Language is a really powerful tool for change. So when it comes to mental health, it’s essential that we frame the language we use around it in a more helpful way.
Let’s talk about ‘positive psychology’. Ugh! It really triggers me. There is way too much pressure to be positive. To be happy, happy, happy, all the time. Of course, genuine happiness is not to be sniffed at and it’s amazing when it happens. But it’s the pressure to be happy that’s the issue. It’s everywhere. And it really isn’t helping people who are struggling.
When we aren’t feeling this way and are surrounded by this kind of language, the pressure to ‘be happy’ has the opposite effect. It actually makes us feel worse. We feel terrible because we aren’t feeling positive. We might feel like there’s something wrong with us. We might feel ashamed that on paper, we have a great life, so why on earth do we feel dreadful?
Our brains are hard wired to scan for danger. We look for threats in a ratio of 5-1. We need five positive or helpful experiences to override one unhelpful or negative experience. This was to help us survive when we were cavemen being chased by sabre-toothed tigers. And it’s no different today. Even though there are no sabre-toothed tigers chasing us anymore, we’re still scanning for danger. When we look for threats, we have a lot of unhelpful thinking, so we don’t feel good. We just aren’t hard wired to be positive or happy all the time, so when we put all that pressure on ourselves to be that way, we feel like failures.
Positive psychology has its place, but not within the work we do at Rising Vibe
How we, in the world of culture and learning, frame things has a huge impact on people. We can’t control how people react to the things that we say, but we can be more mindful of the language we use.
Let’s look at the term ‘mental illness’. Who on earth wants to admit that they’re mentally ill? Some people won’t even admit that they have a cold. There is so much stigma around ‘mental illness’ that most of us would swerve the label at all costs so that we can save ourselves from the judgements and preconceptions that go with it.
‘Mental illness’ is pretty final. It’s a label and we’re stuck with it. When we reframe mental illness as ‘I just don’t feel good,’ or ‘I haven’t felt good for a long time,’ it suggests that what we’re experiencing isn’t finite. This can bring us optimism and hope. ‘I haven’t felt good for a long time’ suggests a possibility for change. I don’t feel good NOW, but that doesn’t mean to say I won’t feel better in the future.
You are what you think about
Instead of using positive psychology, we should consider an optimistic frame. We can learn how to do this using Attention Density. Where we choose to put our attention can change our neural pathways, which in time changes how we view and interact with the World. Neuroscience and quantum physics research tells us, that if we focus long enough, hard enough and often enough, we can change our neural pathways to be more optimistic – even if it’s only a 1% improvement – without having to be ‘positive.’
Exposure + Repetition + Application = Permanent Change
Expose me to new knowledge.
- Repeat it in a way that is useful to me.
- Apply it – Use it or lose it. Anyone can learn something new, but if you don’t apply it, it won’t stick.
I have taught myself how to look for the learning and opportunity in a situation using Attention Density theory, because I didn’t feel good for such a long time. I had to find a way back to feeling better. Now, when something happens that doesn’t feel great, I’ll still go to worst-case scenario like everyone else, but I’ve learned to say “Ok, this isn’t a great situation, but where is the opportunity to learn here?”
My 11-year-old daughter is a budding actor and she was invited to a practice audition in London. As the date approached, she hadn’t prepared. She thought that the train journey to the audition would be the right time to start practicing her minute long monologue. When she realised she didn’t like the piece, she found another one online and learned the whole thing on the train there.
She came out of the audition devastated. She started to catastrophise that she’d had a terrible audition and that she’d messed it up. So, on the train home we had a conversation around reframing the situation with optimism.
First I asked her what she was really proud of. She was still in fight or flight and couldn’t see it, so I suggested to her that learning a minute long piece to memory was an amazing achievement for an 11-year-old. On her first attempt she did mess up her monologue, but at the end of the audition she asked for another go. I suggested to her that this was extremely brave. She did do it again and she nailed it. After that, we were on a roll. By the time we’d finished, she had a different perspective on the situation and felt better. So when I finally asked her, “What have you learned?” She said, “That I need to prepare.”
Language is so important. In the world of culture and learning, we should always be thinking about how we use language to communicate in a way that is helpful, without piling on the positivity pressure. This helps us feel better, even if it’s only by a small margin.
What we tell ourselves impacts how we feel. If we feel judged we might become defensive and shut down. We might withdraw or get angry. All of this is OK. This is why we don’t agree with the term ‘mental illness.’ It is over used. There is too much pressure and stigma around it and it brings about feelings of shame. Instead, we talk about people ‘not feeling good right now’, with the opportunity to feel better in the future.
This is the language of hope
Often after learning has taken place in the corporate world, there is very little or no impact because there hasn’t been an Attention Density approach. It’s learned and it’s lost, as it isn’t used.
‘Repeat and Apply’ as part of Attention Density theory runs through the very heart of everything we do here at Rising Vibe. We show our clients how to maintain the quality of focus on the specific learning by showing, repeating and challenging the role models within the business, over and over again. We believe Attention Density theory is the only way to support our clients through the cultural changes they need.
About the Author
Lou Banks is the Founder and Director of Rising Vibe Ltd and brother brand Calling Out The Men. She’s passionate about helping organisations place wellbeing at the heart of their culture. She’ll show your business how to get to grips with emotion. Tackle thoughts. Address feelings. Because when this happens it can drive cultural change and have a huge impact on business performance. Lou specialises in making complex psychological theory simple and accessible. She takes the best and discards the rest. She knows what works and what gets results. But don’t take her word for it. Debate and discussion are actively encouraged. Challenge her. Be as skeptical as you need to be. She loves it as herein lies the learning. Lou comes from a place of empathy and experience. She’s been to ‘that difficult place’ and she’ll be right with you when she takes you there too. She knows the discomfort, the anxiety and the frustration, so she knows how important it is to be open and accessible, without being judgmental.