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The Power of the Positive Brain

Need to resolve a crisis? Start by asking the right questions.

The Chicago Cubs' recent World Series win enables me to share this apt illustration:

A few years back, during a rare season when the Cubs succeeded in winning their division championship, there was a time when one of the team's leading hitters was in a slump. Manager Jim Frey spotted the hitter in the clubhouse one day. The player, with hopes of improving his performance, was watching films of himself up at bat. You can probably guess which tapes he chose to watch—the times when he was in the slump, when he was striking out and generally doing everything but what he wanted.

He, of course, was trying to find out what he was doing wrong so he could correct his mistake. He probably subscribed to the “What is the cause of the problem?” question. But you can imagine what he was learning by watching these films: He was learning in greater and greater detail how to be a slumping batter. (Walter and Peller, Becoming Solution-Focused in Brief Therapy)

Now, from the outside looking in, it’s easy to see where this player went wrong, right? Let’s turn this illustration into a mirror and change the context from baseball to your life.

Doing Everything but What You Want

When you’re feeling insecure in a relationship, or struggling in school, or you’re not living up to your potential at work, what do you do? What negative “movie” do you replay over and over in your mind? Or, as my book asks, what stories do you tell yourself about yourself?

After working with clients for more than 15 years, I know firsthand how devastating an enemy a negative narrator can be to our self-belief. We can be our own worst critic, and this tends to hold especially true in the areas of our lives that define us.

We all fight a negative narrator in our mind who constantly reminds us:

  • “You can’t achieve that.”
  • “You’re not going to do well.”
  • “Why should you even try?”
  • “No one wants to hear from you.”
  • “You’re worthless.”

Our negative narrators get stuck in a repeating loop in the movie theater of our mind. You may often play back the most negative, damning experiences of your life—this tactic only contributes to you feeling worse.

When you constantly remind yourself how you’ve repeatedly swung and missed, you’re setting yourself up to keep making the same mistakes. After all, you’ve visualized it so often that you're prepared to fail when the next similar opportunity presents itself. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Power of the Positive Brain

The story about the Cubs hitter ends with the manager suggesting a simple change that results in a monumental shift in the player’s thinking:

[Frey] joined his hitter and complimented him on his dedication to the game and on attempting to improve himself. Jim then made one suggestion to the hitter—that he go back to the film room, find films from when he was really hitting the ball, and then watch those films instead. (Walter and Peller, Becoming Solution-Focused in Brief Therapy)

Now consider your relationships and experiences in this same light:

  • What have you done well lately in your relationship?
  • Where have you shined in school?
  • What was your most recent accomplishment at work?

To help my married-clients-in-crisis begin thinking about themselves in such a positive manner, I ask two specific questions, one that’s meant for each individual and one meant for the couple:

  1. What do you see as your personal strengths in your marriage?
  2. What do you see as your strong points as a couple?

I use these kinds of questions on my boys, too, so that they won’t always focus on what they can’t accomplish, but rather on what they can achieve. For instance, when the busyness of the day is over and they’re getting ready for bed, I use that captive time to ask them, “What do you think is your greatest strength?” Then I ask each of my sons what they think their brother’s greatest strength is. Then I tell them what I think their greatest strength is. With this kind of positive repetition (and not just from my mouth), I hope that my sons realize what they can do well. I want to drown out their negative narrators with specific, positive encouragement.

Ask Yourself the Right Questions

Source: mimagephotography/Shutterstock

Our brains tend to focus on the negative to the detriment of the positive, but our lives would be much improved if we could focus on what makes us better humans rather than what makes us perceive ourselves to be less than others.

When we concentrate on our problems rather than looking for solutions, we ask questions that aren’t helpful toward achieving a solution. Focusing on the problem prompts us to question ourselves with, “What is this about?” or, “Why am I doing this to myself?” While those are important questions to ask and answer, they’re not oriented toward a solution. Instead, we ought to ask ourselves, “How did I overcome this problem in the past?”

We need to learn to replay the moments of our lives in which we excelled and achieved. We need to figure out how we became accomplished so we can visualize how to do it again. This way, when a similar opportunity presents itself, we’ll be ready to replicate the same outcome.

With those images in your mind, you’ll certainly still experience struggles and problems, but they won’t define you, and you won’t allow them to be the story you tell yourself about who you are.

  • For more info on how to train your brain, see my book, The Stories We Tell Ourselves.
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