Updated: Mar 16, 2022
Our every thought – no matter how arbitrary or uneventful it may seem – has a cumulative effect on the way we experience life’s peaks and pitfalls
Unlocking the powers of positive thinking.
Our every thought – no matter how arbitrary or uneventful it may seem – has a cumulative effect on the way we experience life’s peaks and pitfalls. As someone who’s fluent in negative self-talk, I never really believed in the power of positive thinking (the irony does not escape me). Put bluntly, it all just felt a little… wishy-washy.
To me, it seemed like a doctrine filled with crystal-charging, manifestation boards and recommendations for ‘15 minutes of sunlight’. While there’s nothing wrong with these tools, I just didn’t understand how they were supposed to stop me from compulsively thinking I was a terrible and pathetic person. ‘Positive thinking’ always felt too broad; too unspecific an idea to cure me of a lifetime of damaging thought patterns.
Not unsurprisingly, I was wrong (believe it or not, it’s happened before). Through weekly cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), I learnt ‘positive thinking’ was a completely legitimate, widely-recognised clinical tool. While the idea itself can always be interpreted differently, its roots in the world of psychology are hard to deny.
Acting as an umbrella term for a number of different types of therapy, ‘positive thinking’ is practised using various psychological ‘tools’. Mantras – the helpful words and phrases you keep in your mental arsenal – are one of these tools. To better understand the role of mantras and affirmations in positive psychology, I enlisted the help of Sydney-based organisational psychologist, Dr Amanda Ferguson.
“In psychology, positive thinking is all about focusing on how you can do it, rather than how you can’t”, Dr Amanda explains. For a practical example: “stop giving energy to how you feel like you won’t pass the exam and focus on how you can. Give all your energy to working on doing well on that exam”. Popularised by American psychologist Martin Seligman, positive psychology is based on the premise that wellbeing can be ‘defined, measured and taught’.
Negative self-talk is often so ingrained in our minds, we stop noticing it. As Amanda explains, “there are negative throwaway phrases people use all the time… it’s about challenging those thoughts. It’s about using mantras like ‘I’ve done it before. I can do it again’ or ‘I can do this because I’ve learnt new skills before’”. According to licenced psychologist Celine Sugay, the focus of positive CBT is ‘not where things are faulty and skewed, but where things are going well’.
For a lot of us, finding self-esteem is our hardest mental task. Amanda tells me in psychology, “the process for [improving self-esteem] is to give people a self-acceptance exercise. This is where they list all the things they wouldn’t want to change about themselves”. As my favourite Rupaul’s Drag Race quote goes, ‘If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?’. “It’s hard to get to a goal if you’re not able to accept yourself right now,” Amanda says. “You never achieve self-esteem, because you never accept where you’re at for changing it.” In terms of mantras and affirmations, the helpful ones focus on finding self-love right now – not once you’ve reached a specific goal. As Amanda states, “it takes 21 days to form a habit” – so try a month of mantras like ‘I’m beautiful the way I am’, ‘I love my body’ or ‘I love the person I see in the mirror’.
Goal achievement is “that little recipe of specific, realistic and timed achievements,” Amanda explains. “It’s about writing the goal in your diary, finding a relevant mantra for that task… and ticking it off when you achieve it.” Something like a personal mantra – a short and easy phrase you can repeat daily – can help with remembering the end goal. It may sound a little girlboss-y, but try something like ‘I will do this’, ‘I can do this’ or ‘Now is the time’.
Anxiety and panic
Using CBT tools, we can start unpacking and categorising our negative thoughts or ‘cognitive distortions’. Overgeneralisation, for example, is ‘turning an isolated event into a never-ending pattern of loss and defeat’. Maybe you have an uncomfortable social run-in on the street your brain can’t seem to shake (sound familiar)? Overgeneralisation is ‘I’m always so awkward’, ‘Everyone thinks I’m weird’ or ‘They’ll never be able to forget that’.
Once you’re aware of the tricks your brain is playing, you can start implementing ‘reversal’ on those irrational, negative thought patterns. Start by subbing out absolutes with words like ‘sometimes’ and ‘this’. Instead of labelling yourself as ‘awkward’ for the one weird incident, try not to let it define you. Change it to something like, ‘This run-in was a little uncomfortable for both of us. I just wasn’t feeling really social today’.
And if you don’t use any of these affirmations? That’s okay too! It’s all about keeping your mental state afloat in any (healthy) way that works for you – crystals and sunshine included.
For more on positive psychology, listen to Dr Amanda Ferguson’s podcast Psych for Life here.