When I see a new client, one of the questions I ask is: “If we were to work together for a period of time, how would you be different at the end?” or “What are you hoping to get from therapy?” Invariably, the answer is: “I want to be happy.” In terms of its intent, happiness is not universal, it is specific to each individual. In order for me to truly understand what that means to the client, my next question is always: “What is happiness to you?”
Often, the client is unable to answer this key question. Other times, the client talks about happiness in terms of external things outside of their control. For example, get a better job, lose some weight, get a boyfriend, stop fighting with my husband, get a new car, have more money, etc. There is nothing wrong with wanting or wishing for these things in your life, but ultimately, happiness comes from within. Happiness is a state of being and you have a choice to be happy or not.
Is This Your Typical Day?
You wake up having hardly slept and wonder how could it be possible that the alarm is already buzzing as you feel you just finally fell asleep. Then you stub your toe or you step in your cat’s puke on the way to the bathroom. Cursing as you clean it up, you notice the coffee didn’t start and you’re out of milk. You check your phone and realize you have several work messages and your morning meeting has been pushed up an hour. Hurriedly you rush to get dressed, worrying that you’re going to get fired if you’re late again. While brushing your teeth and putting on your makeup, your negative thoughts start to run in a loop: “You look awful. Look at those bags under your eyes. God, is that another new wrinkle. Shit, is that a grey hair. I shouldn’t have eaten that pizza last night, I’m so fat. It’s no wonder nobody loves me.” Then you rush out of the house and race to the bus stop only to see the bus fly past you. Finally, sitting on a bus, you peruse the news and think the world has gone insane. You look through all your social media and get upset when no one likes your posts. You get a message from a prospective boyfriend, who is cancelling your date as he’s moving out of town; proving your earlier thought that you aren’t lovable. You finally get to work and your boss yells at you for being late. You trudged through piles of never ending work feeling exhausted, depleted, and unfulfilled. Your friends ask you to come out for drinks, but instead you choose to stay late at work and try and catch up. You eventually go home, barely eat anything, and fall asleep on the couch in your work clothes. You wake up at 2:00 am confused and drag yourself to bed. Then wake up by the alarm to do something similar all over again.
Sound familiar? Maybe not quite this exact scenario, but you can relate. You feel like you’ve lost your compass and your identity. It may feel like life is just a series of meaningless days and you feel hopeless and unhappy. But this doesn’t need to be the case. So, how do you get to happy? You need to change your mindset. What is mindset? According to the dictionary, mindset is an attitude, disposition, mood, intention, or inclination. In next week’s article, I’ll go through some things that can support you to start changing your mindset, but first let’s finish with some insight about how the brain works in relation to negative thinking.
Our Brains Tend to the Negative
Like it or not, our brains are hardwired to think negatively. The right hemisphere is where we access most of our negative emotions. It is closely linked to the amygdala, where the fight or flight response is housed. It is important to note that the amygdala can’t decipher between a real or perceived threat. Negative emotions are also more primitive than positive emotions due to the fight or flight response in the body and can override positive emotions when there is a perceived threat.
As such, missing the bus can be seen as a threat to life because you may lose your job if you are late. And if you lose your job, then you might not be able to pay for food, and you might get kicked out of your home. Your very survival is at stake even though you just missed the bus. And your body responds accordingly: increased heart rate, shortness of breath, increased blood pressure, release of adrenaline and cortisol. All adding to increased stress and a feeling of impending doom.
Ultimately, our right hemisphere and the amygdala dominate our perceived experiences. As such, you will never truly be able to rid yourself of your negative thinking. However, you can start to ingrain positive thinking over top of the negative thinking in order to squash it down and to have less negative chatter in your head.
Thinking negatively is not your fault. It’s how our brains developed as a means of survival. You are not alone, we all have this to some extent in our lives. Take the time this week to start noticing your negative thinking and how it is impacting your life.
In Part 2 of this article, I give you some ideas about how to change your mindset and increase your positive thinking, which will ultimately lead to increased happiness.
Need some support to deal with your negative thinking? Contact me to set up an appointment. Have more questions? Call me at 403-891-1384 to set up a free 15-minute phone consultation.