Even though we realize that a negative and fault-finding perspective can harm our physical and emotional health, relationships, work performance, and enjoyment of life, it can seem impossible at times to overcome a “bad attitude”. To compound the problem, we may then lambast ourselves for failing to “pull it together”. All this can add up to a sense of hopelessness.
It may help to take an honest and compassionate look at possible reasons why we’re having such a hard time shifting into a more positive frame of mind. Once we have a better awareness of potential sources of our negativity and fear, we’re in a better position to take steps to help ourselves or get the outside help we need:
- We don’t want to be disappointed. Daring to hope for the best feels too vulnerable to us. We feel threatened, like a cornered animal. We’ve been disappointed by people or situations in the past and now “protect” ourselves by expecting the worst. We figure that if we don’t expect anything good to happen, we won’t experience any letdown when things don’t go well. We haven’t developed sufficient skills to deal with life not going our way, so we shoot down any relationship or project ahead of time.
- We’ve had role models (possibly our parents) with negative attitudes. We’ve picked up their approach towards life and made it our habit as well, rather than working on deliberately developing our personal, proactive, and resilient, perspective.
- We don’t want to be rejected. If we fear that other people might not approve of us, we decide (either consciously or unconsciously) to beat them to the punch and “not like them first”. After all, if we discount someone else’s importance or likability, this might soften any derogatory comment they might make about it – or so we reason. We can also use this reasoning when it comes to ourselves. For example, we can say something self-deprecating like, “I look so fat in this dress” or “I’m such a klutz” before someone else does.
- We think in black and white terms. If we can’t do something perfectly, we’re afraid to try doing it at all. If we can’t please everyone, we don’t see the point of being agreeable to anyone at all. This is self-defeating and can lead us to give up on attempting anything, including trying to change our attitude for the better, in the belief that if we slip and have one negative thought, we have blown it.
- We set unrealistic expectations or try to change too much at one time. Then, when we encounter an obstacle, we overreact and possibly give up on our plan, which reinforces a negative attitude.
- We think that any uncomfortable feeling is unwarranted and a sign of weakness on our part. Thus, we give up on ourselves. We fail to see (or to believe) that a full spectrum of emotions is healthy – the key is in the ratio of the ingredients. If we were making a cake, for instance, the recipe would probably call for a teaspoon or so of salt. If we dump in half a cup of salt, that would be excessive and would spoil the recipe. However, we do need the salt – in moderation. Same thing with emotions. It would be unrealistic to strive to never, ever get angry, even for one instant. What’s most important is the lens through which we view ourselves, other people, and the world, for the most part.
- We think that fear or anger will energize and motivate us to change. Actually, although such emotions may kick-start an adrenalin rush and possibly frenzied action in the short run, over the long term they can run us down, impair our immune system, and contribute to depression and anxiety
- We want comfort, attention, or help, yet don’t feel capable of asking for these things outright. So, through our indirect words or actions we try to elicit help from others.
- We are exceptionally sensitive to emotional and/or physical discomfort. Some of us are just more sensitive than others and have a lower pain threshold. This can contribute to negativity.
- We have experienced significant trauma, hardship, or failures.
- We want to assert our individuality. We don’t want to just go along with the crowd, so we tend to automatically swim against the tide. We fail to see that this response is just as reactive as is automatically agreeing with everything.
- We’re subconsciously replaying an issue with an authority figure or someone who controlled us – a syndrome known as repetition compulsion. We are trying to work out a different ending that rules in our favor.
- We’re used to being the victim rather than an agent of change. We feel that finger-pointing absolves us of the responsibility of taking action and changing what we can. We forget that “that was then, this is now”, and that we may now have more tools at our disposal than we did earlier in our lives.
- We want to be in control. In a way, determining ahead of time that things will not work out gives us a feeling of predictability.
- We’re HALT – hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Any one of these (and especially a combination of these factors) can fuel irritability, impatience, and despondency.
- We suffer from clinical depression and/or a chemical imbalance. In such cases, consulting a medical professional might be helpful.
- We have a medical condition that predisposes us to depression or anxiety. An underactive or overactive thyroid or diabetes are examples of chronic conditions that, if left untreated, can manifest as depression, lethargy, or a sense of overwhelm.
Do any of these items sound like they might be factors in your tendency to look at the cup as half-empty rather than half-full? If so, there’s help available, be it in the form of psychotherapy, medical attention, or an appropriate support group.
You might begin by writing out your responses to those items from the list that sound familiar, and add what steps you could take to approach the situation differently. In some cases, you may need to come to terms with what cannot be changed (such as your past).
Change is always a challenge, so be patient with yourself if (when) you slip into old ways of thinking. Some days are better than others. The more self-compassion you can offer yourself, even during what seems like your darkest hour, the more healing you will experience.