I struggled with a problem many people have: depression. It manifested itself in negative thinking about myself. Please understand, you don't have to be depressed to think negative thoughts; but negative thoughts often create a depressed person.
My dad died when I was getting started in my life and career. My family was beginning to grow. Thus, at the age of thirty-three, I buried my father: probably one of the most traumatic events I had ever experienced up to that moment in my life. And I include spending a year in combat in Vietnam.
I spent the next 10 years struggling, trying to figure out why I was having negative thoughts about my life, my career, and myself. I pondered over thoughts like: "Why am I having these struggles?" "Why am I negative in all of my thinking?" "Why am I so unhappy when my life is so great?"
Finally, my wife insisted that I talk to my doctor about the way I was acting. That resulted in a low-dose, anti-depression medication. The medicine calmed me down, but the negative thinking continued. What I learned during a year of counseling helped to turn my life around. I became so positive in my outlook that after turning seventy years of age and retirement, I started a whole new career.
I'd like to share with you some of the insights that I have gained that might help you. I believe that if you will incorporate these simple suggestions, you can be a positive influence to yourself and perhaps even an influence on people around you.
First of all, don't hold your problems inside.
I heard a wonderful illustration many years ago that I think will help illustrate what I mean. It seems that when trash compactors were first developed, the instructions said that you have to be careful about trash compactors. They need to be emptied at least once a week because if you let them go for several weeks, even a month, what happens is that the trash keeps getting pushing down to the bottom. Eventually the garbage turns into gaseous materials that could explode under the pressures.
I think that happens to us emotionally. Have you ever said something to somebody that you knew well, and then they just got so angry at you and just started blurting all kinds of negative things. And you go, "Whoa, wait a minute. What did I say?" It wasn't anything that you said. It seems that you just simply lit a small match to something that had already been stewing and grinding and festering down inside of them.
In order to avoid this happening to you, take time to talk to a friend, a mental health professional. Or a counselor. As I mentioned earlier, I spent a little over one year with a counselor. He helped me to realize that I was spending too much time trying deal with the pain I felt from losing my dad. Understand that this was my problem: I needed to get over it and move on. And he helped me to recognize that what I was spending my last ten years of my life trying to do was to please my father who was already dead.
You can talk to a friend, but, I would say, spend time with people you trust. You know they're not going to go blabbing it out [laughter] to everybody around. Just talk it out. Don't hold things in. Let it go before it festers. Recognize your shortcomings.
Second, take time to express gratitude to other people.
That sounds so silly to a lot of people. What do I mean by this? Just thank people. Tell people how much you appreciate them. Several years ago, Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, did a major study on the architecture of emotions. In this multi-year study, he discovered that “… our brains have a built-in negative bias." In other words, the brain looks for negative things to take care of to help us to defend our own selves. It's constantly looking for the bad things that we need to change.
In the report of the study he said, "We need to work a little extra hard to, actually, overcome this problem because most people have a negative tendency in their thinking." So I say, start by speaking gratitude to other people. Express your appreciation. Look for the good in people around you. As you continue telling other people how nice they are, or how kind they are, or how polite they are … Well, perhaps your brain will start applying those same thoughts to yourself. You might start seeing the good things in yourself and maybe start believing that you’re not as bad as you thought you were. Speaking gratitude, speaking good, speaking positive, eventually, your brain will catch up with that and actually start thinking, "Wait a minute, maybe I'm pretty good myself."
Well, those are just two small suggestions. I'm not here to offer you a big, broad understanding, but to share two little things that you can do. So I challenge you, make a commitment today to be just a little bit more positive in everything that you do. Think about how you’re talking to other people and, of course, how are you talking to yourself. Remember, your thoughts are what actually control your emotions. They really do. Change your thoughts, you'll change the way you feel. And as I kept telling my college students for so many years, you are either a person in control of yourself or your that person everybody talks about as being out of control. Don’t be “that person.” Make a commitment to start building a positive attitude within yourself today. Your future self will thank you ten years from now.