Last Updated on February 18, 2018 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
The other night I was having a conversation with a very important person in my life, who is struggling through a tough spot right now. At one point she said to me “I wish I could have a positive outlook on life like you do.”
The truth is, I haven’t always been a positive, outgoing person.
(My goodness, this is a long and rambly post. I have a point – and disclaimers – at the end. Bear with me on this one, and if you are so inclined, read all the way through.)
6 years ago, right around this time of the year, I was at one of the lowest points I have ever been in my entire life. For years, I had been in a negative situation that had caused me to fall into a pattern of negative, “woe is me” thinking. When that situation came crashing down, the negativity I felt in my soul hit an all time low. I was a shell of the person I had once been, and I tearfully struggled my way through every single day. Mundane tasks physically and emotionally hurt. The simple act of getting up every day felt like a burden. I remember feeling that I had little to live for, despite the fact that I had two beautiful babies, a loving family, and was a smart, educated woman with so much to offer the world. I remember one day telling my mother that everything would be much better if I was dead. I never expected those words to actually come out of my mouth, but they did, clear as day.
The next morning as she got ready to leave for work, my mom told me that she had put a phone number on the fridge for me incase I needed it. When she left for work, I went to the fridge to look.
It was a suicide hotline number*.
I won’t lie, seeing that number in writing, magneted to my parents refrigerator was a slap in the face for me, a slap back to reality. I didn’t feel suicidal, I didn’t actually want to end my life. But I did feel hopeless, useless, and worthless, like I had ruined everything good in my life. It was at that moment I knew in my heart that I simply couldn’t go on living this way. There HAD to be a better answer to living life than this. I believed (and still do), in the deepest part of my soul, that there is more good than bad in this world. And I truly believed that my survival at that point in my life depended upon making myself see the good.
So I forced positivity on myself.
At first it was not an easy task, and at times even a ridiculous game. But I had read that positivity had a snowball effect, maybe I heard it from Oprah, or Dr. Phil, or another Pinterest motivational picture, I don’t know, and I was bound and determined to give it a try. Every little bit, even forced, had to add up.
Guess what? It did.
Not overnight, of course. Changing my thought processes and reaction patterns took a hell of a lot of hard work. Over time though, I found that in the same way negativity can breed negativity, positive thinking can absolutely encourage more positive thinking. This is a lifelong, never ending practice, as I believe human beings are naturally susceptible to negative thinking, and are influenced by other factors such as the people and situations we surround ourselves with, as well as underlying situations like chemical imbalances, depression, anxiety, etc. (For the record, I fully believe that true mental health issues should always be discussed and monitored by professionals. I’m not advocating positive thinking as a cure.)
Here’s how I changed my constant negative mindset into a persistently positive one:
1) Every single time I had a negative thought, I forced myself to counter it with a positive one.
Because let’s face it: we are human, we all have negative thoughts from time to time. So I thought perhaps I could “cancel out” the negativity by pairing it with a positive thought. For example: a guy cuts me off in traffic, causing me to slam on my brakes to avoid an accident. “YOU’RE A SHITTY DRIVER, YOU ASSHOLE!” I’d yell in my car…and immediately follow it up with “BUT I REALLY LIKE THE FACT THAT YOU HAVE AN ‘I LOVE MY CAT’ BUMPER STICKER. I LOVE CATS TOO!”
Yeah, like I said…it sometimes felt ridiculous.
Further, finding something positive, anything, about the other driver helped me to relate to them on a more basic, human level. Maybe that bad driver just received horrible news. Maybe they worked 5 overnight shifts in a row, and they are really tired. Maybe they just didn’t see me, and made a bad driving move. Haven’t we all, even the best drivers, accidentally made a stupid driving mistake at one time or another? And best of all, we didn’t get into an accident. We COULD have, due to the other driver’s careless mistake, but the bottom line is: we didn’t. So there is no need to dwell on it or let it set the tone for the rest of my day. I can’t choose what other people do, but I can choose how I let those things affect me.
2) I found something positive in every negative situation.
Again, this was often forced, but really helped me turn my thought process around, from immediately focusing on the negative, to perhaps giving a little grace to myself or others in negative situations. For example:
– Kid spill juice all over the kitchen floor? Accidents happen, they won’t be kids forever…it’s nothing a few paper towels can’t fix. And bonus! There’s more juice in the fridge!
– Have to spend money on an unexpected dentist appointment? At least you have teeth…and the ability to visit a dentist.
– Hit every red light in town? Take this opportunity to soak up the sunshine of the beautiful day and listen to great music in the car!
– Client “no showed” for a training session? Instead of taking this no show personally, I send a positive vibe out into the universe, hoping that everything is OK on their end, and perhaps they just forgot to set their alarm clock. Bonus: now I can put in my own workout, or catch up on paperwork!
You get the idea. There’s almost always something good in every situation. You just have to make the CHOICE to see it. Sometimes it’s not always obvious, sometimes you have to look really, really hard…but I promise you the positive is hiding in there somewhere.
3) I forced myself to practice being grateful for the things I have or experience, with extra focus on the little things.
I encouraged myself to look beyond the obvious things. Of course we are all grateful for a roof over our head, for food in our fridge, for hot showers to take, cars to drive, you know…all of the “first world” stuff we are all so incredibly fortunate to have. But the little things, they add up to big things. And they are EVERYWHERE, they surround each and every one of us every single day. For example, instead of only being grateful for the fact that I had a job, or that my kids were healthy (both incredibly huge things to be grateful for) I’d stop to appreciate how much I truly enjoyed the color of my new shoes, the taste of a really fresh peach, or even the comfort I felt wearing my favorite pair of fuzzy socks.
The little things.
I would go outside and make myself stop to truly, truly appreciate the beauty around me (at that point, living in New Hampshire, the beauty was everywhere…) instead of just letting it all pass by while I was stuck inside my own head.
I’ve made this “being grateful for the little things” a daily practice not only for myself, but my children. Every single morning, on the way to school, we start our “grateful game” once we hit a certain stoplight on the way to school. Some mornings they list big things they are grateful, some mornings small, and some mornings really silly, funny little kid things that elicit ridiculous giggles (“I’m thankful Rowen didn’t fart in my face this morning.”) But I’ve noticed that this practice has already carried over into other parts of their life. Often, when I pick them up from school, they will tell me about something bad that happened in their classroom, but they’ll immediately follow it up with a positive.
4. I learned to forgive.
This may be the hardest practice, and one I still struggle with today. I learned that forgiveness doesn’t mean that you have to accept what another person has done to hurt you or others, but rather that you have decided to no longer allow that hurt to occupy your heart, your mind, or your soul. Again, you cannot change what other people do, but you can choose how you allow those things to affect you.
But the most important person you need to learn to forgive?
You knew that one was coming. Listen, life is hard. Really, fucking, ridiculously hard sometimes. I truly believe that the majority of us are working our way through every single day, trying to do the best we can. But sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we do or say things we regret. Sometimes, life passes in the blink of an eye, and we find ourselves nowhere NEAR where we had “planned” ourselves to be at this point in our lives.
But here’s the best part: life is also really, fucking, ridiculously amazing sometimes. And the coolest gift ever is that you get every single minute of every single day to change YOUR future.
Made a mistake? Fix it.
Hurt someone’s feelings? Say sorry.
Not where you want to be in life? CHANGE IT.
It’s never, ever, ever too late to be what you might have been…or to change your mind, or become something new. You just have to believe it.
Let me reiterate: none of these practices will change your outlook immediately.
And I realize that so many of us have problems that are SO MUCH BIGGER than spilled juice or traffic jams. But like anything in life, practicing positive thinking helps form a habit, and once the habit has been formed, positive thinking become easier. For me, I find that I immediately choose to see the GOOD first instead of the bad. I can more readily find the positive in any situation. And overall, a positive outlook on life just makes me feel happier.
Does it take effort? Of course. It doesn’t just happen, I wasn’t just born with this mindset. It takes WORK. But is it worth it?
*I want to note that mental health issues are very real, and occasionally can be very serious. Sometimes we have the power to change our thought process, and sometimes we truly do need help from trained professionals. Please, do not ever be ashamed to reach out for help, there are some things we simply cannot – and should not – do alone.
If you are depressed, going through a hard time, need to talk to a trained professional, or are thinking about suicide National Suicide Prevention Hotline, available 24/7: 1-800-273-8255
or chat anonymously (click this link ->): https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.