“The difference between children and adults is that they’re shorter – not dumber.” Mo Willems
Around the age of seven, I explained to my grandmother why negative thinking is better than positive.
“Oh, you’re wrong about that,” my grandmother said. “Why would you think something like that?!”
“Well, if I expect bad things to happen, I will not be as disappointed.” I retorted.
At the time, I thought this was a brilliant insight.
Over time, like most people, I would learn not to take advice from the 7 year old version of myself. After all, this was the same person who would cry dramatically after suffering a minor cut or scrape from a fall off his bike.
By any fair assessment – it should be noted that this childhood viewpoint is not incorrect.
Expecting bad things to happen does lead to less pain because the mind is primed for disappointment. Conversely, when low expectations are exceeded, more excitement is enjoyed, so there is upside to this negative thought pattern, as I indicated to my gram.
It turns out that despite being basically correct about this, my declaration was understandably immature and unwise. Anyone who has successfully lived into adulthood knows that being correct about something like this is actually only half of the story.
As we grow we learn that we must manage our response to adversity and external expectations. Emotional intelligence, maturity, and wisdom must be developed to properly frame thoughts like these into healthy patterns of thinking.
The Burden of Extrinsic Expectations
Many people struggle to cope with negative feelings, even as adults. When this happens, shortcuts such as addictive behavior, other forms of distraction, or negative thinking may fill the void.
As life unfolds, it becomes more clear why positive thinking is far preferable to negative thinking but distractions can misdirect focus onto matters of lesser importance. One source of this misdirection is the wishes of others, which can catalyze within ourselves subconsciously.
Extrinsic comparison is an evaluation of how individual circumstances compare to the perceived status of someone else. It can be a motivating force but it has a pernicious downside.
It’s the Psychology, Stupid
If someone placed shame upon you for where you are in life, you would likely react with a justified defensiveness. There may be reasons to impose someone else’s definition of success on yourself but it should be done consciously and only if you agree with their priorities.
Yet many people routinely talk to themselves the way a judgmental third party, or a bully would. How do you benchmark your performance? This focus needs to be directed 100% by you, not by anyone else.
Intentional focus fuels success best when it is directed constructively.
Defeat the Expectations of Others
In Norman Vincent Peale’s classic book The Power of Positive Thinking, he tells a story of a child who struggles in school. The mother solicits help from the author.
The child explains the mental block he feels after studying course material and attempting to commit it to memory. The boy explains that when he’s in school, he hopes the answer will come when called upon, but he is disappointed to find that it rarely does. This becomes a pattern.
He also says something crucial, “I know that my mother was a great scholar. I guess I just haven’t got it in me.”
A vicious cycle is unleashed. The author explains it like this:
“The negative thought pattern combined with the inferiority feeling stimulated by his mother’s attitude was of course overwhelming him. He froze up in his mind. His mother had never told him to go to school and study for the wonder and glory of learning knowledge.”
“(The mother) was not wise enough to encourage him to compete with himself rather than with others.”
With Whom are You Competing?
Thoughts pass through our brains constantly. The way we react to thoughts is what counts most. Here are a few examples of how extrinsic comparison and can seep into our thoughts, leading to a problematic subliminal influence.
☹️ “My younger sister is married and I’m already almost 35 years old. What is wrong with me!”
☹️ “My brother is a successful investment banker and I’m still selling shoes at Foot Locker!”
☹️ “All my friends have corporate jobs, I am still a waitress!”
☹️ “Wow, my fellow sales rep just landed a huge account. I have a bad target list so I might not make it in this job!”
No one is immune from thoughts like these but we must be aware of how they can influence patterns of thinking.
If your sister is married, that is her life. You are living yours. The same is true of your friends or loved ones who are further along in their careers. The sales rep who just landed a huge account is not a reflection of your abilities. Unless, well… you decide to make it this way.
This is all about proper mental framing. If negative toxicity or self-abusive dialogue gets into thinking patterns, outcomes will suffer – no matter who you are.
Use Lose Your Illusion
“I’ve worked too hard for my illusions just to throw them all away.” – ‘Locomotive‘ Guns N’ Roses
If you are a 34 year old woman who just went through a rough breakup, and you are picking out gifts and a bridesmaid dress to attend your sister’s wedding who is only 28, the thought is real. “What is wrong with me?”
A thorough assessment of objective circumstances would likely render this negative thought meritless. However it can be very difficult, even impossible to escape, especially if focusing on it intently is part of the path toward healing.
Feeding negative illusions with additional focus is certain to make a damaging thoughts like these as real as a disease – even if they are entirely fake. Misunderstandings, misrepresentations, fake events, or illusions tend to become real when given enough focus.
If you are an adult, you have traveled endless miles on your journey from the child version of yourself to your current state. Yet, the child still lives within all of us. Too often, we simply mask our feelings or talk negatively about ourselves in our thought patterns.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Intrinsically focused individuals are less susceptible to whichever way the wind blows. Those who leave themselves vulnerable to extrinsic expectations may find one day that they have left themselves behind.
We all craft our own version of reality, and it is somewhat scary to note that this is often guided subconsciously by the influence of others.
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