[author: Chelsy Castro, Castro Jacobs Psychotherapy & Consulting]
With the beginning of a new year, many of us seek to improve our well-being and change our lives for the better. We may want to worry less and focus on feeling good more often. Mainstream wellness culture will have us believe that we just need to think positive in order to feel better. Even prior to social media’s existence, many of us were acculturated to deny our unpleasant thoughts and experiences through well-meaning phrases such as “just look on the bright side,” “it could be worse,” or “well, at least you are not [fill in any worse situation than what you find yourself lamenting].”
While there may be good intentions behind “positive thinking,” this kind of messaging is actually harmful because it encourages us to deny, minimize and invalidate our authentic emotional experiences. It pressures us to feel OK even when things don’t feel OK. In the legal profession, this often manifests as feelings of guilt and disappointment and berating oneself for feeling inadequate or stressed. You end up feeling bad about feeling bad because feeling bad is unacceptable. This prevents us from taking the opportunity to fully take stock in what is happening and problem solve accordingly.
To truly start to change your thinking to improve your well-being, push past the promises of positive thinking and challenge yourself to think differently with the exercises below.
Creating a narrative or story about our experiences creates an opportunity for us to see meaning in both positive and negative events that we may have previously missed or even misconstrued. Scientific research has found that identifying meaning in our past, present and future proactively helps to improve our well-being. Including the role of our strengths in the narrative, in turn, increases the likelihood that we will rely on our strengths in both good and bad times because it raises awareness around how we have been able to rely upon our strengths in the past.
The idea is not to re-write your life, but to give yourself the opportunity to appreciate both your positive and negative experiences and how they have changed us for the better.
Step 1: Write a story about your past, describing how you used your strengths to overcome significant challenges. This can be especially daunting for lawyers because we are already overburdened by our work. If writing does not work for you, just dictate into your phone or computer and see what you get.
Step 2: Write a story about who you are now. Identify how your present self is different from your past self and be sure to discuss how your strengths have evolved. Again, feel free to dictate instead of writing. It may come more easily.
Step 3: Finally, write a story about your future self. Identify how your strengths will grow and how you will go about achieving your goals. Re-do this exercise at least once a year then compare your prior story to your most recent one. How has it changed?
We tend to focus on our negative experiences far more than on our positive experiences. This is called Negativity Bias. Negativity Bias helped our ancestors identify threats and it helps us as lawyers spot issues and anticipate problems. Many of the lawyers I have worked with have argued that focusing on their failures helps them work harder. However, science tells us doing so is not sustainable and comes with a price. By causing us to disproportionately focus on our shortcomings, Negativity Bias usually also causes us to diminish our strengths and successes. This, in turn, inhibits our confidence, limiting our ability to perform and produce.
Scientific research tells us that those who practice gratitude report lower levels of depression and stress and endorse more satisfaction with their relationships. The practice of keeping a gratitude journal requires us to consider our experiences beyond our default Negativity Bias. It allows us to feel the negative feelings while also making room for the positive ones we so easily miss or forget about. A gratitude journal doesn’t just help you see the positives that you would usually miss, it also trains your brain to notice positive experiences as they happen.
Finally, making room for the positive things that we experience along with the negative ones, also helps us to shift our internal narrative (a.k.a. that voice in your head) from a harmful one to a helpful one. It provides data points to consider when weighing the evidence on whether or not you truly are “not disciplined enough,” or “not deserving of your job,” or “not valuable.”
The practice of a gratitude journal seems simple on the surface, but many people fail to sustain it. The key to maintaining a gratitude journal and reaping its benefits is to keep it simple.
The takeaway is that we are more complex than Bobby McFerrin’s lovely song would have us believe. If we really want to change our thinking to improve our well-being, we need to face our worries and train our brains to truly see them in the full context of our experiences.