The topic of positive thinking occasionally elicits the following reaction: ‘It’s just another superficial craze from popular psychology for people who live in a fool’s paradise and can’t face reality. Life is tough. Positive thinking is a way of denying reality.’
People who think like this do not understand what is meant by the disciplined life skill called positive thinking. A positive person recognises the negative aspects of life and accepts that life isn’t always easy – but he refuses to over-emphasise the negative. He realises that life is complicated and wonderful, that there is more good than bad, and that life is worth living.
A matter of balance
Positive thinking is a form of mental discipline – and a philosophical quest for balance. The positive thinker believes that the positive in life neutralises and overwhelms the negative. The positive, however, makes less of an impression on the human mind because the negative tends to be more dramatic. This creates the false impression that the negative is the stronger force.
A second point to remember is that negative experiences often turn out to have been long-term blessings with the benefit of hindsight. A setback that feels like the end of the world may have a positive outcome. We have all had such experiences. A student who fails a subject may realise that his interests or strengths lie elsewhere. A husband or wife may be devastated by divorce, only to find real happiness in a subsequent relationship. The positive thinker is aware of life’s paradoxes, and has trained himself to notice them.
Let’s consider the issue of physical handicaps and disorders such as stuttering. Surely most handicapped and disabled persons have asked themselves: ‘Why me? My life would have been so different without this problem! Other people are so privileged, they are not aware of their advantage. Why must I suffer like this? What purpose does it serve?’
These are ancient and difficult questions, and have been answered in various ways:
1. Happiness is relative
It has been said that it is not really possible for a healthy person, even if blessed with an excellent imagination, to put himself in the shoes of a less fortunate person, as they live in different worlds. Non-disabled persons will never quite understand what a disability feels like and consequently tend not to appreciate their health: they take it for granted – but may instead be overwhelmed and made miserable by problems which to the disabled appear insignificant. As a result every person, whether disabled or not, has his share of unhappiness and frustration in life. Happiness is to a large extent relative and subjective.
2. A reminder to the community
A second answer is that disorders, sicknesses etc. serve to remind the community of how precious health is and how it should never be taken for granted.
3. A road to spiritual maturity
Yet another answer is that disorders such as stuttering can lead to spiritual maturity. This, of course, does not imply that physically healthy people are incapable of spiritual growth. I can only say that I have had close contact with fellow PWS for many years through self-help clubs and that I was struck by their gentleness, humility, balance, politeness, maturity and lack of self-pity in the face of communication difficulties which were often severe. These people who, in different circumstances, may have been motivated by money, status or power, were forced to seek happiness in other, and perhaps better, spheres of life. Considered from this point of view, it becomes possible to see a positive side to a disorder such as stuttering.
As human beings we have all been given a hand of cards. Some of those cards are promising; others less so. Some players have on the whole received better cards than others. In the card game of life, however, the winner is not the player with the best hand at the end, but he who has used his hand to the best of his ability.
Stuttering can be a devastating communication disorder, but much will depend on the way we manage this challenge. We can either be dragged down by it – or use it as a vehicle for character building.
Positive thinking and stuttering
Positive thinking holds special benefits for the PWS. In the first place it apparently improves one's ability to manage stress, and secondly it contributes towards successful application of fluency techniques.
Being positive reduces tension
Some people apparently flourish when under stress. It has been found that these people often include exceptional achievers – top businessmen, leading politicians, etc. Additional research has identified what these people have in common: all are extremely positive thinkers, driven by an inexhaustible belief in themselves and their resources, who turn any setback into an opportunity. This indicates that the PWS who acquires a positive attitude will be better equipped to cope with stress.
Being positive helps in using fluency techniques
Positive thinking also impacts on the use of fluency techniques. Say for instance that you are a PWS sitting in an office. Suddenly the telephone rings. What are the first thoughts that pop into your mind as you lift the receiver? The negative thinker could be thinking the following: ‘I’m having problems with my speech today’, ‘I would rather not answer the telephone’ or ‘The person who’s phoning represents a threat’. Such negative learned responses immediately increase your base-level tension.
Rather try to replace a negative attitude with the following type of positive response: ‘My speech technique really works’, ‘I’m going to show the listener and myself what I’m capable of doing’, ‘I’m going to use the technique to the best of my ability’, ‘I’m going to speak slowly and softly this time’, ‘I’m not going to allow the other person to control the tempo of the conversation’.
PWS tend to be negative. Due to the nature of the defect the PWS sees the bad side of things. You remember your dramatic blocks, not the times you spoke fluently. Emphasise your fluency, not your blocks. Consider the possibility of success. If you are using a fluency technique, don’t be too hard on yourself if you forget to use it – focus instead on the times when you used it successfully.
If you want to be a positive thinker, bear in mind the following principles:
The danger posed by feelings of guilt
Try to get rid of guilt feelings. Guilt tends to confine and limit one’s personality and breeds fear and self-doubt. Guilt is like an additional, useless burden you have to drag along with you. It prevents you from growing and developing to your highest potential. We have all done things we are not proud of – at some stage we have to stop feeling guilty, forgive ourselves and wipe the slate clean.
Stop thinking about your failures
Once the words ‘I can’t’ find a foothold in your subconscious, they will limit your potential for as long as you live. Monitor your thought stream. Remember: a way of thinking can become a habit in much the same way as a pattern of behaviour can. Identify and neutralise negative thoughts such as hate, resentment, fear and selfishness. Also don’t allow other people’s negative thinking to send you off course – their negativity is THEIR problem, not yours.
Six months after attending Prof Schwartz’s basic workshop for PWS in the 1980s I attended his refresher workshop. The first thing he asked us was: ‘How is your speech?’ Immediately everybody started to complain about their problems and relapses. It was as if a small storm of resentment and disillusionment had broken out around Schwartz’s head. He quietly listened to all the complaints and problems, then calmly asked: ‘Has your speech IMPROVED since the first workshop?’
His question caught us off balance. Everybody had to admit that there had been SOME progress – maybe not spectacular, maybe not what we had expected, but, yes, in some ways we had made progress ... Afterwards I often thought about our reaction. How typical – instead of noting our progress, we preferred to emphasise our problems!
A positive attitude towards others
Negativity is the easy way out. It’s so easy to be negative about others, to expect little from life, to think of yourself as a loser and others as a threat. Nobody is perfect – in your dealings with others, look for their good qualities. Try to learn something from others rather than focusing on their weak points.
Pleasure, joy and delight
The positive thinker has learnt to acknowledge the value of joy. He is also aware of the power of expectation – he experiences joy because he expects it. Try to expect at least one pleasant surprise every day.
There is much reason for being happy. Life abounds with riches. We are surrounded by beauty, energy and goodness – not only within nature, but also in man. This realisation is a necessary ingredient to a positive attitude. If current fashionable thinking clashes with such an outlook, it does not negate it. The writer Albert Camus described the modern age as ‘the age of anxiety’. But does this mean that each and every one has to be swept away by the prevailing anxiety and cynicism of the times?
The following technique can be used to enhance one’s appreciation of pleasure and joy: At the end of every day, draw up a list of all the joyful things and events you experienced – everything that was positive or that made you happy. Every sentence should begin with ‘I’.
The relativity of problems and crises
It is easy to lose perspective if a problem overwhelms you. People tend to be engulfed by their problems, and forget about the marvellous world outside – a world waiting to be discovered.
Many problems can be managed by relativising them, ie by comparing the problems with other people’s problems. Honest comparison will usually reveal just how little one has to complain about ... As for stuttering: true as it is that stuttering is an underestimated and neglected communication disorder, it pales by comparison with various other defects, let alone with the major setbacks and catastrophes of history – disease, war, starvation, etc.
It may well be that one tends to forget that all problems are relative because it is such a simple and fundamental truth. We use our imagination to our disadvantage, and make mountains out of molehills. We catastrophise minor threats or conflicts, and unnecessarily stress ourselves in the process.
In his best-seller book Psycho-cybernetics, Dr Maxwell Maltz describes the best way to manage a crisis: confront it aggressively and actively without losing sight of your objective, instead of reacting defensively. This means using the ‘fight’ instead of the ‘flight’ response so that additional energy can be released to enable you to cope.
Another point to bear in mind is that excitement should not be confused with fear. Many people mistake a feeling of excitement – which is normal in a crisis, and is the result of adrenalin produced by the fight/flight response – for fear. The next step is to regard this ‘fear’ as additional proof of their inferiority. In fact this excitement is a natural response which provides additional emotional energy to cope with the crisis. You have a choice: either to convert this energy into real fear by activating the ‘fear and flight’ response – or to channelise it into courage.
A few positive thinking techniques
The ‘scales’ method
With this method you train yourself to think positively. Picture your mind as a scale with two baskets – a positive and negative basket containing positive and negative thoughts respectively. Got it? Now, the next time you catch yourself with a negative or fearful thought, think of and consider its positive equivalent. In your mind you put this positive equivalent in the ‘positive’ basket of the scales. The aim of this simple technique, which should become a habit, is to prevent the sum of your negative thoughts from exceeding the sum of your positive thoughts. A negative imbalance may lead to depression.
The seven-day mental diet
Another method is the so-called ‘seven-day mental diet’. The idea is to monitor your words and thoughts, starting at a specific time and continuing for seven days. During these seven days you are not supposed to make a single negative comment. This will train you in the art of mental discipline.
Crucial times of day for positive thinking are those minutes just before you drift off into sleep and just after waking up. These are core moments for accessing your subconscious, which is extraordinarily open and receptive to input during those moments. If you fill those minutes with positive, happy thoughts, it will be reflected in your state of mind in the following day.
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Positive thinking is more than just a psychological aid. It is a fundamental attitude to life, a life skill and a powerful weapon against depression. It represents an ideal which may sometimes be out of reach, but of which you should never lose sight. It is a technique which can be learned and turned into a habit.
Positive thinking is a challenging and character-shaping approach. It’s good, common sense. Though popular writers such as Norman Vincent Peale have promoted this principle for many years, recent and more scientific research confirms the importance of a positive attitude for psychological and physical health, creativity and career success. It is an indispensable attitude for anyone, and especially those with an impediment such as stuttering who wish to overcome the inevitable setbacks they face in living and in speaking.
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