Steel Magnolias is a classic chick-flick with all star cast, including Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and my personal favourite, Shirley MacLaine as Ouiser.

It’s a story about the bond between a bunch of women, who on the surface appear to be as delicate as magnolias, but are in fact as tough as steel.  It’s filled with humour and snappy comebacks, and among the many famous quotes is Ouiser’s statement  “I’m not crazy, I’ve just been in a very bad mood 40 years!”

We all know people like that. Maybe we’re one of them.

Where does such a personality come from?  Evidence suggests that it’s a combination of disposition and characteristic thinking patterns, or ways of interpreting the world.  While we may have little control over the former, we can do a lot about the latter.

At first glance, negative thinking can seem pretty benign, prudent even (no point in setting yourself up for disappointment, after all), but over time, it can coalesce into the emotional centre for our existence.  Moods can be habit forming, as John Arden points out in Rewire Your Brain.  He identifies specific negative thinking patterns that can morph, first into negative moods, and then solidify into depression:

  • Polarized thinking – black & white, all or nothing, good or bad
  • Overgeneralization – one setback leads to conclusions about your entire life
  • Personalization – it’s all you, all the time
  • Mind reading – negatively assuming you know what others are thinking
  • Rigid Shoulds & Should Nots – “rules” that provide little or no flexibility
  • Catastrophizing – seeing any event as a sign of a major catastrophe on the way
  • Emotional reasoning – making conclusions based on how you feel, without consulting the facts or a different perspective
  • Pessimism – a close cousin of catastrophizing, where every event has a negative outcome

Negative thinkers make everything smaller. They limit, constrict, and control, until their worlds become half an inch wide.  Just being around them makes you tired. It can feel like walking through cement with a plastic bag over your head.

How do we counterbalance this tendency?  By engaging in thinking patterns that allow us to work with possibilities rather than limitations.

  • Shades of Grey – consider all possibilities between the two extremes. Ask “what else is possible?”
  • Check the context – be open to adjusting your perceptions rather than clinging to preconceived notions or conclusions
  • Optimism –view situations as opportunities.  Like the story of two shoe salesmen going to Africa in the early 1900s.  One said “situation hopeless, they don’t even wear shoes. “ The other said “glorious opportunity – they don’t have any shoes!”
  • Detachment –disconnect from repetitive negative beliefs
  • Externalize problems – a setback is just a setback, not as a statement of your self-worth
  • Self-awareness – of strengths & weaknesses and most importantly, your reach – be aware of your effect on others

We all have the potential to engage in either negative or positive thinking patterns, and regrettably, our factory-installed setting is all too often toward negative thinking.  It takes effort to shift our perceptions, but over time, it gets easier and easier.  We can actually rewire our brains to favour the positive track.

Moderation in all things, though, including moderation.   There are times when it’s perfectly appropriate to engage in cautious, even negative thinking. When preparing our tax return, for example.  An excess of optimism can lead us to overlook some very important facts.

But on balance, optimism has a lot of advantages as a default setting. It gives us durability and resilience, and is fundamental to our mental health.  People who engage in optimistic thinking bounce back from setbacks, are better able to attain their goals and are open to the world along the way.  Their lives are fuller, richer and they’re just a heck of a lot nicer to be around.





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