The last several years have seen a proliferation of books on how to think positive, and be happy so that you can become successful and fulfilled. The only problem is that more often than not our brains prefer to choose negative thoughts. John Milton said that “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” He certainly knew what he was talking about. On any given day we average about 60,000 thoughts. Many of them are focused on what’s wrong, or what could go wrong. This made a lot of sense thousands of years ago when there was a huge possibility that your village could be obliterated by your enemies or that you might be attacked by a behemoth while taking a morning walk. Unfortunately the brain has taken it’s time catching up with modern-day society. We are still struggling to rid ourselves of a lot of our fears, which often come from negative thoughts, even though we are living in modern times. Researchers have proven that our brain patterns are defined in part by how we think. Optimists take credit for their successes and see bad events as flukes. Pessimists, on the other hand, blame themselves for anything that happens and often discount success. Dr. Martin Seligman has dubbed the dialogue of pessimism and optimism as explanatory style. He points to the fact that pessimists use the three P’s to explain themselves: personalization (“It always happens to me!”), pervasiveness (“it happens to me every day in every way!”), and permanence (“It will never end!)”. This practically guarantees a life that contains a feeling of hopelessness and suffering. It also contributes to a sense of inner worthlessness and a lack of self-control. The more we think we are a certain way, the more we become that way. Learning to change our inner dialogue can be very difficult for those whose biology predisposes them to depression and or anxiety. So learning to parrot positive statements may prove to be an act of futility for them. They may need a combination of medications and a cognitive behavioral therapist. For those of us who have simply become habituated to thinking that the universe is not a friendly place, I suggest spending some time everyday thinking about what you feel good about. There is always something we can extrapolate from our day-to-day that can help to buffer our fears. If you can engage in this practice you will find yourself more able to handle difficult situations and there’s a good possibility you may even live longer.
Most of us respond to criticism by becoming defensive, shutting down(pouting), or running away (and running toward something unhealthy, such as overeating). We develop a lot of dysfunctional strategies as children by watching and imitating our role models.
My mother was extremely deft at verbal aikido, but my grandmother took the passive route. I became a combination of the two until I realized that neither served me well. Learning to diffuse and handle criticism can not only empower you, but can ultimately bring you closer to a peaceful mind.
Try the following techniques: When you receive criticism that feels accurate, simply acknowledge it and move on. Remember that you have created an entire story to support your behavior patterns in order to feel right. Your friends and family have come to different conclusions. It makes perfect sense to pay attention to what their saying. Simply acknowledge, reflect, and then decide if they have any information that might help you. If the criticism sounds unfair, don’t make excuses or practice “tongue fu” on them, so you can win a battle that is essentially futile. Remember that the person talking to you wants the same validation you do.
For example, if your mother (or significant other) says, “you’re always working. It would be nice if you spent more time with me,” just respond by agreeing, “Yes, it’s true—–I do work a lot”. Then wait for the next statement. If your mom continues nagging you, use a technique called “probing”, “I understand you think I work too much and you’d like to see more of me. I’m willing to try to do better. Do you have any ideas for things we can do together this week?” Some of my favorite ways to respond is to try and get some distance, which in turn takes the heat out of the comments. Try, “What you’re saying is very interesting, let me get back to you on that”. The bottom line is that we all would like our needs met. If we use collaborative methods, we may actually get the brass ring.
Obviously this is a vast subject, and there are no simple answers, but so many of us would benefit from not getting aggravated by people’s criticisms if we would listen with an open mind and not jump into being over reactive.