The Power of Negative Thinking
- Friday, June 20, 2003
Most negative people feel they could be positive if they had a different job, lived in a better place, or were in a great relationship. But happiness does not hinge on better circumstances. A person with bad attitudes will still be a person with a bad attitudes, wherever and with whomever he or she lives.
By force of habit, each of us is either basically positive or basically negative. Our circumstances change with the weather, but our attitudes are the same. The negative person defends his attitudes with the rationale of being realistic, while the positive person looks beyond the current state of affairs and sees people and situations in terms of possibilities.
Negative interpretations are guaranteed to sap the happiness out of a relationship. But how do we cultivate positive attitudes when our spouses do something we dislike? The answer lies in taking responsibility for our own feelings.
I remember coming home one day flushed with excitement and eager to discuss some good news with Les. I can't remember the news now, but I remember his response: lukewarm enthusiasm. I wanted him to share my excitement, but for whatever reason, he didn't. "You upset me," I later told him. But the truth is, he didn't upset me. I upset myself. That sounds a little strange, but it's true. Before exploring why Les didn't join in my celebration, I jumped to a negative conclusion: He doesn't even care that something good happened to me. He is only interested in himself.
Since that time, both of us have tried to adopt a "no fault, no blame" attitude. The idea is to suspend our negative evaluations about each other and remember that no one can make another person unhappy. Everyone is responsible for his or her own attitude.
Victor Frankl, more than anyone else, exemplified the human ability to rise above circumstances and maintain a positive attitude. He was a twenty-six year old Jewish psychiatrist in Vienna, Austria, when he was arrested by Hitler's Gestapo and placed in a concentration camp. Month in and month out, he worked under the great smokestacks that belched out black carbon monoxide from the incinerators where his father, mother, sister, and wife had been cremated.
When Victor Frankl was finally called for inquisition, he stood naked in the center of a powerful white light while men in shiny boots strode to and fro assailing him with questions and accusations. Already they had taken his wife, his family, his writing, his clothes, his wedding ring, and everything else of material value. But in the midst of this barrage of questions, an idea flashed across Frankl's mind: They have taken from me everything I have - except the power to choose my own attitude.
Thankfully, most people are not required to cope with such devastating circumstances as the Jews faced in Nazi Germany. But the same principle that helped Victor Frankl survive the death camps - choosing his own attitude - applies to every difficult circumstance, wherever and whenever it occurs.
Millions of couples are robbed of happiness because one of the partners has developed a negative mindset, blaming their unhappiness on things their spouse does or doesn't do. It's one of the worst mistakes a person can make in a relationship. We often hear statement in marriage counseling like, "Her comments hurt me!' or "He makes me so angry." In reality, remarks and comments do not hurt or upset people; people can only upset themselves. Of course, being upset is a natural reaction to something we dislike, but that reaction can serve as a trigger for a more constructive, positive response.
When we recognize where the control resides - in ourselves and not in external events - we are able to reinterpret upsetting events and develop a positive attitude.
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