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Overcoming “I Can’t”

The most important relationship you will ever have is with your beliefs and thoughts. They can act as a straitjacket – or they can be your greatest ally.

– Mel Schwartz,
Psychotherapist and Author

Key: The false, negative stories we tell ourselves as children become the chains which hold back our potential.

Living it: Balancing positive thinking and measured negative thinking to change what we don’t like about ourselves or our lives.

Clinical Concept: Application of positive-reframing, grit and growth mindset within a framework of cognitive self-critique.

Sometimes, as a counselor, our clients think we don’t have struggles or that we have it all together. As you can listen to above, that may be true for some super-counselors, but it’s not true for me. Negative self-talk is something I’ve grown up with, due in-part, to my history of overcoming cerebral palsy.

Last month I was honored to be asked by Total Performance Fitness in Norristown, PA, to speak about my successes there in solving some pain associated with my gait as a runner with physical issues. I couldn’t help but put it into the context of overcoming negative-self talk and the false beliefs that drag us down.

“Self-talk is the endless stream of unspoken thoughts that run through your head,” according to the Mayo Clinic. We all do it all day. In fact, the National Science Foundation published a study that found the average person has 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts daily and 80% are negative. Plus, “95% were the same repetitive thoughts as the day before.” That means there are very many people in the world burdened by what I call negative self-narratives. A negative self-narrative is when those repeated negative thoughts have become so ingrained into how we see ourselves or our world that they become part of our story. Renowned psychotherapist and author, Mel Schwartz calls this a “belief bias,” in which a person’s negative self-talk becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and “their minds search out justifications as to why they won’t succeed. And of course, they don’t.” He has seen the damage negative self-talk can cause. “What a horrible thing,” he said, “The belief, if left unexamined, terribly diminishes our lives” and “incline people toward anxiety, depression, and a host of other afflictions,” (Schwartz, 2015).

Schwartz, myself, and many other experts say that these beliefs are formed in childhood, and often based on a child’s immature, ill-informed or egocentric view of the world. Thus, they’re almost always as deeply rooted, as they are totally wrong when applied to our adult selves. Yet they guide our lives. For me, it was the belief that “I can’t run.” I know now, after running 5-10 kilometers every week and four races a year for seven years, that belief was based in some very flawed thinking. Still, that flawed thinking as a child led to inactivity and 400 pounds of weight gain—talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy!

I know I’m not alone, both in my negative self-narrative and my ability to change it. I’m no super-counselor. Based on the data, you’re stuck inside your head with your own negative thoughts right now, too. There is a way out, but it’s not what you think.

Be a Stable Atom

The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos

“Why is he quoting Carl Sagan?” you ask. It’s not just to impress my wife. It’s because we can find a wonderful example of the solution to negative self-narrative in atomic physics, specifically electron theory.

A stable atom is circled by negative electrons which attract the positively charged protons in equal number. This balanced attraction can be harnessed in a battery where the electrons move from negative to positive and back. We can harness the power of our negativity by seeking stability. If we’re 80% negative, then we need to become only 30% more positive to be balance, not 100% more positive.

Honestly, I’m tired of the panacea of positive thinking. Positive thinking does have great value, just like negative self-narratives can be harmful. Positive thinking “is a key part of effective stress management and…associated with many health benefits“ such as “increased life span, lower rates of depression, lower levels of distress, greater resistance to the common cold,  better psychological and physical well-being, better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease, better coping skills during hardships and times of stress,” Mayo Clinic said (2017).

Who doesn’t want that stuff? I sure do, but negative, pessimistic thought has value, too. It keeps us humble, helps us see the flaws and sometimes the dangers in ourselves and motivates us to ask for help. Positive thinking, taken to the extreme is rationalization and denial, just like negative thinking becomes self-defeating negative self-narrative or belief bias. The secret of defeating our negative self-narratives is not just to change every negative thought into a positive one, it’s to strive for an honest, balanced view of yourself that is more positive which will bring the energy to change. It’s physics.

This is important because, Schwartz (2015) said that the main reason people keep accepting their own negative bias is “typically, people just assume it’s so. And even more to the point, they feel that change is beyond their grasp.” Well, I did, too when I was a 400 lb. guy and thought I needed to change 100% of my life. Turns out, what I really needed to do was own some of my hard truth then focus on what was still great about me, even though I was flawed. “Positive thinking doesn’t mean that you keep your head in the sand and ignore life’s less pleasant situations,” Mayo Clinic asserts. “Positive thinking just means that you approach unpleasantness in a more positive and productive way” (2017).

Owning Our Atomic Power

When people already know they’re deficient, they have nothing to lose by trying.

– Dr. Carol Dweck,
Psychology Professor and Preeminent Growth Mindset Researcher

The hard truth was, my “I can’t run” had become accurate as a highly overweight asthmatic with cerebral palsy. That’s the gritty, totally valid 50% negative thought. But change felt impossible living under that. What’s the 50% positive thought? Yet.

I can’t run…yet.

The greatness I avoided since I was a young child, the greatness that physical therapists struggled to bring out in me, and it took me a lifetime to own was that I always could try to run. I could try. I just didn’t want to because I thought it would suck, the other kids could do it faster and frankly look cooler doing it. Even more frankly, they still do. But those five reasons were the 30% negative that needed to be kicked out of my head to build a stable atomic core.

I can run. I can be healthier. I don’t need to be the fastest, longest or coolest doing it, I just need to try and not give up. And I need to evaluate my negative thoughts to see if they have power. If they do, I harness that power. If they don’t, I give ‘em a positive proton to attach to instead.

Examples: (negative > positive)

“It will suck.” > “Every new thing is uncomfortable, but it will become exhilarating.”

“I won’t be fastest.” > “I will proudly finish the race.”

“I won’t look cool.” > “Maybe, but I’ll sure feel cool at the finish line.”

Your “I can’t” may be different than mine. That’s fine. No matter what, the Mayo Clinic offers sage advice to “start by following one simple rule: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else…If a negative thought enters your mind, evaluate it rationally and respond with affirmations of what is good about you” (2017).

I love that advice because, like a stable atom, it’s balanced. It starts with self-kindness, which is very different from absolute positivity; honest self-kindness always works. Then it moves to evaluation. Negative thoughts have value in guiding us to become the greater people we can be, but they have no place in telling us who we are or who we can become. That power is ours alone. 

Antanaityte, Neringa (2009) Mind Matters: How To Effortlessly Have More Positive Thoughts. TLEX Institute. Retrieved from: https://tlexinstitute.com/how-to-effortlessly-have-more-positive-thoughts/

Mayo Clinic (2017) Positive thinking: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress. Mayo Clinic.org. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950

Schwartz, M. (2015) Why I Can’t…or Why Can’t I? The beliefs we carry write the script of our life. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shift-mind/201504/why-i-cant-or-why-cant-i

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