Tag Archives: Emotion

What do you do when the wheels fall off the bus?

23 Mar

Failure_Freeway (Photo credit: StormKatt)

To say that I’ve had a tough past couple of weeks would be an understatement of epic proportions. I won’t go into all of the details, so suffice to say that I’ve been on the proverbial emotional roller-coaster, and that life has decided to chew me up and spit me out for yet another attempt at trying to get my shit together. I’m not going to make any excuses, and whatever the reasoning is won’t change the fact that the past couple of weeks have been a write-off in terms of diet and exercise.

Yes, somewhere along the journey I fell off the wagon… well, perhaps not completely off the wagon, and it wasn’t entirely falling off either. It is more like I went and took a running leap to try and get off the wagon, only I’ve tripped, got my foot caught, and ended up being dragged along by the wagon with my foot still on it and the rest of me bumping along the path while I lie there thinking to myself “WTF am I doing?!!”.

So where have I failed?

  1. I haven’t been drinking nearly enough water. I am probably mildly dehydrated, and have probably been this way for over a week now.
  2. I haven’t paid much attention to my food, so I haven’t been eating nearly enough vegetables, nor have I been eating a wide enough variety of colours or types of vegetables.
  3. I’ve been lazy about getting my exercise. The last workout I put any effort into was when my kids were here about 3 weeks ago, when I went for a run with my youngest son. Since then, I’ve ignored my weights, bands, routine, gym clothes… all of it.
  4. I’ve not been getting nearly enough sleep. Waking early, and going to bed late.

These don’t appear to be very good signs for a future personal trainer do they. I mean, how can I expect people to take my advice seriously if I can’t even stick to it myself? What do I expect is going to happen, how am I going to make a success out of my new career, and what will become of all of those future clients that I want to help?

The last couple of paragraphs show you how easy it can be to create a negative mind set around a problem area in your life, and is really the culmination of all of the negative behaviours that we learn as children, and which are reinforced as we become adults. Yes, all of this negativity is learned behaviour, and we all know that negativity can be a bad thing when it becomes a focal point in your life and in how you deal with the challenges that life places in your path.

So what can you do to prevent negative emotion having it’s way and bringing your life to a standstill? How can you ensure that negative emotion won’t either send you or return you to an emotional place where you don’t wish to be, and how can you create an emotional environment for yourself that will help you to keep yourself focussed on your goals and ultimately motivated to achieve them regardless of the emotional hurdles which you face? I believe that the answer to these questions is really all about understanding your priorities, understanding where you are emotionally, and deciding for yourself how you wish to live emotionally.

Yes, what I am saying here is that you can actually choose to exist in a poor emotional state, and when you live in a place where you surround yourself  with negativity, you yourself have chosen to be there. No one made you do it. Nobody is forcing you to live that way. It is something that you have deliberately chosen to do – even if only subconsciously – and all because it is your response to life’s challenges which you unfortunately learned from your parents, teachers, bosses, and others who all seem to believe that teaching through failure means to hold up failures as examples to be made and to feel bad about, rather than examining how failures occur in order to better understand them and to learn from them.

negative feedback system

negative feedback system (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Clinging to negative examples in life doesn’t teach you to learn from them. It instead sets up a negative feedback cycle that gains strength with every additional failure, and it encourages you to behave in a manner that is consistent with feelings of guilt, poor self worth, and depression. The longer you live your life in this state of mind, the more attractive negative thought and emotion becomes, the more normal it seems to be in a negative state, and the more learned and ingrained will negative behaviour become. So much so that you can reach a point where you and can feel as if a negative state of being is normal and that you can’t remember ever living any other way.

As I mentioned, I believe it comes down to a question of priorities. I’m talking about choices here, and how it’s up to you to choose how you wish to live your life. Do you choose to live your life surrounding yourself with negative emotion, feeling negative, and focussing only on your negative thoughts? Or, do you choose to take each moment in life one at a time, to face your problems and your negative feelings, and to use those negative emotions as a teacher rather than as a torturer? Or to put it more simply – and perhaps a little less dramatically,  do you strive to be happy or do you choose to give up and be unhappy?

For me personally, I find it difficult to maintain a positive attitude all of the time, let alone when life keeps sending me curve-balls and sliders, when all I want is a good fast ball that I know I can hit. The thing is, you need to accept in life that you don’t always get what you ask for, and there is no point getting all pouty and depressed when you aren’t getting things all your way. I do like to believe though that like the song says, while you don’t always get what you want you will often find that you get what you truly need, and often you won’t realise this until a lot of time has passed and with the benefit of hindsight you can appreciate how things eventually ended up.

I consider myself very lucky to be able to recall two very profound moments in my life where I found myself aware enough to recognise in that moment that I was getting something that I truly needed. In both cases they were words of advice which not only changed my outlook in life, but which also came to be incorporated into my own core values. The first happened about 5 months prior to separating with my ex-wife back in 2007, and while the advice given was something I already strived for in myself, I don’t believe I truly understood it or recognised it until it was spoken to me.

Sadly I don’t recall the name of the guy who I was speaking with. I do remember that he was a psychologist at the time, working as a marriage counsellor with Humaneed in Carlton, Melbourne. I had travelled to see him to engage his services as a marriage counsellor, and to help me find a way to try and recover the shreds of a very sad and tattered marriage. While his advice and work didn’t get me the result I had asked him for, he did give me some very good advice that has stayed with me for many years now, as well as some tools to recognise how unrecoverable my marriage was, and how I could survive those awful days after separation when I didn’t get to see or hear from my sons for several weeks.

What this psychologist said to me was the following:

“When it comes my time to die, I’d like to think that I will end up standing before the gates of heaven, and that in order to pass in I will be asked a single question… ‘What have you learned?’ “.

This single statement has had a profound effect on my life. While I’m uncertain whether I should believe in a heaven, pearly gates, and white-winged folk with little gold halos, the mental picture that it created for me was such that it has stayed with me as something to reflect on whenever I am faced with a negative moment, and sometimes it’s something I reflect on during some of the more positive moments as well. For me this has grown as a concept, so that when I personally reach that inevitable moment in my life where it is time for my own journey to end, I’d like to be able to reflect not only on all of the things that I have learned, but also on the number of lives I will have been able to touch in a positive way.

The real message behind this story however, is that it was a very timely piece of advice that came to me when I needed it most, and that in some ways continues to come to my aid in those moments that come from time to time where I fail to get what I want, and when it is this reminder of something that I truly need, and that is to learn from all of my experiences in life so that my life can be enriched by all of those experiences, and by that I mean both the positive and the negative ones.

The second really profound moment for me is both about some words of advice, and also about a way to approach everything in a way that really reinforces the lessons which I learned through my earlier experience. it was another psychologist by the name of Rob Cunningham who I went to see when I  found myself dealing with an emotional breakdown round the middle of 2011. I have written before about how it is thought which creates emotion, and it was Rob who taught me about this by getting me to keep a thoughts diary, where I only needed to write a couple of lines to note how I was feeling, and what I was actually thinking about as I felt it.

Rob also taught me about another concept called mindfulness, which I have more recently learned is a practice inherited from Buddhist tradition that has been a very useful tool in the Western psychologist’s bag of therapeutic tricks. While Rob help me to learn to become more mindful – that is more self-aware – as a means to treat anxiety and depression, he may not have realised that he was also giving me a tool which is also very useful in helping me to find enrichment in my life through all of the experiences that I encounter.

As I was learning to become more mindful, it was like I was having one of those light-bulb moments of pure clarity, where something very profound and difficult to understand has suddenly become easy and so meaningful that it makes you wonder how you could have been getting by in life without having realised it before. I could see at the time that I had a long way to go to learn to employ mindfulness effectively, and yet I could also see that being mindful was not simply a way to distract me from my negative thoughts, but was rather something I could use to examine thought in such a way that I didn’t need to focus too heavily on it to understand it, and to learn from it.

Even better for me was the realization that I could enjoy the benefit of learning just as well from my positive experiences and thoughts as I could from the negative ones, and in some ways it was this process that not only set me firmly on a path towards recovery from long term anxiety and depression, but which also taught me to open my mind to greater possibilities in life and to be more receptive to them. So much so that I don’t believe I would have found my desire to become a personal trainer had I not allowed myself to be mindful and open to the possibility that I could do something else quite fulfilling in my life.

So as I often do I start one story, yet I end up telling another. The thing is that the two are intimately related. You see, it’s because of these profound experiences that I had – a kind of “spiritual awakening” if you like to think about these things in such terms – that I feel gives me the ability to look back over recent events on my life quite objectively. And just as I prefer it to be, I have remembered to be mindful, to reflect on my recent experiences, and to see what I have learned.

Yes, I slipped into a bad habit of neglecting my dietary intake of water, and yes I’ve been lazy with some of my meals and maintaining a good dietary balance, yet I have also experienced something very positive, and that is that I have maintained the quality of the foods which I have been eating, and I have not slipped into a habit of binging on processed foods. I can be proud of myself because I’ve changed some habits and I no longer seek comfort in food, nor do I use negative experiences and emotions as an excuse to go off and cheat on my diet. I have also been paying more attention to my fluid intake, and I have nearly returned myself to the strict hydration habit that I was trying to instil in myself before my “March Madness” began.

Yes, I have been lazy about my workouts. I have however been moving a lot of furniture and other things about the house, and when I have found myself in places where it is customary to sit, I have learned that sitting for extended periods of time has now become incredibly uncomfortable for me. So much so that my legs kind of “hurt” in a way that encourages me to stand up and move around, and when my back starts to feel sore, I do my little hula exercise, and a couple of Psoas stretches, and after a short while the pain goes away.

Even though I have skipped out on the exercise, by maintaining my diet, and encouraging myself to stand more often, I have also continued to lose excess body fat, and a recent weight measurement shows that I am now at least 1 kg lighter without any additional effort required. In other words, my journey hasn’t really stalled or failed, it has simply gone into a temporary recess, awaiting the return of my more positive and enthusiastic self.

Yes, I also found myself not getting enough sleep, and this is probably because my water intake became quite low. The thing is that I am recovering in this area also, because I recognised the problem, I connected the cause with the symptoms, and I have taken action to correct the problem. In other words, I have become proactive about dealing with each of these things that I have seen as negative symptoms of the events which have been occurring in my life.

So what do you do when the wheels fall off your personal “bus”? You stop the bus, get out, step back, and look at the problem from a distance, look at each wheel in turn, and if a wheel has fallen off take action to put the wheel back into its place, and when the bus has all of it’s wheels again, get back on the bus and continue your journey.

photo credit – theboringrunner.com

For those of you who hate metaphors, I’ll spell it all out with a little psycho-babble thrown in for good measure: You take a moment, try to be mindful of your situation and how you are reacting to the situation in your thoughts. You take each problem that you face, examine it mindfully, accept that it has happened, see what you can learn from the experience, and then take steps to return yourself to a place where it doesn’t matter what the problem is or whether it happened, and you permit yourself to move forward from the experience with an open mind. You deal only with those immediate problems which you feel are barriers to your self-improvement or life journey, and you leave the others until you actually need to address them. Then, you simply return to travelling your life journey one moment at a time.

I have also learned that I don’t necessarily need to maintain a positive mindset all of the time, and that’s it’s OK to have negative thoughts from time to time. No emotion is truly bad, yet how we respond to those emotions and what we choose to do in response to those emotions is important and something that we need to be more mindful of. In reflecting on all of this, I have reminded myself of the things that I feel are most important to me, and I have remembered that I would rather learn from my failures than sink back and wallow in them.

In my own recent experience, while it may have felt at the time that I had thrown myself under the wheels of the wagon I should have been on, the reality is that things were only feeling so bad because I allowed myself to feel that way. I learned that I was mistaken, and that I didn’t need to feel this way. I learned that my journey hadn’t ended, but rather that it simply took a detour and that it was up to me to determine the length and quality of the detour. I learned that even while I felt myself failing at some of my goals and tasks, I was also succeeding at most of my other goals and tasks.

Something else that I’ve taken away from all of this is that the purpose is not to balance successes against failures to determine how well or how badly I have done. Instead, the purpose is to either try alternate strategies when a failure occurs and keep trying until I feel comfortable that I have reached a point of success, or to reflect on the failure, learn from it, and to identify if my goals are sensible and achievable, or if I should be redefining my goals to better reflect my abilities and my needs.

What all of this means is that I don’t need to feel guilt, or low self esteem simply because I have failed to achieve my goals. I don’t need to allow myself to become depressed. I can instead choose to take something positive out of every negative experience, because no matter how tenuous the positive connection may be, it is still a good thing and something to feel good about. So for every negative experience and thought you might have, remember that there is something positive to learn, and that in itself is a small goal that you can set yourself to achieve every time something occurs in your life, regardless of how you might otherwise choose to feel about it.


What is the REAL power of positive thinking?

12 Feb

No, I’m not simply quoting the title of that very famous book published about two decades ago. I’m talking about the actual concept of positive thinking itself. What it is to be thinking positively, what it is that makes positive thought so hard, and why it can be so hard to achieve… or even to believe in. Understanding positive thinking is particularly close to my own heart, as it is by learning more about the connection between emotion and thought that I myself was able to come to terms with my own journey out of mental illness, and so it is something that I hope will help others if I talk about it. I hope that by sharing this it will not only help those who themselves are dealing with depression, but will also help those of you who are struggling through other journey’s in your lives where positive thinking might just be a key to unlocking the potential you have within you to achieve the goals that you have set for yourself.

I’m sure that many of you will have rolled your eyes on more than one occasion when someone told you to simply be positive, or how you may have thought to yourself that you’d find it easier to be more “positive” if there wasn’t so much “bad stuff” happening around you. It can seem so easy for others to offer these well intentioned “platitudes” when they don’t really understand what is going on in our own lives. These thoughts are unfortunately negative, “wrong” in the sense that they are reinforcing negativity, and even more unfortunately they are the excuses that we use to delude ourselves that it is “OK” to be negative. The thing is, that negativity is easy. You don’t have to work at it, you simply cease to participate in anything that requires an effort and you will find yourself in the trap that is negativity, and when you’ve lived that way for long enough you begin to feel comfortable with it, more accepting of it until it becomes so ingrained that you can’t imagine anything else is safe, or even possible for you, and you make excuses to avoid facing the reality of negativity such that you shut yourself off from anything positive.

Now I’m not saying that you should never have negative thoughts. Quite the contrary, I believe it is definitely OK to have feelings that are negative from time to time. It’s when negativity becomes routine, and when thoughts always stray to and stay with the negative that it becomes a problem. When excuses become easy to make to justify negativity the problem becomes a serious one in terms of your mental well being and your overall health. For many years, I personally was someone who found dozens of excuses for having negative feelings, and for dwelling on the negativity so much that it became a kind of priority in my life. Yes, that’s right. Negativity can become a priority, and this is when you are at your worst and when your health and general well being suffers the most. The can do attitude gets lost behind an I can’t façade that leads you to give up on anything that seems “difficult” and to explain it away with only the negativity that you shroud yourself in, as if it more important to you than anything else.

I was – in short – a consummate unbeliever in the power of positive thinking as a real phenomenon that I could tap into as a resource for positive change in my life. I permitted myself to live in this way and I chose to focus on negativity rather than positivity. The net impact of all of this was that I basically became lazy with regards to my health and well being, and the negativity impacted on every other area of my life, from family, to work, to my social life, and to my ability to maintain my fitness and my health. I became fat, chronically dehydrated, I ate heavily processed fast preparation foods without any thought about how they would affect me, and the impact on my health led to feeling more depressed, which led to less exercise and poorer diet in a never ending spiralling negative cycle.

The epiphany for me came on the day that I booked myself in to see a psychologist, who sat me down and explained how all of the psychology research led to a conclusion that we live the experience dictated by our thoughts. It wasn’t my negative situation that led to my negative emotion, and it wasn’t negative emotion that led to negative thoughts. It was completely the opposite. I learned that it was thought that dictated emotion, but that this connection was very difficult to see, and the cause-effect relationship between thought and emotion was so quick and so subtle that it appeared to be completely the opposite to what I would have otherwise believed. Naturally I didn’t really believe this at first, so I was taught to meditate so that I could recognise when thoughts were crowding my head, and so that I could learn to let thoughts go and allow them to bubble up into my consciousness slowly, rather than all at once. In learning to meditate, I also learned how to recognise when the thoughts were predominantly negative, so that I could let the negative thoughts go, and with them any associated negative feelings.

The meditation itself was merely a tool, and one which I still use from time to time. What was really liberating for me is that I was able to use this tool and others that the psychologist taught me to differentiate between when my thoughts were positive or negative, and to identify how I was feeling as I had those thoughts. The real breakthrough however came on a day when I was feeling quite positive about something, and then I found my head in a negative space and feeling suddenly sad. It was so incredible to witness myself in a transition from thought to thought, and in seeing how the thoughts themselves actually led to the transition in emotions, and it made me realise that this psychologist I was attending was absolutely correct in everything he had been trying to get through my thick skull. I don’t know why these guys get called “shrinks”, because I found instead that my head was being grown, not shrunk, simply by teaching me to expand my own awareness of the thoughts and emotions that I was having at different times in the day.

OK, so this is a lovely little story, but where does this show the real power of positive thinking? Well, like everything that we experience in the world, there is a balance to contend with. What goes up comes down, action results in reaction, and so too where there is negativity, there is positivity. So if negative thinking leads to negative life situations, surely positive thinking leads to more positive life situations. Certainly this is how I have found things to be. By choosing to be positive in my thoughts, I have been able to see other choices and possibilities in my life that I had not permitted myself to see before.

When things start to seem hard to face, I find something positive to focus on and it drives me to make a greater effort to overcome whatever it is that seems so hard. I am open to new and exciting possibilities rather than simply allowing my thoughts to circle around things that are known, painfully “comfortable”, and that might make me miserable. I have become open to building dreams to follow, setting goals that are tough yet rewarding, and accepting failures as opportunities for growth and learning, rather than as something to feel bad about.

The greatest power is that which comes from positive thought. It leaves you feeling charged, excited, happy, and ready to accept any challenge, regardless of the eventual outcome. When you can see yourself simply resorting to I Can’t because it feels comfortable and familiar, positive thinking stops you feeling sad and miserable about what you think you can’t do, and charges you with the strength and determination to achieve what you Will do.

For example, I was in a job that I wasn’t enjoying, where I had lived through every imaginable up and down, and where I was being treated with less respect or courtesy than I deserved. I hadn’t been happy there fore several years, but I felt trapped and as if there was nothing about my life that I could change to make it better. After a few moments of wallowing in the negativity of self pity one day, I consciously let my negative thoughts go and asked myself what was positive about my life. I reminded myself that I was recently married to a beautiful woman, I had two troubled yet ultimately wonderful sons who I am proud of, and that it was only my job that was making me feel so low from day to day. I also reminded myself that I had my long service leave coming up, and that with a 3 month holiday due and some savings, I had an opportunity to start fresh and do something else, and that the savings would buy me time to put my life into order. I resigned from the job where I was so unhappy, and suddenly my mind opened up to other possibilities. I could return to my work as a software developer, I could start my own company, I could study, or I could simply enjoy some time off and worry about it later. None of these possibilities were open to me while my mind was closed and my feelings focussed on the negative rather than positive thoughts about my life.

Another example, I had found myself out of work for a few months, and my chances of being rehired in my own industry looking slimmer by the day because of both the time that had passed, and the fact that the employment market had suddenly shrunk quite considerably just as I had exited my previous job. I had debts piling up and some worrying signs that my mortgage could be foreclosed in the near future. I found myself again getting depressed, stressed, and worried about all of the things that “might” turn bad for me and my family. Again, I took a moment to stop and think about what I really wanted to do, what I could do, and what the options were that were available to me. I looked again for the positives. I was feeling rested from the stresses of my previous job. I’d had lots of time with my sons during their school holidays, and I had taken a more serious interest in fitness, and health. I had learned many things over the past few months, and I had also learned that a personal training course that I had a great interest in that would start in a few months, and that would be affordable.

Feeling really good about all of these things, I made a pre-emptive strike with the bank and arranged an extension of time for some of the repayments. I’ve contacted my superannuation provider and learned that I can access some of my retirement money if I have no other way to afford the payments on my mortgage, I’ve realised that any job that I take on now doesn’t need to be in IT – and probably shouldn’t if I’ve chosen to leave that career behind me, and that by taking such and interest in improving my health and fitness (I had recently been attending “boot camp” training) I was starting to feel physically and mentally better overall. Fast forward to today and I now have only a few weeks until my course to qualify as a PT will start, I have been able to buy lost of time to hold the bank off while I continue looking for work, I have started to apply for simple and low paying jobs anywhere that seems interesting – as long as it keeps the lights on I won’t care what the job is – and I feel as if I am at the beginning of a really exciting time in my life. I feel happier than I ever have, and my wife, kids, and parents have all noticed this change in me. All because I paused to find some positive thoughts to focus on.

So what is the secret? What is the real power of positive thinking? It is the power to take control of your life no matter how challenging your circumstances have become. The ability to turn things around for the better. The power to face any adversity, to use the failures as things to learn from and the successes as things to inspire. The power to be open to any possibility, and to recognise opportunities when they present themselves. The power to set goals, and to achieve them. The power to drive positive change in your life that empowers you rather than always holding you back, and the power to put aside depression and uncertainty and replace them with happiness and strength. The power to restore your health and vitality simply because to choose to do so, and the realisation that all of this is possible simply by choosing to find something positive in each and every situation that you are faced with.

Positive thinking is what changes you from an I hope & I Wish person to an I Can & I Will person, and therein lies it’s true potential and power.

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