This week’s Perspectives column continues the series on cognitive distortions- unhealthy mental habits that can have a detrimental impact on our overall well-being. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “if life gives you lemons; make lemonade” or “is your glass half-full, or half-empty” then you already know the basics of focusing on the negative and discounting the positive. As children, we learn about the world and what to look for from the adults around us. Imagine back to when you were young and in the back seat while your parent was trying to find a parking spot during a busy Saturday afternoon. Was your parent complaining that the only parking spot was a football field length from the door, or grateful it wasn’t two football fields away?
Identifying the choice between appreciating the positive instead of focusing on the negative is a powerful gift to give a young person. Life is full of balance. Aspects of any experience are good or not so good, but we see what we look for. In narrative therapy, there is a process called a positive reframe which means to adjust our perspective to focus on the good parts. At first, reframing a situation in a positive light can feel a bit forced, but like any good habit, practise makes perfect. For example, imagine your child or teen complains about their strict teacher. Someone who discounts the positive and focuses on the negative might say something like, “I can’t believe your teacher gives homework, that’s terrible”. However, a positive reframe could be, “Your teacher must want you to learn a lot this year and do well on the final exam.” Modelling the positive point of view can empower the young person to see the experience in a balanced way. Any comment or situation can be looked at in a more positive or negative light; any experience can be an opportunity to learn and develop if one looks for the opening. Consider something or someone in your life who is a source of negative emotions for you. Try focusing on the silver lining. Maybe the bane of your existence is also the conduit for something positive in your life. A difficult coworker can help inspire you to prepare very well for presentations; a nosy neighbour is better than a security alarm, and a broken down car might give you the opportunity to find a more environmentally friendly way to get about.
Our thoughts are powerful. Dr. David Burns, author of the book Feeling Good, outlines the impact of our mental habits in all areas of our mental health and well-being. He notes that the world will definitely feel damp and chilly if you throw cold water over everything. This week, take time to practise noticing the sunshine amongst the clouds in your world, and model a balanced positive attitude to the children and young adults in your life.
Marie Amos, MA, Registered Clinical Counsellor, is a Mental Health Therapist with Child and Youth Mental Health of MCFD, Chilliwack.