When life sucks, it’s hard to be around perpetually perky people. My college room mate had unrelenting positivity and I frequently responded with sharp-tongued barbs intended to wilt her enthusiasm. It never did though — no matter what obstacle or barrier I presented, she found a way around it.
As I growled and sniped, however, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the way she always came out on top of the situation. I’m an over-achiever so this was irritating to me — but it turned out to be a game-changer.
As I moved into the real world after graduating from college, the obstacles and barriers popping up in my life seemed to take on new, gigantic proportions. The sarcasm and negativity that had seemed clever in the old days no longer seemed so witty.
When I applied to the FBI as a new agent, I quickly discovered that, while no one could be called perky, most agents could be described as possessing unrelenting positivity. Even when life sucks, a case looks hopeless, or a barrier appears insurmountable, there are differences between agents who just survive and those who thrive in their circumstances.
The game-changer for me came when I finally understood that mental toughness is unrelenting positivity in the midst of uncertainty and risk. The strong-minded know how to look for the positive when life sucks. Follow these tips:
1. Swap out one emotion for another
We’ve all heard that our well-being is increased when we turn our thoughts to gratitude. But gratitude is more than a platitude. It’s impossible to be negative and grateful at the same time.
A recent study brings us closer to understanding how gratitude can affect the way our brain works. Participants were asked to write simple, short notes of gratitude to other people for three weeks. An MRI scan measured the brain of the participants and found they showed greater neural sensitivity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning, judgment, and decision making.
When we feel that life sucks, it’s important to find things for which we can be grateful. We may need to force ourselves at first but our heart will soon catch up to what the brain already knows.
How To Make It Work For You: When you express gratitude, it has lasting effects on the brain. The study suggests that even months after a simple, short gratitude writing task, people’s brains were still wired to feel extra thankful. The implication is that gratitude has a self-perpetuating nature: The more you practice it, the more attuned you are to it.
2. Focus on what’s next
Arrests are a mix of organized chaos. As much as an FBI agent prepares for an arrest, there is always the element of the unknown. Would the suspect shoot, grab a hostage, or go berserk? Unintended consequences to an arrest that goes bad immediately escalate from a when life sucks moment into a when the shit hits the fan moment. It does no good to moan or complain when life takes an unexpected turn of events.
Questions like, “Why me?” only weaken our mindset. When we blame others or make excuses for ourselves, we become victims. As a result, we often feel that we don’t have the strength to deal with our situation.
How To Make It Work For You: When you focus on your next steps, you empower yourself to organize your thoughts so you can plan what to do. If you can’t change your situation, plan next steps on how to mitigate the blowback for a better outcome.
3. Learn from your setbacks
Many people I know do their best to avoid setbacks and obstacles. They don’t want to surround themselves with anything negative. What these precious petunias refuse to acknowledge is that life is hard and pain is inevitable, but growth is optional.
If you run away from conflict and mistakes in life, you will die an ignorant person because you didn’t take the time to examine your life. The key is to learn from your mistakes so you don’t make the same ones over and over again.
How To Make It Work For You: As long as we learn, we grow. Before you move on from a difficult situation, ask yourself:
- What is one thing I can learn from this experience?
- How can I avoid this trap next time?
4. Sweat the small stuff
It’s a temptation to spend 80% of our time on the negative of our situation and only 20% looking for solutions. Switch those numbers around.
Your emotional, survival-driven brain will feel safer if you take the time to chart your plan or new reality with small and positive steps. With each success, you will train your brain to feel more comfortable with taking more, and eventually, bigger steps toward your new reality.
Be aware that most of us automatically look at change as a negative experience. As a result, you tend to look at your new situation as permanent, pervasive, and personal. Once you realize this negativity bias, you strengthen your mind to accept your new direction with a more positive attitude.
How To Make It Work For You: Spend more of your time on the small and practical steps you can take to make things better. Even if things get better a little at a time, you’ve still moved in the right direction. Each step will make you feel more confident and in control of your situation.