The power of positive thinking

PHOTO: The power of positive thinking

In my previous column, I said that we all tell stories to ourselves: stories about our lives, about the world and about the people around us.

Although we may not realise it, these stories have a big influence on the way we think, the way we feel and the way we act. Very often, they are neither helpful nor true, yet we accept them uncritically.

Practical tasks

When I was a child, I noticed - I could hardly help but notice - that my dad always did practical jobs with a very bad grace.

If he had to tile the bathroom, or fit new cupboards in the kitchen, or anything of that sort, he would scowl his way through the task and give vent to howls of frustration whenever things did not go smoothly.

Consequently, I grew up telling myself a story about practical jobs: that they are difficult; that they are frustrating; and that they are to be avoided at all costs.

Recently, my friend Gill made some repairs to the interior of my camper van.

It was a revelation to me to see her working on them with patient interest and enjoyment, and it occurred to me - not for the first time - that it would be wise for me to discard that unhelpful old story.

Unhelpful and untrue

Fortunately, my negative attitude towards practical tasks has never done me any real harm - which is why I don't mind mentioning it here.

But some of the stories we adopt can be very damaging indeed.

For example, if you grew up in a family where one or more of your parents withheld their affection whenever you failed to live up to their ideals, you may have acquired the belief that people will never really love you unless you constantly strive to please them.

Or if you grew up in a family where conflicts were resolved - or not resolved - in an angry and aggressive manner, you may have acquired the belief that anger and aggression are the only appropriate responses to conflict.

These stories - that you must bend over backwards to please people if you want to be loved; and that you must respond aggressively to conflict - are neither helpful nor true.

But they, and other stories like them, are very powerful.

If you accept them, albeit perhaps unconsciously, they will cause you to think, feel and act in negative ways.

New and better stories

In her recent book, How To Stay Sane, psychotherapist Philippa Perry recounts how, due to her childhood experiences and expectations, she had acquired the habit, in any group situation, of always finding one person to admire and one person to despise.

Eventually, she became aware of this.

She realised that she had, for years, been telling herself an unhelpful story - that there is a goodie and a baddie in every group - and that this story was having a negative impact on the way she interacted with certain people.

When she discovered this, she was empowered.

She had more choice about how to act.

Whenever she found herself demonising a person, she would check herself and begin to focus on what was positive about them.

This enabled her to respond to group situations in ways that were appropriate to the present rather than embedded in the past.

She writes: "The great thing about a story is that it is flexible.

"We can change a story from one that does not help us to one that does.

"If the script we have lived by in the past does not work for us any more, we do not need to accept it as our script for the future."

Gary Hayden is a philosophy and science writer.

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