Now using the black pen, Harold argues with his statement. He imagines his least favorite person (his worst enemy) said to him, “Nobody loves you.”
Once the statement is outside his head, it becomes more objective (and less subjective) so it becomes easier to argue with. When it is inside his head, part of him, something he thinks, it is harder to recognize a thought as mistaken.
Harold stares at his written statement (nobody loves me) and tries to find something wrong with it. What can he say to that statement? How could he argue with it? Why is it a stupid thing to think? What is mistaken about it?
When you do this, you force the statement to stand trial. Really all of your thoughts ought to get this kind of scrutiny. But nobody has time for that, so only take the time when your thoughts are handicapping you (demoralizing you, making you feel upset, etc.)
So he stares at his statement and eventually writes, “That’s really not true. I can think of at least two people who love me for sure.”
That’s pretty good. Harold has found a mistake. Good for him. Do you see how that is different than trying to look on the bright side or repeating to himself, “I am loved I am loved I am loved?” Introducing legitimate doubt about a negative statement has far more emotional impact, and the impact is instant.
So he discovered his first mistake: His negative thought isn’t really true. Excellent.
But he shouldn’t stop there. He should come up with as many arguments as he can against his statement. He might write, “Maybe there is something I could do — some action I could take — that would make me more lovable. Being loved isn’t all-or-nothing anyway.” And so on.
The method is simple: Write something you think about the situation (something negative you believe about the situation) and then try find something wrong with your belief.
This is a very effective way to change the way you think about something. It’s kind of fun too, once you get going. And you can feel the negative emotion dissipate as you destroy the validity of the pessimistic assumptions that have been ruining your attitude.
Let me remind you that your arguments must be real. You’re not just playing the “devil’s advocate” here. Really look at the statement and find what is truly wrong with it. This is not glossing things over with nice thoughts.
Something many writers on positive thinking don’t make clear is that negative thinking is not just counterproductive; it is often objectively wrong. The negative thoughts are incorrect. They are exaggerations, overstatements, conclusions you have jumped to, rumors you have heard, or merely bad habits of thinking you picked up while growing up.
Your goal with the exercise is to scrutinize your own written statements long enough to discover if there is anything wrong with them. As Carl Sagan said, “Skeptical scrutiny is the means, in both science and religion, by which deep thoughts can be winnowed from deep nonsense.” Check out our list of thought-mistakes to look for.
You might have deep nonsense in one area but not another. You might make good explanations for setbacks in your marriage but make lousy explanations for setbacks at work. The place where this antivirus of the mind is most useful is where you’re having difficulties.
Are you having a hard time losing weight? Quitting smoking? Getting in shape? Advancing your career? Feeling close to your kids? Where do you feel defeated? Where have you given up on a goal? Get out your two pens and work on that one.
When you feel thwarted or frustrated, check your explanations of setbacks. When you feel like giving up on a goal of yours, check your explanations. If you ever decide to do something and then later feel disappointed in yourself because you didn’t follow through, that is a time where checking for mistakes in your explanations will make a huge difference. Pull out those two pens and go to work.
Working with the pens like this is not difficult. It is easy to be negative about negative thoughts — easier than being positive. Especially when you feel negative already.
Handwriting your explanations and arguments with two colored pens is one way. Another is to write out everything you think about what’s bothering you. And then go back and argue with each sentence one at a time. This is a good variation to use on a computer. Type out every negative thought you have about the situation. And then go back and separate out a sentence and scrutinize it in a different font. Then take the next sentence and search for mistakes in that one. And so on.
Take your whole argument and print it out. Carry it around in your pocket for a few weeks. Reread it a couple of times a day for even more reinforcement and faster change.
trying even harder
If someone is in the habit of explaining setbacks poorly (with lots of mistakes), she will experience frequent feelings of demoralization — and she will often give up on her goal, starting projects but not sticking with them, deciding they were foolish goals anyway, and wondering why she came up with them in the first place.
On the other extreme, with a habit of making sensible explanations of setbacks, the same setbacks will make her feel more determined than ever. Many people wonder about this. How can a setback make someone more determined?
In my book, Self-Help Stuff That Works, I mention a study of the Berkeley swim team. The researchers timed each athlete as they swam a familiar distance. At the end of the “timed heat,” the coach told them a slower time than they really swam (in order to give them a setback).
They were all experienced competitors and they knew how their swim felt and what their time should be, so it was a small failure to discover they didn’t swim as fast as they thought they did.
After the setback, the athletes swam another heat. Prior to all of this swimming, the researchers gave the athletes a test to find out how each one explained setbacks.
Here’s the interesting thing: Those who made mistakes in their explanations felt defeated after the setback and swam their next heat slower. Those with few or no mistakes in their explanations swam their next heat faster. They actually tried harder after a “defeat.”
Why would someone try harder after a setback? For the same reason you would try harder if you played tennis with someone you know you can beat and your opponent scored a couple points in a row. You’d get riled up rather than feeling defeated. Your opponent’s scores would focus you and increase your determination to win.
For Norman Vincent Peale, his manuscript was rejected by a long string of publishers. One possible explanation is nobody wants it. Can you see how that takes away determination? It’s a thought-mistake. Has he tried everybody? No? Then he can’t say “nobody” wants it. It’s an overgeneralization. A more reasonable explanation might be I haven’t found the right publisher yet. Notice with this explanation, it might make him want to try even harder. It would increase his determination. (Read more about Peale and his manuscript here.)
If you try to talk to your teenager and he is distant and resentful, one possible way to explain that setback is that’s just the way teenagers are. That is a thought-mistake (overconfidence in a mere guess) and it reduces determination. A more reasonable explanation is I haven’t found the right approach yet. And notice again, this explanation could easily make you want to try harder, increasing determination.
A swimmer has a time slower than it should be. One swimmer might think to himself, I’m past my prime; I’m losing my edge. Can you feel how that would just suck the life right out of him? Contrast that with an explanation such as, I didn’t get enough sleep last night. You can’t do anything about being “past your prime.” But you can get more sleep.
I knew a woman who had two failed marriages. Her explanation was, all men are pigs. Very demoralizing. With a belief like that, would she feel motivated to date again? No, and she wasn’t. But what about an explanation like this: My strategy for choosing men needs improvement. Do you see how dramatically different that explanation is? What different results she would get with it?
Or how about a man who has had a heart attack. One way to explain that is I’m destined to die young. With an explanation like that, would the man change his diet? Change his attitude? Improve his marriage? Probably not. He would be too demoralized to do anything. As opposed to an explanation like this: Up until now, I haven’t been motivated to take good care of my health. Do you see how that leaves room for change? How it motivates? How it doesn’t at all demoralize?
And I know this is being repetitive, but I need to hammer on this: The second explanation has a better result, but it is also truer. Do not, I repeat: DO NOT just try to come up with a “positive” explanation. If you don’t really believe it, your new improved explanation won’t help you one little bit.
A salesman has ten people in a row say no. One explanation is, I’m the worst salesman who ever lived. Not very inspiring. Not likely to help get someone to say yes. As opposed to, I need to learn more about sales. Or even the typical sales principle, this is a numbers game. It’s just the odds. If I keep trying, I’ll get someone to say yes. It’s a better explanation because it is truer and gives you a better result.
I once wanted to speak in public but even the thought of it made me nervous. My explanation of it was I am constitutionally shy; my fear proves I can’t do it. That is full of thought-mistakes (overgeneralization, false permanence, mistaken unchangeability, extremism). A more reasonable explanation that did in fact make me want to try harder was it is normal to feel nervous; it is merely a lack of experience. It made me want to get more experience speaking.
Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.