“Learn to be more compassionate company, as if you were somebody you are fond of and wish to encourage. I doubt that you would respond to a close friend with an eye roll and snicker. I doubt that you would pantomime sticking your finger down your throat. I think you might say something along the lines of, ‘Good for you, full steam ahead!’” — Anne Lamott
When you’re studying, do you ever feel like your inner voice is not your best friend? Do you find that voice telling you that whatever you are studying, you’re doing it wrong or that you are going to fail anyway, so why bother? I used to think that I was alone in this and that I was just flawed and hopeless. Then I started working with other people in workshops and discovered that almost all of us do this one way or another. It is painful to realize how many of us believe these negative voices in our heads.
When I look back, I realize that I received plenty of negative messages growing up and that I accepted the messages which told me I was doing something wrong, or that I as a person was flawed in some way; these messages created new neural pathways which became embedded in my brain.
A neural pathway is the way that information travels through the neurons, or nerve cells of the brain. We create new neural pathways every time we hear or experience something new. The more we experience something, the more embedded this pathway becomes, and unfortunately, a lot of us have some very negative messages firmly rooted in our brains.
Once those neural pathways are deeply embedded, changing them is not an easy task. Is there a way to overcome the negative stories that we once heard and now continue to tell ourselves? Is there a way to shift those pathways so that they are less destructive? Yes! There is a practice which you can start using right now, which will bring about changes in the neural pathways that keep you stuck. Using Creative Positive Reframing, you can take limiting beliefs and creatively transform them so they become supportive rather than destructive. You can reframe and create a new perspective on how you think by using these seven tools:
Pay attention to your thought process. You can tell if the thoughts are self-defeating and destructive if they negatively impact your body; for example, a knot in your stomach or a lump in your throat, clenched jaw or tight shoulders.
Get the negative out
Nature abhors a vacuum. When you cannot get out of a negative thought spiral – write it out. Get it out of your head by emptying it out on paper. Think of it as an emotional enema! Write about all the negativity spiraling in your head. Allow a stream of consciousness to flow and let it all come out. Write it out as it comes. If you feel stuck, write about feeling stuck. If you can’t get moving, draw lines or Xs to get the energy moving, and then as negative thoughts come up, write them out. Keep writing until the thoughts stop coming. And then tear the paper up. Burn it. Stamp on it. Get rid of it!
Replace the negative with positive
Negative self-talk can be replaced by positivity with the help of a series of deliberate affirmations. This creates new neural pathways and frees you from the negative spiral. However, sometimes when we use affirmations that do not feel real, our brain calls us a ‘liar’ and does not believe it, and this can embed the negative even more deeply. For example, if I am struggling while trying to study for a big test, and I say to myself, ‘I am smart and I will ace this test!’, but my head says, ‘that’s not true’ – and goes on to prove how wrong I am, throwing me further down the negative spiral. If this happens to you and positive statements aren’t working, there is research that shows that the use of questions instead of statements works effectively. Questions work with the brain’s natural inquisitive nature; pose a question and your brain will work to find an answer, creating more positive neural pathways automatically. So if when you say “I am smart and will ace this test” – your brain calls you a liar; try asking for its help by saying something like “Information is coming to me easily and effortlessly. What do I need to do to remember this information more effectively?”
Think about the ideal and be clear why you want it
In order to create new neural pathways and escape the negative spiral, it’s important to have a replacement to start thinking about. For example, if you are stuck in fear an upcoming test, and in a negative loop, start thinking about the flip side and create a picture of the ideal. Describe your ideal outcome, be as specific as possible. Have fun with this: let your imagination be your guide. You don’t need to write this out, just tell yourself the story. Picture yourself acing the test and doing well in the course. And then focus on the why; why is it important? For example, allow yourself to really examine why doing well on the test or acing a course would make a difference in your life. What is the deepest reason you want this to manifest? Keep going deeper and deeper into why you want to achieve this until you feel like you have hit the heart of it.
Creative visualization – Embed your new vision
Creative Visualization is a technique which uses your own power of ‘seeing’ or visualizing something to attain that which you most want, or want to change. It involves using the mind to see that which you want to achieve; or using the mind to change the negative into positive. You already use this technique every day. Unfortunately, we often use it in the negative. The key to visualization is to create a mindset that you already have that which you are trying to attain, and to believe that you deserve the positive result. Relax and take time to do this. Close your eyes and let the movie of you having your heart’s desire run in your mind. Enjoy the process. The more you do this, the more deeply embedded this vision becomes.
Stay positive in the process
The field of Positive Psychology points out many benefits of staying positive and being happy. Happiness brings social rewards, helps people recover faster from illness, and have more resilience. Happy people feel like they are in control and are empowered and therefore usually feel more confidence, optimism, and a sense of well-being. These are all good reasons to try to remain in a positive mindset, but one of the main obstacles to positivity is that our brains are wired to look for and focus on threats. This mechanism was helpful back when we were hunters and gatherers, but now this mindset breeds pessimism and negativity because the mind tends to wander until it finds a threat. But there are many methods to overcome the brain’s negative bias. The most straightforward method is to focus on love and compassion, forgiveness and gratitude. These positive mind-sets shift your focus from the negative to the positive. Even simply thinking about someone you love or something you are grateful for, can help you shift from a negative mindset to a positive one.
While you are focusing on shifting limiting beliefs into more positive and supportive beliefs, it is helpful to be creative in the process. An expression of creativity, in any form, can be helpful in shifting our mood and removing us from a negative spiral. Not only that, but repressed creativity can have the opposite effect, and can ultimately express itself in unhealthy ways, such as bad relationships, stress, neurotic or addictive behaviors. Perhaps the most common manifestation of repressed creativity in women is depression, which, of course, only increases the negative downward spiral. But how can we be creative and how can we open ourselves up to our own creative potential? There are so many ways we can get creative, and they all involve play: start journaling and play with words; get some oil pastels and play with color; go outside, garden, and play in the dirt; learn an instrument, dance, and play with music; cook and play with spices. There is no right or wrong way to be creative. The only important thing is to allow ourselves to connect with our own creativity.
So the next time you hear that inner voice telling you that you are doing it wrong, try using these seven tools to creatively and positively reframe that message. The next time you find yourself falling into a negative spiral, use these seven tools to tackle those limiting beliefs, and transform them so that they are supportive rather than destructive.
Patti Clark is an award winning, best selling author and accomplished speaker and workshop leader. For more than 30 years, and over several continents, Patti has been sharing her knowledge and wisdom with others. She is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area and graduated from U.C. Berkeley. She has taught English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and at Oregon State University. Patti’s work has been featured in several publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, and The Mindful Word. Patti spends part of her time in the United States, and part of her time in New Zealand. This Way Up is her first book.
Patti also facilitates a course on this material: Unleash Your Best Self!