A Three-Step Process to Develop Positive Thinking (When You’re Ready For It)

“What a horrible summer we had,” a friend pronounced to me recently, and she wasn’t the first. It’s become a common refrain in reference to the amount of rain we experienced in Toronto, particularly in June and July. Yet each time I hear it I think to myself, “What rain?”

As far as I’m concerned, we had a great summer.  Yes, I do recall some rain in late spring or early summer.  I was delighted because it meant I didn’t have to water the flowers or the lawn (I’m no green thumb).  Also, I’m a twice-daily dog-walker and I only had to pull out my rain jacket and umbrella a couple of times.  The rain was sporadic and my dog and I successfully waited it out on more than one occasion.  Otherwise, I mostly remember warm walks on bright days over a summer that seemed to last forever.

…I think to myself, “What rain?”

Now, I didn’t always have such a sunny view on life.  For most of my early- to mid-adulthood, I honed my ability to worry and ruminate over things that I said and did (or that were said and done to me), things that were about to happen and things that would likely never happen but for which I was still committed to being prepared, just in case.  I was keenly aware of painful emotions like anxiety, anger and sadness, and practically ignored occasional experiences of joy and ease.

However, as I developed as a professional coach, addressed various emotional issues with the help of therapy, and passed the halfway point in my life with greater appreciation for the time I have left, I naturally became ready to be more positive; to want to sweat the small stuff less and prioritize enjoyment throughout my day.

Basically, I got to a point where I was tired of worrying all the time and began to wonder what I might be missing in life as a result.  In addition, all my reading about coaching, positive psychology and neuroscience taught me that a positive state of mind is more conducive to creative thinking and complex problem-solving. I needed both of those skills to grow my business and manage personal relationships so it made a lot of sense to me to adopt a more positive-oriented mindset.

I became ready to be more positive; to want to sweat the small stuff less and prioritize enjoyment throughout my day.

Once I became ready to think more positively, I thought about the habits or practices I could develop to help me shift my attention in that direction – because you don’t just suddenly decide to be more positive and start doing it; rather, it takes a committed effort to become aware of your worrying and then consciously choose to focus on what’s working well and going right.

I came up with a quick, three-step reflective process to develop positive thinking, as follows:

Step 1: Become aware of your worrying, ruminating or catastrophizing thoughts

When do you worry the most?  Several moments seem to trigger my painful thinking and feeling.  For instance, when I walk the dog, I tend to catastrophize.  I dream up strange, scary encounters on my walk or reflect on how an earlier exchange with someone could be taken the wrong way.  It’s clockwork: when my feet step out onto the pavement, I’m off in a fantasy-land where everything goes wrong.  If my dog can actually sense my thoughts, I truly feel sorry for her.

Lying in bed at night (or just before dawn) is another time in the day that I worry and ruminate.  Once I stop “doing” and actually have time to think and feel about what I’m doing, or other aspects of my life, the worrying thoughts and anxious feelings flood in and make it difficult to sleep.  Sleep is an essential ingredient to personal happiness and success, and I don’t want to waste any more time staring at the ceiling while sleep passes me by again.

The more you become aware of when you are likely to worry or ruminate, noticing how it makes you feel when you are actively worrying, the more likely you will be able to choose thinking about something that serves you better overall.  For instance, on my dog walks, I now challenge myself to think of one thing that could go really right in my life (or on that walk itself) and spend time pondering that.  It’s amazing how much that cognitive shift can improve the quality of those moments.

Step 2: Ask yourself: “What’s positive in this moment?”

Once you’ve identified that some of your thoughts are not particularly helpful (i.e. if you worry about the same thing over and over yet can’t come up with any productive action to resolve it), it’s time to practice something new.  Get straight to the point and ask yourself, “What’s positive in this moment?” or variations on this theme, i.e. “What’s going well?”, “What am I grateful for?”.

As you reflect on the positive, notice how these thoughts make you feel.  Do you feel lighter inside, or even joyful?  Do you actually feel more excited about an upcoming event than you are anxious – yet haven’t realized it?  Sometimes you may feel better than you even know, your joyous feelings buried under painful emotions that hog your attention.

Step 3: Ask yourself: “What progress have I made in terms of how I’ve shown up today?

Celebrating your progress is a great way to build your confidence and self-trust, and you don’t have to wait until you achieve a goal or complete a significant project.  For instance:

  • When you choose to show up in an important relationship in a more effective way than before, that’s progress.
  • When you choose to make time for yourself to think through a challenge, rather than react impulsively to make the tension go away, that’s progress.
  • When you stop for a moment and appreciate what’s in it – a laugh, the wind blowing on your face, a warm coffee in the morning – that’s progress in the frantic pace of this world.

Plus, the more you pay attention to the progress you’re making, the more likely you are to repeat the behaviour that makes you feel so proud of yourself.  Good thoughts reinforce good behaviour.

If you’re not ready for positive thinking, you can’t force it.  However, if you’re grown tired of worrying and catastrophizing and are ready to try something new, try practising these three steps each day. It doesn’t take long, yet the impact can be delightful and surprisingly enduring.

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Leadership is not just about leading people to professional and organizational success.  It starts with leadership within yourself: becoming aware of how you think, feel and act, and developing the ability to be thoughtful and intentional about your inner dialogue and subsequent actions.  Stay tuned for more upcoming posts about personal leadership – the why, the what, and the how.