Having a positive attitude despite seemingly endless negativity is a challenge. From crippling anxiety to severe depression, it’s easy to make a laundry list of things I don’t like, or even hate, about my life. But I’ve intentionally nurtured a positive attitude, and I can tell you that eventually, it becomes water in a desert. When life crushes your spirit, being able to find something positive is a gift.
The ability to find the positive is not some innate talent that only a few of us have. I wasn’t always as positive as I am currently. I learned to become this way, and I challenged myself to get my positive attitude to a point. The timing seems perfect as some days that’s the only good thing I’ve got going for me.
I’m writing this to you while flat in bed. My back went out again, the result of a night of tossing and turning due to nightmares from my anxiety and depression. My illness likes to torment me at night. I spend all day fighting my depression and longing for the peace that comes from sleep only to have my brain pick a fight with me there.
More and more I’m haunted by visions of my own death and it’s starting to exasperate my anxiety. I find it ironic that a man who once considered suicide is now dealing with anxiety over his imminent death. Again, my depression is adapting to try and land some punches.
I’m spending less and less of my time working and more time lying in bed crying hoping the pain will subside enough for me to feel normal again.
I try to eat right and exercise because I know that both nutrition and training help my depression better than anything available from a pharmacist. But those are both the first to go when the depression gets bad, and I can’t think straight. I long for consistency and momentum in my training. I want to get back to what I once knew.
So I wake up every morning trying to make it a good day, a solid day where I can be happy with what I accomplished. It’s difficult when each morning there’s a new obstacle to overcome. Today it’s my back and something I saw on Instagram that triggered my depression. Tomorrow it will be some other crap that hits me in the face. It doesn’t matter; this is all I know now.
So how can I find the positivity in my life despite all this suffering? How can I still continue to fight despite all the obstacles I face? Well, first, it isn’t easy. It never is easy. But, I can tell you that it is doable. You can make a positive attitude happen in your life despite the pain you feel, the discouragement you have, and the disappointment you face.
Here are three habits you can build into your life which will ultimately change your outlook and attitude making you a more positive person despite your mental illness. Trust me, make these habits part of your life and they’ll save you in a few years when life starts chucking curve balls.
Now for each habit I’ve listed, there is an action step you can take to start working on that particular practice and turn it into a reality for your life. Each item is simple, but you want to make sure you commit to being consistent. It won’t be perfect at first, but that’s okay. It’s just like learning a new exercise. You’ll be sucky and ugly at it at first. But eventually, you’ll look like a pro.
Okay, let’s get started.
Habit 1: Stay Grateful
Gratitude is the single greatest virtue in my life. I don’t know where I would be without the spirit of gratitude I have. I would be even angrier than I am now, and I’d be even harder to live and work with. So those closest to me should be thankful that I’m so grateful.
A spirit of gratitude is the foundation of positivity. If you want to be more positive, start by becoming more grateful.
Action Item: Journal It
There are many ways to nurture gratitude in your life. The simplest is to keep a journal. Personally, I use Day One to do this exercise, but others use a notebook. Just pick something you’ll use daily.
Each day, as part of your wake-up routine, take a moment to write down as many things as you can that you’re thankful for. You can write down some of the same things as the day before; that’s okay. But challenge yourself to write down some new items each day and see if you can get a bigger number than the day before.
So at the top of the page just write, “I am thankful for:” and then start making your list. The idea here is to exhaust your brain so write down as many things you’re thankful for as you can until your head hurts. Some days it could be three things, other days it could be twenty. It doesn’t matter.
Why do this? You want to train your brain to start finding things you’re grateful for no matter what. Your brain is a muscle you can manipulate with repeated practice. Just like doing curls over and over make your arms good at, well, doing curls finding things you’re thankful for over and over will train your brain to find something to be thankful for by default someday.
You want your brain to get used to sifting through all the crap data to find the good nuggets of things to be thankful for each day. Now, even in my darkest moments, I can find something to cling to that’s positive, and that’s your end goal. But it starts with making gratitude and thanksgiving a habit.
Bonus: If you’re a person of faith you can make this even easier on yourself. Each night, ask God to start showing you all the things you should be thankful for tomorrow. He’ll start letting you see a few things here and there. This particular practice is how I started and now finding things to be thankful for is easy for me. Hint: If you ask God to show you things to be thankful for, be sure to thank him for them later. It’s just good practice, and the payoff is far greater.
Habit 2: See the Good
Have you ever been around someone who just sucks the positivity out of the room? If you haven’t, you’re probably that person. Most of us know that downer of a person who will take anything good and turn it bad. Well, guess what, you can do the opposite too. You can take anything and make it positive.
Now, I’m not talking about sugar coating crap here. Life sucks wall to wall, and I’m not going to lie. I’m talking about sifting through the negativity like you’re panning for gold. Even in this horrible life, there are things we can be grateful for and be excited about despite the mud we see in our lives. We just have to sift through the crap to find them.
Action Item: Smother Your Negativity
Here’s an easy way to start stomping out the negativity in your life. We all know you can’t just get rid of a bad habit. You have to replace it with a good one. So that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to take your habit of negativity and turn it into one of positivity instead.
Commit to keeping an eye out or an ear open for when you make a negative comment or have a negative thought. The moment it happens, acknowledge that it was negative. Don’t get down on yourself for having that thought. But do identify it as a negative thing.
Next, say to yourself, two things that are positive about the situation that you first commented negatively about.
Okay, I’ll give you an example from my life. Today, I’m super upset that my back went out. I feel like a fat, weak piece of crap that will never be able to get healthy again. That’s pretty negative, right?
Okay, well, guess what. I’m actually pretty healthy. I don’t look like it at times, and I don’t feel it either. But all my test results are great. My blood pressure is excellent. My cholesterol, not even a topic of discussion. And I went from pre-diabetic to not on the scale which is crazy considering the family history I have. So yeah my body isn’t doing quite what I want but I did manage to workout this week before my back went out and I’m eating better than I have in months. So this is just a crappy setback, but in the big picture, I’m moving in the right direction.
See what I’m saying here? Take that negative thought and smother it out like a fire that you need to extinguish. Make it a goal to find at least two things you can note that are positive about the situation to offset the one negative thing you first brought up.
You can even do this with people you hate at work. Have a problem with Susan? Yeah, I know. I freaking hate Susan too. Well, next time you find something you hate about Susan, wrack your brain to find two things you actually like or, at the very least, hate less about her.
Eventually, it’s going to get easier and easier to find the good things in your day. You’ll soon be surprised how much awesomeness there actually is out there. You just have to train your brain to seek it out.
Bonus: If you’re super ballsy, ask someone close to you to remind you every time you become negative. Now, as a word of caution, sometimes people can say things, and it can trigger your depression or anger. My wife used to remind me of things, but her tone would sometimes trigger me, and the result would be me being rude to her instead of taking the help she offered. So my advice is to find a fun word you two can use. Like a safe word that your friend or loved one can whisper to you gently when you start to be negative. When they say the word, don’t be a jerk to them. Just acknowledge to yourself that you were being negative and then replace the moment with two positive things to say.
Habit 3: Forget the Past
I’m still working on this habit. It’s the last one for me on my list. My depression likes to remind me of everything that sucks in my past. That time I said something stupid in third grade? Yeah, depression reminds me of that each morning. That time I made an ass out of myself in front of that girl? Well, depression has to be more specific in that case but, you get the point. I can’t forget anything bad in my life.
Even more, depression then uses that and says, “See I told you that you suck and shouldn’t be alive. People don’t love you or even think much of you at all because of [insert thing I said or did 20 years ago].”
The inability to forget my past is probably the biggest source of negativity in my life other than the chemically driven depression I face. So what can I do? What can we do to help forget the past or at least make it less potent?
Action Item: Gone
I first learned this meditation practice from Chade-Meng “Meng” Tan. Meng is an award-winning engineer, best-selling author and he was employee #107 at Google. To say that Meng is smart is an understatement.
The primary meditation practice is called “Just Note Gone.” The basic idea is to train the mind to note that what you previously experienced is no more. You can do this with physical pain, emotional pain, any sensation positive or negative really.
I’ve adapted this practice to use it throughout the day. If you don’t have time to meditate (or you wrongfully think mindfulness is junk), then I encourage you to give this a try. You’ll find some peace from it, and it’s an excellent introduction to meditation for depression.
Here’s how it works:
Every time you remember something dumb and negative from your past. Just close your eyes (if it’s safe), breathe in deeply and, as you exhale just say the word “gone” to yourself before opening your eyes.
Embrace the fact that that moment, that thought, that pain, that annoyance in your past has transitioned from existing to being no more.
“It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.” – Rafiki, The Lion King
Whatever it was is gone and therefore has no control over you at this moment. You own this moment, and there’s nothing that stupid crap in the past can say about it.
So next time it happens, just close your eyes, breathe in, breathe out and think, “Gone.”
The first 50 times it probably won’t do anything, and you’ll think I’m just making this up. But remember what I said about the brain and repetition. You’re going to train your brain to accept that the past is the past and that it should not affect your present. So every time your depression brings up the past you just remind your brain that it’s gone. Gone. A simple word with powerful meaning.
The Positive Attitude Pyramid
As you can see, these three habits, if nurtured together, can work as one and help bring you a more positive attitude.
I hope you take some time in the coming weeks and beyond to try and make these habits part of your life. I guarantee, if you pursue them consistently, you’ll create more positivity in your life, and the negativity from your illness won’t be able to stop you. A positive attitude is a powerful tool against depression.
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