Ever had one of those moments when all you wanted to do was crawl back in bed, put a pillow over your head and shut out the world for a few hours? For a few days?
For the rest of the year?
I’m willing to bet that you have wanted to throw in the towel at some point. And it’s okay if you have. It’s a perfectly normal response, actually.
Human beings have an elaborate, built-in defense mechanism designed to keep us safe. The only problem is that the system doesn’t do a very good job of threat assessment. All dangers are equal, whether the threat is a hungry lion or the empty judgments of others. Our minds and bodies react the same way to both—we retreat back into our cave, where the soft glow of the fire keeps us safe and warm.
You’ve said it before: “It just won’t work.” “Why am I even trying this?” “I don’t know what I’m doing.” “This is stupid.” Deep down you know you’re trying to rationalize your way out of doing something that’s scary, whether it’s looking for a new job, starting a business, writing a book, or calling up your estranged sibling. And every time you rationalize, you sink further into the depths where the pressure of negativity will ultimately crush you.
A few years ago I wrote a novel. Sometimes it was easy, when the words flowed onto the page and I saw the story clearly in my head. Other times it was as if my fingers were made of lead and the story disappeared behind layers of thick fog. On those days I felt like giving up—like I was never going to finish, and even if I did, the book would be terrible.
So I quit writing. My manuscript sat there, untouched, for over a year, and I agonized over it daily because I had sunk so deeply into the rationalization that I wasn’t cut out to be a writer. Every day that I didn’t write I died a little bit inside. I knew that I should be creating, giving the characters life and using words to paint the pictures I saw in my head onto the page.
A little over a year into my creative isolation, I had an epiphany. I started thinking about my book, and my life as a writer, differently. I discovered little tricks to coax the writer within me out long enough to put words on the page. At first these were fleeting moments—maybe ten minutes here and there. But soon, and without much effort, I was spending more and more time working on my novel, enjoying the process, and even laughing off those moments when I couldn’t produce any words.
The very things that had previously driven me into isolation—fear and insecurity—actually propelled me forward now. I’d learned, through various techniques and mindset shifts, to prevent myself from sinking completely into the depths of negativity. The result? I’m now more focused and better able to climb over obstacles and wade through the challenges that come my way. I’m happy to share these tips with you so you can accomplish more, and live an abundant, more confident life.
1. Frame your questions in a positive light.“What if I fail?”
“What will people think of me if I’m wrong?”
These kinds of questions bait us into negative thinking. By framing our decision-making this way, we’ve already primed ourselves for disappointing outcomes. We’re expecting the lion to pounce at us from the brush.
Instead, flip the questions around to highlight the positives and advantages. Not “What could go wrong,” but instead, “What could go right?” Try “This will be great” instead of “I could fail miserably.” This method of thinking helps you remain centered on the benefits rather than the drawbacks.
2. Focus on building and celebrating small habits.Climbing out of negativity starts with a first step, no matter how small. Practicing a daily habit is a great way to start building momentum. If you’re struggling with focus, start meditating for five minutes a day. Then slowly build on that until you can focus for longer periods of time. If you’re suffering from writer’s block, write in a journal for five minutes a day. That will grow into 10 minutes, and then 20.
The most important thing is to create positive habits that you can celebrate, which naturally counteracts negativity.
3. Give yourself permission to smile and laugh.When we’re in a negative space it’s hard to find humor in anything. Research shows that laughing and smiling can increase our levels of serotonin, the happiness hormone, and also raises our endorphin production, which creates a natural “high.” This leads to reduced stress and other psychological and physiological benefits.
A great way to start is to figure out what makes you laugh. For a few days, keep track of what kinds of things make you laugh out loud, or smile, or just generally make you feel good. Then accumulate as many of these sources as you can—books, articles, cartoons, blogs, etc. When you’re feeling particularly negative, grab one of these and escape for a few minutes. (Read The How of Happiness.)
4. Stop saying “can’t” and “won’t.”When we want something but are struggling to accomplish it, we often sabotage our own progress by convincing ourselves that our goals are out of reach. Saying “can’t” and “won’t” are like slamming on the brakes: “I can’t write,” “I can’t do it,” “I won’t ever be able to.” Using these words in this context reinforces the negative messages. Instead, focus on what you can do: “I can write for 5 minutes a day,” and “I can figure out the steps to make it happen.”
Highlight your abilities rather than your limitations. Focus on all the possible positive outcomes…
To use another example, if you don’t travel because you’re afraid the plane “won’t” stay in the air, or that you “can’t” communicate in a foreign language, understand that the odds are in your favor and that the rewards will far outnumber the tragedies. Compare your fears to the consequences of not acting, and center yourself on the widespread realities, not the make-believe stories.
5. Be careful with “always”— and “never,” too.“Always” and “never,” likewise, are absolutes and evoke feelings of powerlessness. Thoughts like “I always have problems with this,” or “Oh, I could never do that!” disempower us. Make small shifts into how you use language: “I’ve had these problems in the past, but I can learn to overcome them,” or “I can do that if I really want to.”
Reclaim your power by eliminating absolutes and acknowledging the possibilities.
6. Vary your environment.Sometimes we just need different surroundings. Take a walk. If you work at home, join a co-working center. If you work in an office, take breaks outside. Go on vacation for a short time if you’re able. The more you experience, the greater the chances you’ll find enough breathing room and inspiration to pull you out of your funk.
7. Move as if your life depended on it.Because it does!
It’s common knowledge—exercise boosts all sorts of feel-good chemicals in our bodies, not to mention it’s just plain good for you. If you’re not currently exercising at least three times a week, start now. And start small—don’t jump into a rigorous program without first acclimating your body. Walk before you run. Do bodyweight exercises before you transition to machines. You get the idea. Prime yourself for small wins and build positive habits that will last your entire life.
8. Challenge yourself.The act of learning—whether it’s a skill, language, hobby or sport—benefits us in many ways. It takes our mind off our problems. It challenges us to focus. It heightens our feelings of accomplishment, which tends to drown out negativity. And it boosts our confidence as we learn and grow.
As I started digging myself out of my creative hole, I took on projects and hobbies that forced me to learn new skills and new ways of dealing with the struggles of being a beginner. When I finally sat down to write once again, I had a fresh perspective on the craft that opened up a wealth of new ideas.
9. Have a conversation with yourself—literally.Journaling helps us tap into our inner problem-solver, allowing us to work out issues without over-thinking them. Getting our negative thoughts out of our heads and onto paper may help to relieve those feelings of malaise.
Choose a time of day when you’re able to remove all distractions and free-write for 5 to 10 minutes, journaling spontaneously about anything that comes to mind. It’s amazing how resilient and innovative we can be when it comes to solving our own problems through self-reflection. (Read Creative Confidence.)
10. Let go of past mistakes…I abandoned my book partially because I’d written a section that I adored, but took the story and main character on a path that didn’t make sense. I wanted desperately to make it work, but I realized I’d written myself into a corner. Once I went back and deleted that section, the story opened up again.
Holding on to past mistakes or bad choices keeps us rooted in place, unable to grow or move forward. Acknowledging mistakes and learning from them allows us to take those lessons to heart and move past those barriers.
11. …and allow yourself to make new ones.We learn by trying, and failing, and then trying again. Mistakes contribute to our overall experience of living, and by allowing ourselves to fail, we allow ourselves to live fully. We become attuned to the lessons our mistakes teach us, and over time we learn to appreciate them.
The next time I wrote something that made little sense or didn’t move the story forward, I didn’t hesitate to go back and rewrite it. I realized it was part of the process and not an indictment against my ability.
12. Practice random acts of kindness.Treating others with kindness and respect helps us feel better about ourselves. When that kindness is unexpected, the reaction and gratitude of a stranger fills our positivity reservoir.
The other day a stranger in front of me paid for my Starbucks coffee. He didn’t stop for recognition, and he left the store before I could thank him. So I did the same for the person in line behind me. Her smile and genuine reaction inspired me for the rest of the day.
13. Bring fun back into your life.What better way to escape negativity than to engage in activities that lift you up.
Plan for fun every day. See a movie. Play a game. Remember what used to light you up, and do more of those things. Get back into your inner child’s mind, when every new experience filled you with wonder and awe—new experiences are a great way to do this.
14. Set boundaries for family and friends (no gossip, judgment or unsolicited “advice”).Gossip can be fun, certainly. As humans, we tend to take pleasure in drama and the mistakes of others. But this is inherently negative energy. Take a stand against this kind of interaction—tell your friends and family that gossip is off-limits. Same thing with judgment, and with unsolicited advice directed at what you’re trying to accomplish. Do your best to set boundaries keep external negativity away.
15. Don’t take other people’s negativity personally.I’m taking this one right out of Marc and Angel’s book—literally. Here’s a quote:
“Don’t take other people’s negativity personally. Most negative people behave negatively not just to you, but to everyone they interact with. What they say and do is a projection of their own reality—their own attitude. Even when a situation seems personal—even if someone insults you directly—it oftentimes has nothing to do with you. Remember, what others say and do, and the opinions they have, are based entirely on their own self-reflection.”
16. Get out of your head and get present.Too often we obsess over what still needs to be done. We spend so much time running different scenarios in our head that we lose track of the good, the beautiful, and the uplifting that’s already ours. Rather than stew over something that hasn’t yet happened, take the time to express gratitude for the love presently in your life. Choose to focus on the things that are important to you today.
Marc and Angel have shared some powerful thoughts about getting out of your head by changing your beliefs. Check them out.
17. Give yourself room to breathe.Sometimes all we need is a little space.
We put so much pressure on ourselves to be a certain way that anything short of perfection sends us into self-loathing.
Take a step back, just breathe, and lean into the beauty of your quirks. Lean into being right where you are, just the way you are. Don’t try to be perfect. Just be an excellent example of being human.
AfterthoughtsThe most successful people have experienced negativity at various points along their journeys. Maybe their negativity was a result of fear or feelings of inadequacy, as mine was. Or perhaps they suffered failures or disappointments that put them back at square one.
Whatever the cause, there wouldn’t be any success stories without corresponding stories of struggle. The people who persevere and ultimately achieve their goals do so because they learn how to win the battle against soul-crushing negativity. Whether or not they achieve recognition and fame for it, they become great because of their ability to keep on going in the face of the mental obstacles they encounter along the way.
You, too, have what it takes to be one of the greats.
Your turn…How has soul-crushing negativity affected you? What challenges have you faced, and how have you conquered them? What would you add to this list?
Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.