By Wendy J. Meyeroff
If anyone had a reason to let life defeat her, it was Leigh Valentine. “My multi-millionaire husband not only divorced me, he made sure I didn’t have a penny to support myself or our son.” Yet within seven years, Leigh had a skin care company worth $250 million.
There’s no doubt that hard work helped Leigh, as did her strong faith. But she also had another tool that works for everyone, whatever their beliefs. “I believe words have power. You can create the environment you live in with your words. I stopped beating myself up for my failures.” Instead, says Ms. Valentine, author of Successfully You, ‘I started saying to myself every morning: ‘I’m an achiever, an overcomer.’” And she became one.
Negativism vs. Success
It’s long been accepted that negative thoughts have a significant impact on our physical health, causing problems like heart attack, insomnia, and high blood pressure. But many women still don’t recognize the destructive impact negativism has on their being able to succeed.
“Negative thinking takes a lot of energy. It’s draining,” says David Eigen, Ph.D., a psychologist who has offered life changing advice to national audiences. And if you’re exhausted or unwell, how can you work constructively towards your goals?
“Most people are running around 24/7 meeting demands from others. No human being could truly accomplish it all. So one of your most important tasks is to set priorities,” says Kathryn Cramer, Ph.D., founder of The Cramer Institute in St. Louis, MO, whose latest book is Change the Way You See Yourself through Asset-Based Thinking .
Here’s how Cramer defines succeeding: “Success isn’t pie-eyed optimism. It’s being able to work with what’s happening, using it to feel challenged and stretched—but not stressed.”
“I tell people that success is a happy ending, bringing something to fruition each day. It may be simply getting yourself down to the DMV and getting that out of your way,” says Tim Storey, a nationally known author, speaker, and life coach based in Los Angeles.
Failure: Your Unexpected Asset
Imagine being happy after being confronted by more than 5,000 failures! But that’s the attitude James Dyson took while developing his highly successful Dyson bagless vacuum. Listen to how he describes the way he succeeded:
“I thought it would take me about six months. In fact it took me four and a half years and I built 5,127 prototypes until I got it right. That sounds tedious. In fact it was absolutely fascinating. The 5,126 failures taught me so much. Successes teach you nothing. Failures teach you everything. Making mistakes is the most important thing you can do.”
“You get lessons from failures, aches, and pains. You may regret something, but you learn from it,” says Cramer.
Small First Steps
“Honesty is critical to success. Stop pretending that something doesn’t bother you or upset you; instead acknowledge it so you can move forward,” Eigen says. Then take small steps towards your goal.
Marie Shear found a “small step” that empowered her. Marie is an editor and writer in Brooklyn, NY who never knows when she’ll encounter an annoying client. “I used to work for a company whose president was always looking for an angle over everyone else. I realized that I needed to appear confident in his presence, although I felt anything but. It was like not letting a wild animal smell your fear,” she says. Eventually Marie found she could not only deal with this person, but she says “After faking external confidence for a while, I found that it had seeped inward. It had become real!”
Examine your motives. “Do you want to lose 10 pounds to fit into one particular outfit? If so, what’s so important about that outfit? Every time you ask another question, you delve deeper into your motives,” says Lauree Ostrofsky, CPC, a certified life coach based in Manhattan. You’re more likely to succeed if your motives for something (like losing those 10 pounds) are truly important, like helping your blood pressure, versus something more shallow, like outshining an office rival at the holiday party.
Cramer encourages people to focus on “mighty causes,” but not to thedegree that it is overwhelming. “Your mighty cause might be saving the environment, but what you can do personally may simply be using a canvas bag for grocery shopping,” she says.
Tools For Getting Started
Ostrowsky suggests drawing a “mind-map.” “At the center in a circle is your goal ‑ like losing those 10 pounds ‑ with protruding spokes each labeled with reasons, desire, even obstacle, related to losing those 10 pounds. For example, ‘Lower my blood pressure’ or ‘I don’t want to give up ice cream.’ I urge clients to go through all these viewpoints, identify the ones that lift their spirits, and focus on those,” she says.
One way to escape feeling overwhelmed on your road to success is using what Cramer calls the “just enough” exercise: “Say to yourself, ‘I have just enough ____ (time, energy, money, patience, etc.) to ____’ and then fill in the blanks.” Aiming for your four-year degree might be overwhelming, so instead say: “I have just enough time (and/or money) to take one class at the community college this semester.” You’re more likely to succeed in this first step, which will encourage you to move on to the next towards your overall goal.
“Often times people come up with ideas or goals, but they never implement them. I have people develop a ‘success contract’ or what I call ‘a contract for utmost living ,’” Storey says. It consists of promises you make to yourself, which you sign in front of witnesses. Storey says sharing your plans for success with others is crucial. “You need to have accountability partners who will encourage you to implement and execute the plan,” he says. “Just remember, these people should only be motivators. They can’t do the work for you.”
Beyond Simple Steps
“It’s easier to fall into negativity, but you can learn to focus on your strong points, what I call ‘asset-based thinking’ (ABT),” says Cramer. “The ABT thinker doesn’t see the glass as half empty or full, but focuses on what’s in the water. This is the person who can turn the negatives into the best problem they’ve ever had,” she says.
“Believe your happiness is in your control, it’s not based on outside forces. We’ve discovered circumstances only account for at most 10% of any obstacles to achieving happiness and success,” says Marc Shulman, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist at both the VA Connecticut Healthcare System and Yale.
Maybe right now you’re stuck with a really rotten boss. “There are always going to be the irritants and wet blankets. You can’t avoid all of them but you can say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to let this ruin my life,’” Shulman says. Also remember, Cramer says, “Almost everyone, even folks we don’t like, have something we admire in them.” Focus on that and try to use it to move yourself forward.
Shulman advocates (and practices) a new genre of psychology called Positive Psychology. “Positive Psychology examined all cultures around the world and identified 24 characteristics universal to people always cited as being strong or otherwise admirable,” he says. Instead of focusing on and treating negatives like depression, Positive Psychology helps you identify these strengths in yourself.
Consider an outside coach. “It takes a lot of research because there’s no accrediting body for all motivational speakers and life coaches, but one group to try is the International Coaching Federation.” Shulman says.
If you can’t find an expert in Positive Psychology, try taking the University of Pennsylvania’s “Authentic Happiness” test online at https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/register.aspx “It will show you your top five signature strengths and compare you to other people.” Shulman says.
Be warned: that online test takes 45 minutes. Ultimately that’s something you have to accept about moving towards successful thoughts: it takes time. “It isn’t a 1-2-3 thing. You have to recognize there are easy strategies to use day-to-day, but to truly incorporate this mindset into yourself requires a tremendous commitment to change,” Shulman concludes.
Wendy Meyeroff is a nationally published health writer and president of WM Medical Communications.