The messages we give to ourselves every day have enormous power. Anything that is repeated and repeated and repeated can become “truth” — even when it isn’t. Any coach will tell you that practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect but it certainly does make permanent.
Repeating negative messages can wear down our sense of self as surely as a constant stream of water will wear down even the hardest stone. Repeating positive messages, on the other hand, is more like creating a pearl in an oyster. With each additional positive message, our confidence and competence grows.
Positive psychologists have studied this extensively. As long ago as the 1950s, Abraham Maslow said that a self-actualized person is someone who focuses on her talents and strengths. Director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center Dr. Martin Seligman, who has been called the father of positive psychology, has found that when people identify and use their top strengths regularly, they can be more productive and can experience a high level of self-esteem. (If you’d like to identify your top strengths, you can take Dr. Seligman’s free quiz).
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has concluded that positivity helps “broaden our ideas about possible actions, opening our awareness to a wider range of thoughts and actions than is typical.”
What all this means on a practical level is that deciding to emphasize the positive is the key to a happy and productive life. Yes, deciding. Where we put our attention is a decision. It can seem like dark clouds cover every silver lining. But that silver lining is still there if we look for it.
Feeling good (or at least better) will not happen if we tell ourselves over and over that we are helpless and the situation is hopeless. To strengthen or improve our mental health, we all need to think the way mentally healthy people think: Shifting our focus from all that is wrong to whatever we can find that is good, positive and possible in ourselves, other people and in our situation is the key to thriving.
7 Things Mentally Healthy People Tell Themselves
- “I am a lovable.” No child is born who is not lovable. Look at any newborn. That button nose and those tiny fingers and toes are meant to engage adult’s protective and loving feelings. You were no different. The adults around you when you were small may have been too wounded, too ill or to overwhelmed to love you but that is on them. You were and are — just by the fact of your existence — a lovable person.
- “I am capable.” From the time they take their first breath, humans are wired to learn, to adapt, and to grow. You have been learning and growing every minute. You may not have been taught all you need to know to manage your feelings or to take care of yourself. You may have learned unusual behaviors or in order to survive. But you are never too old to learn new skills. Anything you’ve learned that is not helpful or healthy can be unlearned.
- “Most other people are lovable and capable, too.” It’s crucial not to let negative or painful experiences with a few negative or toxic individuals color our opinion of everyone. The majority of people in the world do mean well and are doing the best they can. Once we’re adults, we can choose who we want to surround ourselves with. We can seek out the people who are living lives that are decent, warm and contributing good to the world.
- “Success comes from doing.” It’s been proven over and over again by researchers: Feeling good comes from doing good things. Positive self-esteem is the outcome, not the prerequisite, for being successful in relationships, school, work, sports, hobbies — just about anything. We all have a choice whether we wait to feel better or we do the things that we know will help us become better.
- “Challenges are opportunities.” Life isn’t always easy or fair. How we meet challenges and obstacles is a choice. Healthy people find ways to engage with a problem and look for ways to solve it. They refuse to let their fears keep them from trying something new, even if it is difficult. Stretching ourselves outside of our comfort zones is what helps us grow. Mentally healthy people also recognize that sometimes the opportunity hidden inside a challenge is the opportunity to say “no.” Not all problems are worth solving. Not all problems can be “solved” as they are defined.
- “It is only human to make mistakes”: Mentally healthy people know that a mistake is not the reason to give up. It is an opportunity to learn and try again. Willingness to acknowledge and fix our errors is a mark of strength. Cultivating the courage to be imperfect is central to being willing to try again.
- “I have what it takes to cope with change — and to make changes.” Change is inevitable in life. Mentally healthy people believe in their ability to cope and to adapt to changes. They aren’t unrealistic. They don’t deny the seriousness of a problem. They do acknowledge when a situation is very difficult. They don’t criticize themselves for not wanting to deal with whatever it is they have to deal with. But they have a deep seated belief that if they do tackle the problem, they will eventually find a solution or a way around it.