Tuesday, May 13, 2014

9 Simple Ways to Turn Negative Thoughts into Positive Feelings

(If you prefer, you can listen to this post by clicking on the arrow on the picture above)

Meet Sisi Gamble, my new role model. 

She was featured on the Facebook page, Humans of New York, (HONY)  last month and I cannot erase her message from my mind.

Sisi explained to Brandon, the creator and photographer of HONY, 

"For the longest time, I was so focused on being deaf in my left ear, that I almost forgot my other ear was perfectly fine. "

Sisi's words were so simple and yet so profound…..

She reminded me that we often focus on the piece of our lives that isn't working and needs fixing. This is something we are all prone to do and often need to do in order to problem solve. 

But when the negatives seem to overwhelm us or be the one thing we revisit at the expense of all the good in our lives, we get out of balance.

It helps to understand why our focus turns in that direction and how we can refocus our thoughts in a more positive light.

Life can indeed, be crap. 

It throws a lot of stuff at us that we don't want, wouldn't choose and have to deal with. It can be exhausting, dispiriting and relentless.

I know. I've been there myself.

And all week 
I have gladly listened to people on my porch: by phone and in person, who are suffering in different ways.

They have  chronicled their difficult moments, tough relationships and health challenges, criticisms from others, physical and emotional pain, disappointment, fear of the future and regrets of the past. 

They have  questioned their judgement, their effort, their values and their poor health.

They've wondered how despite their best efforts, they have reached this point. 

They've focused on the negative feedback, the things that haven't worked out, the choices they wish they'd avoided and the struggles they are facing now and in the future.

These worries and concerns are all very valid.

As humans, we are hard wired, it turns out, to focus on the negative, the one criticism in  a sea of compliments, the one small lapse of judgement in a group of good choices, the one health issue in an otherwise healthy body, much like Sisi Gamble did.

It's a left over from our hunter-gatherer days when we needed to remember to avoid the lion, run fast from a bear and hide from the kayote. 

For our own safety, we had to look out for danger. 

Psychologists call it our negativity bias. However, although lions don't figure much, as a risk in our daily lives anymore, our brain wiring hasn't changed. 

Also, negative experiences often provoke stronger emotions and therefore we are more likely to remember them. This leads us to remember these negative moments, decisions, slights and criticisms with greater intensity and clarity.  

In turn this may lead us to feeling helpless and defensive and avoid instances in the future, that may put us in those situations. 

This ultimately can prevent us from grasping new opportunities, taking a reasonable risk or stepping out of our comfort zone. 

But when I was reading Sisi's comment and listening to these ponderings on the porch, what I heard in these peoples' stories was different.

I heard in their descriptions, courage, compassion and humor. 

I heard them describe resilience and strength.

I heard wisdom and creative solutions. 

I heard about self-growth, great insight and integrity.

And so I've been thinking a lot about how, if I can hear these things in what others are saying to me, how can they hear themselves in a more uplifting light?

How can they see a positive glimmer, when the negatives are screaming at them so strongly.

What if anything can they do and you and I do, when our pessimistic inner voice is ruling our self-esteem, feelings and emotions. 

I've had some help, from Sisi Gamble, who reminded herself about her other ear. 

I've learned a lot from reading neuropsychologist Dr Rick Hanson's  advice 

And I've been reflecting on my own professional and personal experiences over the years and come up with these 9 tips to keep your inner naysayer at bay, when your negativity bias seems to have the upper hand.

1. Respect and understand you don't have to get over, or come to terms with  the negativity on your own. 
Ask a friend a colleague, a doctor, a counselor or your spouse for a reality check and a reminder of 
who you are, what you value and 
what's important to you and 
what's positive about you as a whole. 

2. Focus on a positive detail in your environment. Hanson explains that "There's an expression in neuroscience: neurons that fire together, wire together. This means we can retrain our brain. 

We may not be able to stop the negative thoughts... but focusing on a positive detail about yourself, someone else or your environment can alert your brain to positive information." 

Hanson suggests trying to savor simple observations each day for at least 10 seconds such as "this coffee tastes good"  "the sun is shining" Try doing this a few times a day and he says you will feel an emotional shift.

3.Collect together positive emails, responses to something you got great feedback on and thank-yous from others. Read them when you feel that negativity bias enveloping you. 

4. In the wake of negative criticism, find something you can control. Choose carefully who you spend your time with and what you can change.

5. Consider if there's any truth to the criticism and who you trust to help you face it. Take one small step towards understanding where it is coming from, if you have some responsibility in it and what you can do next time. i.e. manage others' expectations about what you can and can't do for them.

6. Go back to the routines ( morning coffee, visiting the gym, walking in the garden) that feel good to you and use them to bring you comfort, positive experiences  and control.

7. Thank someone for their kindness. This positive action will help you feel good and give you a buzz of positive energy.

8. Remember 5 good things that have happened to you and write them down. They still happened even if you are focused on the one  negative action.  (Hanson says  we need a 5:1 ratio of compliments:criticism with our loved ones, to feel supported and have a healthy relationship.)

9. Look at the distance you've travelled in your specific situation and remind yourself that life doesn't stay static and where you were last week or month is not where you are today, in thought or progress.

Do you have an easy way to think more positively? Tell me about a time you obsessed over a single criticism amongst a sea of compliments. 

Have a positive week.


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 Please share this post if you enjoyed it and help others to feel more positive this week. :-)


  1. I think what helps me be positive is to look at my friends who are managing to keep their spirits up despite what life has thrown at them. I recently resigned from a voluntary job I did with elderly people ( we just moved too far away for it to be viable) I was so upset with myself at letting the people down I was quite depressed. When I received a lovely letter thanking me for the help I had given i realised I was looking at the wrong picture. That's quite funny I should use that analysis isn't it? But I guess it's a good one for me "make sure you look at the right picture" happy pictures. Thank you Gilly .

    1. I love that Jo. As an artist, pictures are perfect analogies for you!-Yes, perhaps we have to change the picture or channel or story we keep looking at, listening to or reading, for a more positive one. Knowing we need to do that is half the battle, I suspect.. I'm so glad you received that letter to remind you how much you were appreciated. Isn't it interesting that you focused on feeling badly about something that you had no control over once you moved,but that was where you put your energy? I'm sure you miss the visits as much as they miss you.

      Keep painting your beautiful, happy pictures and sharing them with the world! We need the joy, spirit and movement you paint into them.Gillyx

  2. Focus on the specific issue instead of expanding it to your whole self, i.e., I may have screwed up a project at work or offended a friend, but that doesn't mean I am always a bad employee or unworthy of anyone's friendship.
    Keep up the wonderful work, Gilly!
    Judy P.

    1. Yes! You are so right. We can focus on a situation /incident/issue but it doesn't need to define who we are.That's such an important message and reminder Judy. Thank you very much for reading, your great support and for leaving a comment. Gillyx

  3. These are wonderful tips, Gilly! Thank you so much for writing this....it is something I have been dealing with for a while, and now I understand why it is so much easier to just focus on the negative. It makes perfect sense. Again, thank you!!

    1. You are welcome Marie! Isn't it a relief to know that we are programmed this way? And we can do something about it….Gillyx

  4. So true. Finding ways to pull out of that negativity bias is so important, and often so difficult. Thanks for the tips. I always try to reevaluate my negative thinking and "consider the source" when criticism comes. Often the source is unreliable, negative, or just rude!!

    1. Hi Elizabeth -thank you for stopping by. You make a really interesting point. I think it helps to remember that a person's response to us often tells us more about them than it does about ourselves. Context and motivation are really important factors to take into account, when evaluating criticism. Gilly

  5. Good tips, being optimistic can be hard sometimes, but I think it is very important to work hard towards that attitude, which can give us better results. Here is another article on the matter: Positive Effects Of Optimism .