Have you ever had an experience where you were so worried, nervous or afraid about the outcome of a situation that you became preoccupied with thinking about all the worst case scenarios that could eventuate? And do you remember how things turned out? I could almost guarantee that the outcome wasn’t a pleasant one, or if it was, you had worked yourself up so much that you weren’t even able to enjoy it.
The Self-fulfilling Prophecy
When we become consumed by negative thoughts or beliefs about something, we run the risk of creating what we call a “self-fulfilling prophecy”; the negative thoughts or beliefs overwhelm us, which subsequently causes us to behave in ways that make that fear or belief come true.
I’ll never forget the self-fulfilling prophecy I created when having to do a speech at my sister’s wedding; I had developed a fear that I was going to make a mistake or forget some of the words and that ultimately I would embarrass myself in front of the 100+ guests present. As a result of those negative thoughts, I found myself progressively getting more and more nervous as the time drew closer for me to deliver my speech; my heart was racing, I felt sick to my stomach, and I’m sure everyone could see how red my face was! Subsequently, by the time I had to begin speaking, I was in such a state that I couldn’t get my words out. I stumbled through the first few sentences and felt completely embarrassed.
Thoughts, feelings and behaviours
Reflecting back on that experience, I am now fully aware that it was my negative thoughts about the situation that in fact caused the outcome of my embarrassment. The premise of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) explains this very well. CBT posits that the way we think determines the way we feel, which determines the way we behave. So if our thoughts are negative, they will cause us to experience negative feelings, which in turn will lead to negative behaviours or outcomes of a situation.
When we understand this connection, it is very easy to see just how much power our thinking can have over our experiences and lives in general. Being able to control our thoughts and actively choose to think about things in a more positive and rational manner, can ultimately give us the power to ensure that our experience of life is a significantly more pleasant one.
In order to be able to take control of our thinking, we must first develop the skill of self-awareness; being able to hear our thoughts and recognise when they are negative or distorted (not logical or rational).
When I’m talking about thoughts, I’m talking about self-talk, or our inner voice; the voice/voices inside our heads that are speaking to us, telling us what’s going on with ourselves and others, interpreting our environments and perceiving what’s going on around us. How we feel about ourselves can have a very big influence on our self-talk; if our self-esteem is low, our self-talk will generally be negative, particularly towards ourselves. Therefore in order to take control of our self-talk and ultimately improve our experience of life and subsequently increase our self-esteem, we need to listen to what we are saying to ourselves and reframe any thoughts towards ourselves that are negative into positive ones.
Choosing our thoughts wisely
Obviously we are unable to control everything in our environments, and negative situations occur all the time. However it’s the way in which we choose to think about these situations that we do have control over, and which can drastically alter the extent to which we are impacted by these situations in a negative way. Because if we can accept that thinking negatively creates negative feelings and subsequently negative behaviours and outcomes, then we can also logically accept that thinking positively can create positive feelings and subsequently positive behaviours and outcomes.
Keeping it simple
I can hear you saying “but isn’t that common sense?” and “it isn’t that easy to be positive all the time”. And you’re right – sometimes the solution is that simple; just being positive does have the power to create positive experiences, however we as humans have the ability to think, reflect, interpret and perceive, and in doing so we tend to overcomplicate things unnecessarily. And yes, it isn’t easy, nor is it realistic, to be positive all the time; but let me ask you this…how easy is it to be negative all the time? I would answer that it’s not easy at all; it takes a lot more energy to be negative than positive, and the experience is not an enjoyable one. So wouldn’t you rather devote your time and energy into being positive instead?
Acknowledgement for progress
It is important to be aware that the solution to a more enjoyable life experience does not mean that you will never experience negative emotions again; negative emotions such as sadness, anger, frustration and anxiety are all normal and valid, and even more importantly they serve as indicators that there is something happening in our environment that requires our attention. We have to acknowledge these feelings and emotions in order to process them and move forward from them. But we mustn’t get stuck there; once they’ve been acknowledged and accepted then we have to let them go.
So, always be mindful of the fact that what we CHOOSE to think about, or how we CHOOSE to interpret life, situations and people, will determine our experiences. If we want to enjoy life and feel more encouraging emotions such as happiness, hope, motivation and contentment, then it is within our control to make that happen by CHOOSING to indulge positive thoughts whilst rejecting negative ones. When we master this ability then we are no longer products of our environment or victims to circumstance. In fact, we are victims no more.
By Jill Searle, Psychologist