The field of psychology got turned on its head a few decades ago as cognitive-behavioral therapy became the dominant treatment orientation. Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis, and numerous others developed or tweaked theories and approaches to practice that emphasized changing the thinking process as the first step in changing feelings and behavior. CBT approaches typically begin by identifying the patient’s automatic negative thoughts (e.g., I can’t do this; It’s too hard; People will laugh at me) or negative self-assessments (I’m a failure; I’m the kind of person who attracts bad luck) or catastrophic fantasies (I’ll never be worthwhile; My life will never get any better than this). Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT) approaches have become so popular because they have often been effective in helping people to change cognitions so that they can attack irrational and self-defeating beliefs and replace them with positive self-statements and behavior changes in a relatively small number of sessions without a lot of time spent on reworking the past. To get to the point of positive thinking, however, a considerable amount of time is first spent on negative thoughts—thus essentially practicing the wrong thing before moving on to more rational and appropriate thinking. Even the field of positive psychology, which largely comes from a CBT heritage, often starts by looking at how the person is thinking about the problem in a negative way before moving on to positive strategies which then take on the major share of treatment time.
If cognitively appropriate thinking is a skill, as I believe that it is, maybe we can gain something from looking at the ways that other skills are taught. If you go to a golf pro for help with eliminating your slice, the pro doesn’t spend much time watching you slice the ball. A few wrong swings is all it takes to identify what you are doing incorrectly, and then the total emphasis is on the proper swing. If you revert back to a bad habit in that regard, you are advised to do it right. Similarly, if you go for swimming lessons, you are not instructed to spend a lot of time focusing on what you are doing wrong. Right from the beginning, you are taught steps that are directed at breathing properly with the correct head position, arm strokes, and kicks. If you are learning to use the computer keyboard properly, the instructor really doesn’t care about your “hunt and peck” technique before teaching you to use all your fingers and look at the screen.
Why should development of the skill of thinking positively be any different? I don’t believe it is. Over time, I have observed that the difference between those who accomplish things and those who hold themselves back is rarely a difference of intelligence, competence, or attractiveness. The difference is one of belief. Achievers believe that their efforts can lead to success. While there may be no guarantees in that regard, when achievers approach challenges their first thoughts are not negative ones. Achievers always believe that they have a chance to be successful. In other words, there first thought upon assessing a situation is something like, “What can go right?”
Try this exercise. Think about a situation that is at least mildly challenging—possibly going to a social event where you know few people, or asking for a favor from a coworker that won’t put the person out too much, or saying no to someone who is used to gettting their own way (assuming that you really want to say no). Rather than focusing on the negative thoughts that can keep you stuck, ask yourself what can go right? See if it doesn’t make a difference in how you approach the situation—and you may even achieve a personal victory in the process.
TheMentalHealthGym.com website and blogs will provide ongoing guidance on implementing this approach. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thinking about this approach, and I’d love to hear about your experiences in this regard—whether it went right or not.