When the Positive Mindset Fails
Sometimes, the positive mindset fails and our weaknesses are exposed. When it happens to me, I find it devastating, like my entire world is crashing down, seemingly out of the blue. Maybe it’s due to something going on in my environment, maybe it’s due to negative thoughts being suppressed rather than addressed, or maybe the cause is hormonal, but no matter the culprit, it always takes me off guard.
By far, the two most important life lessons I have learned are: to challenge negative thoughts and to keep that positive mindset, no matter what. I’m determined to be an optimist and push myself to accomplish things, with the hope that what I do now will impact the future. Most days I believe, but there are still ones when I don’t.
Even though I want to believe in myself every day, there’s times when I feel absolutely worthless, like I’m being crushed by an invisible, unmovable weight. This is likely rooted in childhood, as it was reinforced by abusers and bullies that self-belief was incorrect. It was hard to break the patterns of negative thinking, as this was my default world-view for over twenty years. It was a nasty companion, one no longer welcome in my world.
However unlikely it was from my upbringing and formative environment, I’ve built a positive, optimistic mind and duel those negative thoughts when they reveal their ugly, little heads. My therapist is adamant I challenge all negative thoughts, but some days, for seemingly no reason, they still seem to win. So much of my life is like a pendulum, as soon as I feel like I’m finally close to what I’m seeking, I drift backwards to where I used to be, everything getting smaller and out of reach, while doom and gloom amplify.
In The Chimp Paradox, Dr. Steve Peters says we all have a self-critical chimp living within our heads. Our chimp is our petulant, emotional inner-child, whose self-worth is tied to surface level concerns, such as the importance of our job, our level of physical attractiveness, and our popularity. When we measure with this aspect of our mind, we see our self-worth grow and shrink, depending on circumstances or whom, specifically, we measure ourselves against. Dr. Peters also points out that our human brain, unlike our chimp brain, shows us who we want to be in life. When we use our human brain to assess our self-worth, we base our esteem on the fundamental ideal that we can only ever do our best.
“The human is likely to say that everyone is equal in value, and that although we possess different skills and abilities, the overall belief is that all are equal as humans. The chimp will say that everyone is at a different level, and some people are better than others, with power, looks, and possessions being very important.” -Dr. Steve Peters in Chapter 16 of The Chimp Paradox
Dr. Peters uses metaphors throughout the book, also mentioning the goblins and gremlins that inhabit our minds, living with our inner chimps, so to speak. Some thoughts, gremlins, can be fought and defeated. Other beliefs, our goblins, tied to our earliest childhood experiences, have to instead be contained.
When I get into that negative mode I can’t shake, in the back of my mind, I’m comparing myself to others or comparing myself to an idealized version of myself. I feel as though there’s always an invisible script running in my head at all times, whispering that I’m not good enough and will never be good enough. On days when the negative mindset takes over, this script is screaming. On these days, my chimp must have an army of goblins and gremlins on the battlefield.
If I were to go back in time, I can clearly see when the chimp, goblins, and gremlins were winning the war.
I was terribly depressed for most of my scholastic career. There were pockets of light, when I would get a good grade on an assignment or get the highest grade in a class. These were undercut by my family not taking notice nor congratulating my success. To compound this, the abuse at home was a dirty secret that my small family kept well hidden. In school, there were dark times, when I felt like I had no friends. I had a huge burden to carry, and it seemed like no one would ever care.
In high school, I knew these mean girls who looked down on others for acting exactly as they did. With a snotty tone, one of the girls said to me, “you’re not special, just like everyone else,” and the other girl laughed. Soon, they sauntered away. These girls each went home to large houses, with two parents that loved them, who paid for their dance classes, and treated them like they were human. They could giggle all they wanted about no one being special, but their hypocrisy was as plain as day. These teens believed to the core that they were ever-so-special themselves.
As teenagers, our chimps were in control. Our minds hadn’t yet developed fully, nor could we see ourselves or others from the human mind.
I think it’s crucial we forgive ourselves when the negative mindset, or the inner chimp, takes over from time to time. Just because we may be caught in the negative frame of mind on certain days, we should never let ourselves completely off the hook from challenging our thoughts or working to strengthen our positive mindset. It’s good to reflect on these goblins and gremlins, to address their origins, and to prepare for the counterstrike, even if we can’t manage it until the next day or so.
For the record, everyone is special, everyone has value, and with work, everyone can hone their positive mindset.