The undeniable power of negative thinking

You might be thinking everyone at BB is holding hands, singing Kumbaya. That we live in a blissful state of perfection because we have found the magic elixir of self-help. The reality is that we too are on a journey. We are also riding the metaphorical wave, like everyone else. Sure, we ride it better than we did in the past. Instead of 6s, we're getting 8s with the occasional 9.3 thrown in. Self-improvement is a journey, not a destination. We aren't going to pretend we're Mick Fanning anytime soon though! One big lesson we've learned along the way is the power that lies in negative thinking. Yes, you read that right; negative thinking. A lot of people will tell you that you have to see the world through rose-tinted glasses all the time. Those people are full of it. They're setting themselves up to fail because they aren't dealing with a real emotional response. They also fail to take advantage of the full power of the Sword of Damocles.

The power of negative thinking is in its ability to motivate - so long as you are wielding the stick. If you don't harness it and use it to drive action, negative thinking is a drain on your time and energy.

So negative is positive?

Not exactly.

Critical thought is empowering as it lets you use factors that you relate to as a way to motivate you. It also helps you to preempt obstacles and plan your progress accordingly.

It's hard to say no to that tasty cupcake, even when you think of how good you will feel in 8 weeks at your sexy new weight. But it is easy to avoid the cupcake knowing your trainer will kick your arse or make you feel guilty at next weigh-in. Or because you're embarrassed that you can't button up that awesome shirt you love.

That's the power of negative thinking!

Let's put it another way. You could work hard for that elusive bonus. Or you could work extra hard because you're shit scared about getting fired. In the end, you work hard and do a good job, but the latter can be as motivating as the former.

Studies have shown that visualising a goal actually makes it harder for to achieve it. We tend to “live out” the completion of the aim in the dream itself, and that makes it harder to do the necessary work to make it happen. Ever been so tired by going over and over something in your head that you lose interest in it? Your conscious and unconscious minds are powerful things and they can set you up to fail.

In Adam Grant's book “Originals: How non-conformists change the world” he outlines recent studies dealing with strategic optimists and defensive pessimists. He concludes that each has a role to play in organisations completing goals.

Grant goes in-depth on the work of psychologists Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor, which concluded that while pessimists were more anxious and set lower expectations for themselves, they performed better than the optimists. Some people are simply more negative than positive. A key point he makes to the glass-half-full people is to not force your glass-half-empty mate to think like you. Grant argues that we need the glass to be both half full and half empty. There is power in both positions if we are smart in how we use it.

The obstacle is....

Realising obstacles will come (and preparing to deal with them) is constructive. Part of dealing with an obstacle is to be clear about it, not to pretend it doesn't exist. If you are going to use obstacles to further your agenda, you have to know what you are up against first. Pretending that everything will be smooth sailing leaves you inflexible and unprepared. In stoic thought, it's called “the premeditation of evils”. Visualising the worst possible scenario is empowering and helps to limit anxiety.

Arguably, Buddhist thought is predicated on trying to deal with the destructive power of positive thinking. Mastering your emotions doesn't mean everything has to be positive.

Personally, in Jiu-Jitsu, overtly positive thinking can lead to poor results. I tend to do my personal bests on the days I least want to train. When I compete, I tend to do better when I haven't spent hours in mentally-draining thought about how I will win. I do better by taking the task as it comes. When I've made a big deal about something, I spend so much time trying to make it live up to the expectation, that I perform poorly. It's interesting that even positive thinking can have a detrimental effect.

The takeaway

So, switch your brain off and don't think at all? No.

The takeaway is that emotions are complicated. Trying to sugar coat them doesn't lead to a good outcome. If you're a constructive pessimist, go ahead and use your powers for good. But know that there are times when positive thought will be powerful as well - such as at the start of a task. If you're an optimist, it pays to be reflective and see the possible obstacles. You can deal with them and move on.