How to give yourself an attitude adjustment

Negative attitudes can easily creep in – especially during stressful times. Psychology expert Dr Alice Boyes suggests some common thinking errors that can hold you back 

1. “Other people are lucky”

When we see other people experiencing success and good luck, we often don’t know the hard work, stress and failures that have happened behind the scenes. Because of this information deficit, it can seem like good things come easier for others than they do for us. When you’re feeling down, you may be particularly prone to this thinking bias.

In addition, there are things you can do to change your luck. Research has shown there are some key differences that help ‘lucky people’ to create their own luck. 

Perhaps the most important difference between ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ people is that lucky people are more open to unexpected opportunities. Unlucky people tend to have tunnel vision and don’t respond to potential windfalls. For example, in a study by psychologist Richard Wiseman, people who had categorised themselves as either ‘very lucky’ or ‘very unlucky’ were asked to scan a newspaper and count the number of photos. The researchers placed a message inside the newspaper that said “Stop counting, tell the experimenter you have seen this and win $250”. The ‘lucky’ people were more likely to notice the message and seize the unexpected opportunity.

2. Silver versus bronze 

People who win bronze medals are typically happier than people who win silver medals. Why? Intuitively this is obvious. Winning silver makes people think, “What if the competition had gone better? What if I’d done enough to win gold?” In contrast, winning bronze makes people think, “What if it had gone badly? What if I’d missed out entirely?” Try extrapolating this principle to your life. When things don’t go perfectly, consider how they might have been worse. 

When things don’t go perfectly, consider how they might have been worse. 

3. “Harsh self-criticism after failure will help me improve”

People sometimes think that being very tough on themselves after mistakes and failures will motivate them to do better next time. 

Effective self-criticism involves acknowledging your mistakes, for instance: “I didn’t take the time to read the conditions when I booked that rental car and didn’t notice the insurance wasn’t included in the rate.” However it doesn’t involve loading up on harsh self-criticism about your fundamental nature: “I’m such an epic loser. I never do anything right.” 

If you examine your mistakes and failures with an attitude of self-compassion, you’re more likely to take an honest, realistic look at your weaknesses and plan for how to improve next time.

4. Blaming others 

When things go wrong, it can be easy to go into self-protective mode and blame others for what has happened. Understand that this is a fairly natural tendency and self-correct for it. 

 Examine your mistakes and failures with an attitude of self-compassion – you’re more likely to take an honest, realistic look at your weaknesses and plan for how to improve next time.

If you need to apologise, do it promptly and make sure you include the five essential ingredients. Dr Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid, identifies these as: a clear ‘I’m sorry’ statement, an expression of regret for what has happened, an acknowledgment that social norms or expectations were violated, an empathy statement acknowledging the full impact of our actions on the other person, and finally a request for forgiveness. 

It’s most common to miss out the empathy statement. Don’t.

5. Drop the ‘self-image goals’

Self-image goals target how we want to be perceived by others. For example, you might frequently try to get others to recognise or acknowledge your positive qualities, convince others that you’re right, avoid showing your weaknesses, or avoid the possibility of being wrong. 

Ironically, people who focus on self-image goals tend to feel lonely and unsupported by others. In contrast, people tend to be happier when they pursue ‘compassionate goals’. These include being supportive of others, being compassionate for others’ mistakes and weaknesses, and being constructive in your comments to others. When people have compassionate goals, they aim to be a constructive force in their interactions with others. This tends to generate social support, and therefore helps people who have them to get ahead.

Dr Alice Boyes has a PhD in psychology; her research has been published in top international journals. For more of her Good articles, click here. 

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