Remember dopamine, your brain’s reward chemical? You are far more likely to make positive changes in your life, to be productive and effective and successful, if you do so with a positive, healthy frame of mind. Self-improvement is not about punishment, shame or deprivation. It’s not about hating or judging yourself into being better. There are two reasons to bring more compassion and positivity to the change process:
1. You’ll be more resilient to setbacks, obstacles and failure,
2. You’ll enjoy it more!
When you fail or mess up (notice that it’s when and not if), you will need to respond with self-compassion. Think of it this way: beating yourself up achieves precisely nothing and will not get you back on the wagon. What will get you back on the path is to gently forgive yourself, become curious about what happened and why, and then take intelligent action to do better next time. But the important first step is the compassion.
Instituting a new way of thinking won’t always go according to plan. You will have ups and downs, fabulous successes, and flat-out failures. The key is to keep moving forward whatever the situation is. It will be a journey, and you won’t always perform as you’d ideally like. That’s perfectly normal. It’s easy to get wrapped up in guilt, anger, or frustration, but these emotions will not improve self-discipline. In fact, they could make you feel so bad that you’re tempted to give up entirely. Instead, use the hiccups in your plan as learning experiences for the future. Forgive yourself, focus on the positive, and get back in the saddle ASAP. The longer you’re off your game, the harder it is to keep going in a positive direction.
A positive mindset is a resilient, flexible, living one. It’s what allows you to learn and evolve. It’s what makes it possible to face a challenge or setback square on and say, “Okay. That’s fine. What can I do now? What have I learned?”
How to Use This in Your Life Immediately
There are dozens of practical ways that you can start including more positivity and self-compassion in your life, today.
• Practice gratitude. Every day note a few things you’re thankful for, and dwell for a moment on everything that’s going right for you.
• Stay in the present. Often, negative thinking is all about the past or the future. Try to notice when you’re ruminating on what’s happened or worrying about what will happen, and gently bring your mind to the present instead. The present, after all, is where all the possibilities and opportunities lie!
• Surround yourself with positive people, and avoid chronic complainers, people who sap your energy or eternally apathetic or pessimistic people.
• Practice saying affirmations or inspirational to yourself. For example, “Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
• Look for the lesson. Mistakes are redeemed when we’re brave enough to learn from them and be better next time. Then, you may even welcome failure, since it becomes a teacher.
• Drop judgment for yourself. You’re not perfect, but you don’t have to be. Focus not on your achievements but on your attitude and state of mind. Commit to being compassionate with yourself regardless of outcome.
• Give yourself time every day to relax, reflect and meditate. Tune into your inner voice—and not the voice of others telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. Tell yourself that you always have value as a human being no matter your external achievements. What matters is not the setback but your response to it.
Mind Your Mood
We already know that your mood and your mindset can be powerful influencers over your actions. However, we do not need to be slaves to our shifting moods, or, as we already discovered, wait until we “feel like it.” Self-discipline is the act of doing what your conscious intention wants to do, rather than passively allowing the whims of your mood to dictate your actions. It’s a question of “mind over mood.”
You can judge any situation in two main ways:
• A logical criterion. The mind.
• An emotional criterion. The mood.
Self-discipline is the conscious decision to make a mindful, logical evaluation of the facts, and then to act accordingly, even if you don't feel like it. Lack of self-discipline is the unconscious decision to make an emotional evaluation of the facts, ignore logic, and then to respond in an emotional manner according to how you feel in the moment.
Emotions are incredibly valuable. They are a guidance system in their own right and add color and depth and meaning to life. But “mood” is much simpler than this, and less reliable. When you’re sitting in front of the TV and feel too lazy to get up, so you watch another episode rather than get up to clean the kitchen, that’s a mood. When you are faced with something good for you but you’re nervous, that’s a mood. When you’re cranky and fed up after a long day, that’s a mood. But you don’t have to allow any mood to determine what you do with your life. There’s nothing wrong with having moods, and psychologically healthy people experience a range of emotions. The trick is not to let your moods be the primary determinant of your behavior.
It's like this: we all feel scared, or lazy or angry or tired sometimes. It’s part of life. But we also possess the ability to be conscious of ourselves on another level. We can choose to zoom out and become aware of what we’re feeling and act deliberately toward goals we have rationally identified as good for us. This means that we can choose to override those moods. Like temptation, moods pass. But with self-discipline, commitment, and a long-term outlook, we remain steadfast and stable through it all. We achieve our goals, despite life’s ups and downs, despite the rise and fall of energy and motivation, despite setbacks or even tragedies. Because we are able to go into our logical minds and prioritize the actions we’ve committed to. This is very powerful.
How to Use This in Your Life Immediately
Firstly, getting a handle on moods does not mean squashing down emotions. But it does mean moving from a “hot” state to a “cool” one, where you are able to acknowledge what you’re feeling, understand that you are in fact simply experiencing a fleeting emotional sensation, and then make room for your calmer, more rational mind to step in and remind you of your larger, long-term goals.
It’s a question of lowering reactivity—i.e., learning to experience emotions and letting them pass without needing to react to them, or letting them dominate your actions. You don’t need to let your emotions drag you around—you can choose how you act regardless of how you feel.
You don’t need to become a soul-less robot; rather, become like a Zen monk who sees emerging shifts and changes in your inner emotional landscape, but without ever forgetting themselves or losing consciousness. Here are some ways to do just that:
1. Monitor yourself. When you’re in a mood, it can seem like that’s how you’ve always felt, but this is an illusion. Keep a journal where you track your changing moods so you can concretely see that moods will always shift. Your commitments and conviction, however, are more solid.
2. Notice what is making your moods worse or more volatile. As you track, notice if poor eating habits, stress or general ill health are exacerbating mood swings. Then use your rational mind to pre-empt, plan and strategize ways around that.
3. Finally, meditate. You don’t need to sit cross legged like that Zen monk, but spend time in gentle contemplation, relaxation, and turning within. The only way to master your emotions is to understand them and work with them.