When telling people to “choose your thoughts” is really dumb advice

Thanks to a further understanding of neuroscience, “choose your thoughts” is generally pretty good advice. It works on the basis that our thoughts become wiring in our brains so we want to make sure that our thoughts are aligned with the wiring we want to create.

This is simple if you understand neuroscience, not so simple when you don’t.

We recently started working with a client who is in a bit of a downward negative spiral. Things had mostly gone her way in life, until they didn’t. I’m sure we can probably all relate to that if we look back on certain times in our lives.

When you are in a reasonable state of mental health and resilience it’s not really that hard to choose to look at a situation more positively. In these times you can choose your thoughts relatively easily, and it’s definitely good advice to do so.

So when is it dumb advice?

Unfortunately, saying to someone in a negative spiral “just choose your thoughts and you’ll feel happier” is like saying to a couch potato “just go out and run a marathon – that will get you fitter.” You can’t just go from being really inactive to miraculously running 42.2km. Same as you can’t go from being wired for negativity to all of a sudden seeing the good side of everything.

When someone is already very negative it’s really hard for them to just choose different thoughts, so we need to get training and start with small steps. Just the same way as we might get the couch potato to try to walk 1km and see how we go from there.

Your brain is like a muscle – so train it like one.

The easiest way to explain how to build better wiring in your brain is to think of your brain like a muscle. And as with training all muscles, imbalances can occur if you don’t have good technique.

For example, the stronger you train your brain to be negative, the stronger your “negativity muscles” get. So the flip side is this basically means that your “positivity muscles” get relatively underutilised, which naturally leads to a downward spiral.

Now we don’t naturally wake up wanting to be glass half full – our brains are actually wired to protect us – rather than being wired to be super positive to do amazing things. So if your “negative muscle” is quite strong – it’s ok – many people have the same issue.

An easy way to start “positivity training”

So again – let’s start training like we would an underactive muscle. For example, if someone runs and their glutes don’t fire properly, their other muscles such as quads and hamstrings get really strong. All while the glutes don’t. This can lead to knee alignment issues which is generally why so many people in their 40s “used to run and now they cycle”. Many had undiagnosed underactive glutes.

So once a runner knows they have underactive glutes, there is no point just going out for a run and expecting them to miraculously fire up. Instead you need to do isolated exercises which just strengthen the glutes so that they can compete with the other muscles when running.

It’s the same for your mindset, if your negativity muscles are stronger you need to isolate your positivity muscles to get them stronger. And luckily neuroscience tells us that it’s actually impossible to have a negative thought while you are having a positive one.

So the best way to get started is to consciously take time each day to write down at least 3 things that have gone well that day or that you are grateful for. Martin Seligman (positive psychologist) calls this the “what went well” exercise. We call it the #crushinglife exercise – what were the best things that happened today? And it doesn’t matter how small or stupid they sound. You don’t have to start by being too profound, just small and silly positive thoughts totally count.

Try it every day for a few weeks and see if that positive wiring in your brain starts to get a little stronger. Go on……try it!

And of course this is how we start to build resilience so that we have a strong resilience muscle for when we need it.

Once your positivity muscle gets stronger…

You can then start being a bit more positive in how you look at more profound things. But you need to get that muscle to a certain strength first.

So when you are dealing with severe negativity please don’t say to someone “just choose your thoughts to be more positive.” It’s just a step too far for some. The good news is that they will get there with the right coaching.

Of course if you or someone you know or work with is having a problem with negativity, please do get in touch.


If you’d like to find out more, join the conversation in our next open workshop.