily evening swimming trips.
  • Rob’s newfound fame, as he rides his tall bike around.
  • Excursions out to go sight-seeing in our new city.
  • Library day.
  • Evening walks, when everybody has come outside, to feel to cooler air.

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Our future plans have not changed.  So don’t be relieved that we have “settled down,” or be concerned about what we are doing next.  It’s good to have a destination, but we are not rushing the journey.

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We’ll get a boat when we get a boat.  It might be soon, or it might be Moonraker next summer.  Does it really matter?

We’re enjoying our present, and letting the future surprise us with whatever it has to offer, when the time comes.

Own the Day!

You own today.

Today, you chose to get up, out of bed.  Your choices put you where you are now, and today can be whatever you choose for it to be.

You chose this day.  So make sure you use it up.  

Will you…

Spend some extra time enjoying your friends and family?

Take some extra time to notice the beauty around you and in nature?

Sip some jasmine tea and stare out the window?

Take some extra time to listen to those who are hurting?

Spend that extra dollar and buy that shamrock, balloon, or other fundraiser at the grocery store?

Give somebody an unexpected gift or commit a random act of kindness?

Visit someone who is lonely?

Finally stop caring what others think and start following your dreams?

Decide what you really want to do, rather than just doing what you think you have to do?

Take that first step toward fulfilling your greatest desire?

You own today.  It’s yours–you don’t owe anyone anything.

So what will you do with your day?

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Those Spacey Days

Note: There is still time to enter the Give-Away and donate to Gracyn’s family, to help cover her medical expenses. You can donate a small amount–even a dollar. On the site, you do have the option of keeping the amount you donate private. 400 people visited the post, on the give-away. If each of you donated $1, that would be a significant amount, toward Gracyn’s care! Don’t forget–the little things matter.

There was someone my husband worked with once, whom he referred to as “No Mind,” as an obvious statement about this person’s intelligence. Then, he looked at me, and said, “You! You’re Never Mind! Because your mind is never here!”

And he’s the one with ADD.

I have noticed that there are times when I am more in the here-and-now than others. I’ve said before, I am quite mindful when we’re sailing. When I’m sitting in the cockpit, watching the shoreline go by, there is nowhere else to be but there.

It’s the other days, when my mind is all over the place, that I need to pay attention to. Last year, I was obsessed with the future, so much that all I could think about was the summer, and being on Moonraker. This year, I have been stuck on the past–difficult, upsetting times in the past, actually. I found that, no matter how hard I tried, my mind kept going back there.

So what was going on?

I’ve noticed that I can’t stay in the present, when I am unhappy in the present. I can’t be here-and-now, when I crave nothing but escape from the here-and-now. Last year, the future was something to look forward to. This year, even thinking about the future bothered me.

So, why? And why did I fixate on unhappy, unpleasant times?

Well, the present was unhappy. And the future was scarey and uncertain. I was facing challenges–so my mind kept going back to the past, and the challenges I had overcome. Because I had overcome them all, even if the memories were not pleasant. I went back to times when I had been loved immensely, and to times that made me angry, because I had faced adversity alone. But, everytime, I had come out on top, transcended.

Missing the obvious lesson, the memories of the past only brought me back to the pain I felt at the time, making life much mroe difficult than it needed to be. Only when I tried to leave all that behind, and pay attention to the here-and-now, did I realize that I was hiding from something. I saw what it was, and was able to look it in the eye, and make some changes.

So, pay attention, when your mind starts wandering. You’re running from something. What is it?

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Dan, at Zen Presence, wrote a similar post, about clarifying your dreams and intentions for your life, and not just living the way you think everyone else wants you to.  Check it out!

Off the Grid Tuesday: Limiting “Connected” Time

Today we are more connected to technology than ever. Which has led to us becoming less connected to each other.

I’ve seen people texting while eating dinner at a restaurant. I’ve seen parents texting while on an outing with their child. I’ve seen people talking on their cell phones while out with friends. I’ve caught myself typing away on the laptop while watching the Bean play.

We all know that these real-life connections are what’s important. That seeing our child grow up, interacting with them, and enjoying the company of the friends in front of us is the way we should connect.

However, technology can play an important role. I’ve found support from the ladies at Michigan Natural Parenting, and I’ve gone on to become real-life friends with many of them. I rely on the Internet as a source of information on nearly everything. Both Facebook and my cell phone allowed us to check in with friends and family during our sailing trip. I enjoy writing this blog and sharing my adventures and learnings with others.

We choose not to have a television. Yet we keep our Internet access and cell phone because they do more than provide passive entertainment. Still, if you are not disciplined in the use of this technology, it can become as harmful as television.

Here are some of the ways that we handle it:

1. We use our cell phone like a land line. It gets velcroed to the wall. We take it with us in the car, but we turn it off during outings, dinner, concerts, etc.

2. We limit our Internet time. During the week, I go online for 15 minutes in the morning, than 30 minutes (for blogging) in the evening.

3. The person in front of us always gets the attention (rather than the technology).

This is what we are doing so far. What are some ways you limit your use of technology?

The Importance of the Journey

Ithaca

When you set out for Ithaka

ask that your way be long,

full of adventure, full of instruction.

The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,

angry Poseidon – do not fear them:

such as these you will never find

as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare

emotion touch your spirit and your body.

The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,

angry Poseidon – you will not meet them

unless you carry them in your soul,

unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.

At many a Summer dawn to enter

with what gratitude, what joy –

ports seen for the first time;

to stop at Phoenician trading centres,

and to buy good merchandise,

mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,

and sensuous perfumes of every kind,

sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;

to visit many Egyptian cities,

to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.

Your arrival there is what you are destined for.

But don’t in the least hurry the journey.

Better it last for years,

so that when you reach the island you are old,

rich with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.

Without her you would not have set out.

She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.

So wise you have become, of such experience,

that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

by Constantine P Cavafy

I want to write a commentary on this, but I don’t know if there is anything I can add. In Tawas, the power boaters were amazed that it took us 9 hours to complete a trip that took them 2. But we didn’t “go to Tawas.” We saw the second spark plug as we left the Bay, swam at Gravely Shoals, and got a close up of the freighter dock. On the way back, we pushed Moonraker beyond what we thought to be her limits (and nowhere near her real limits, whatever they may be!), we heeled over on a close reach–closer than what most boats can do, and we soaked up some wonderful sunshine.

One sailor we talked to said, “When I’m on my boat, I’m where I want to be. I don’t want to rush there and back, I just want to be on the boat.” It’s about mindfulness, about taking in the moment and learning what it has to teach you. There is no reason to rush back and forth. This is not just boating, it’s life. Don’t be so concerned with the destination that you forget the journey.

We didn’t reach “Ithaca” this summer. We didn’t even make the trip under the bridge that I had spent a year preparing for. Yet, what we gained was worth so much more.