Marina Daif, RP (Qualifying) #11207 is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and adults through relationships, anxiety, depression, addictions, grief & loss, self-esteem, self-criticism, and self-confidence issues. Learn more about Marina here.

The Power of Perception

The way we choose to see the world creates the world we see. There is power in this statement, and it can be empowering to hear and live by. In life, there are a lot of uncertainties and many things outside of our control, but there is comfort in knowing that we have control over our own perception of matters. We might feel hopeless or helpless when facing hardships, or when big unexpected changes that we did not account for occur in our lives. Negative experiences can really take a toll on us. It is normal to be negatively impacted by such experiences, and while negative thoughts and feelings are a normal and unavoidable part of being human, there is a difference between making space for them and becoming consumed by them. In other words, pain and suffering are inevitable, but it is possible to gracefully embrace the inevitable rather than allow it to pull us into an endless spiral of darkness.

When we become consumed by negative thoughts and feelings, they take the driver’s seat and run the course of our lives.

Once our brains become “wired” to think negatively by default, we start hyper-focusing on the negativity that occurs around us and even neutral situations get interpreted in a negative way. We also start taking things more personally and our self-esteem takes a punch. This downward spiral is maintained by our very powerful brains – not by the negative experiences we encounter.

For instance, recent research on hemodialysis patients suggests that a negative outlook on life contributes to depression, anxiety, and overall reduced quality of life in these patients, while a positive outlook can help them manage stress more effectively, experience increased self-efficacy, and experience a higher sense of happiness (Shokrpour et al., 2021).

All of these patients had the same diagnosis. Those who felt better still had the diagnosis by the end of the experiment, but what changed was their perception. Of course, the benefits of maintaining a positive outlook don’t stop at sick patients!

The moment we shift our focus towards our internal world is the moment everything around us starts to change, even when nothing around us is changing. That is, even when there is pain we can start to acknowledge the beauty that comes along with it. Acknowledging the beauty does not dismiss the pain and it does not make it disappear. Rather, it helps to buffer the impacts of the pain and allows us to tap into our potential to grow in all sorts of ways. On the other hand, when we keep our minds focused only on changing external factors, our perceived sense of control can decrease and our frustration, anxieties, and stress increase when things do not go our way. That is not to say that we cannot have control over any external factors. We can change and manipulate many external factors, but that still will not eliminate unforeseen challenges from arising. No matter what we do to change our environment for the better, things will not always happen the way we want them to. Assigning the external world responsibility for our mental well-being is like relying on an unstable foundation for our happiness and satisfaction. That is because life is not a predictable, straight-forward math equation. It is a complicated and ever-changing work of art. However, the empowering part is that you are the artist and your perception paints your life. It is all about how you react to the things that happen to you, and what you choose to do about it.

Change Your Self-Talk to Change Your Perception

Our internal world is regulated by our self-talk, which both reinforces and is reinforced by our beliefs, feelings, and behaviours. Our internal world is our guide in our everyday life, and our tendency to focus either on the positives or the negatives reflects what our internal world is defaulted to. Our default perception may either be positive or negative, depending on the kind of self-talk we engage in daily. That is, our self-talk over time shapes our perception.

So, how do we create a positive default for our internal world? By feeding it positive self-talk.

Just as our muscles need to be worked out and well nourished to grow, so does our “positivity muscle”

If you are someone with a negative default, the good news is that can change. It may initially feel foreign for you to practice positive self-talk, which includes speaking to yourself or thinking about yourself with more compassion and less judgment. With more encouragement and less criticism. Just as with learning and mastering any new skill, it takes time and practice. A muscle does not get stronger after one workout. It requires consistency and maintenance. Training your “positivity muscle” works the same way. The more positive your self-talk is, the more positive your perception will become overall, even towards others and the world around you.

For example, let’s say that there is a particular unhealthy habit that you want to overcome. You create a practical plan for yourself to help you achieve your goal, but following through with this plan proves to be difficult over time. You initially manage to abstain only to give in to the habit after a couple of weeks. Your self-talk at this point becomes crucial.

If you punish yourself for giving in and start telling yourself that “you are not capable enough” or that “you might as well give up because it is clearly too difficult to achieve,” then your behaviours will likely reflect those thoughts.

Negative reinforcement will reduce your motivation to keep going because you are essentially giving yourself the message that you do not believe in yourself. On the other hand, if you meet yourself with more understanding and compassion by reminding yourself that “trial and error is part of the process,” you give yourself the message that you are not giving up. When you believe in someone, you cheer them on and give them “pep talks” when they falter. Similarly, engaging in positive self-talk in response to a personal drawback is key to ensuring you get back on the wagon.

This does not suggest that changing the default of your internal world to a positive one will make you immune from pain or from negative thoughts and feelings. However, an overall positive perception can help to buffer the negative impacts that obstacles and hardships can have and it can help you manage your negative thoughts and feelings more constructively. When you have the mindset that negative outcomes are sometimes inevitable but that they do not have to define your life, you evaluate these outcomes more productively and flexibly.

Mental Flexibility

Mental flexibility is defined as our willingness to adapt and shift the way we think in order to respond to situations in less rigid ways. The more mentally flexible we are, the more room we give ourselves to reflect, learn, and grow. The external world may be throwing all kinds of obstacles our way. Mental flexibility allows us to deal with those obstacles more effectively rather than view them as hopeless catastrophes.

Mental flexibility gives us room to believe in ourselves and our capabilities in response to stressful situations in our external world. Contrarily, mental inflexibility puts us in a state of helplessness, panic, and depression.

For example, imagine that you failed a test in an important subject. If you have a high level of mental flexibility, you will be able to analyze your failure through a constructive lens by taking note of where you went wrong and creating a plan to help you perform better on the next test. Do you need to make adjustments in the way that you study? Do you need extra support or guidance on the subject matter? You may tell yourself that while failing does not feel good, it is sometimes an inevitable part of learning. With mental flexibility, you can consider all the different variables that have contributed to your failure on the test and make appropriate changes where needed to increase your likelihood of passing the next test. Most importantly, mental flexibility allows you to acknowledge that a failure is not the end of the world.

A Final Word…

Our internal world can liberate us or it can imprison us. When our internal world is primarily composed of hope, compassion, forgiveness, and resilience, we free our minds from self-imposed constraints. In turn, this allows us to meet life’s challenges with confidence and grit. But when our internal world is primarily filled with hopelessness, sadness, anger, resentment, and fear, we become controlled by perceived barriers and limitations.

Marina Daif, RP (Qualifying) #11207 is a Registered Psychotherapist (Qualifying) at MyLife Counselling in Guelph. She works with couples and adults through relationships, anxiety, depression, addictions, grief & loss, self-esteem, self-criticism, and self-confidence issues. Learn more about Marina here.

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