As a new agent, right out of the FBI Academy, I felt as though I could conquer any roadblock or setback because I’d spent 4 months learning how to prepare to make arrests, interrogate suspects, and gather evidence.

So, it was a bit of a surprise that, when I attended my first squad meeting to plan the arrest of a terrorist that had been identified, the case agent laid out the basic plan and then asked each one of us to find holes in it.

What could go wrong? He asked. 

To me, it seemed straight-forward—knock and announce and then let the SWAT team go in to make the arrest. At first I thought it was a bunch of pessimism, as if FBI agents couldn’t make a good arrest. But the more experienced agents knew that the smarter way to make the arrest was to plan for all that could wrong.

It wasn’t pessimism at all; nor was it blind optimism that all would be well. Instead, it was positive thinking.

The term positive thinking often gets confused with other terms like happiness and optimism, but each has very different meanings:

Happiness is a fleeting emotion that’s wonderful to experience in short bursts but doesn’t sustain itself over the long haul. It doesn’t have the heft of deeper emotions like joy and contentment.

Optimism is a belief that things will change, and for the better. It’s often as hard for an optimist to be a positive thinker as it is for a pessimist. Pessimists tend to focus on the negatives in life and anticipate undesirable outcomes.

Positive thinking, though, is believing we will prevail in our circumstances rather than expect our circumstances to change. This requires a thoughtful approach to the challenges before us. It also means we need to rethink the entire industry that’s been created by “self-help” gurus for the past 50 years or so.

I’ve heard enough “stay positive” crap to last me a lifetime. Positive thinking for adults requires us to look at all of the aspects of our situation, both good and bad. This is very different from positive thinking for children (or immature adults) which tell us that all will be well if we hold hands and chant kumbaya.

Let’s take a closer look at 3 ways positive thinking can empower you right now: 

1. It’s Not Always A Feel-Good Environment

This, of course, runs counter to our “be happy” culture that is obsessed with bikini selfies and ego. We truly do think  we are entitled to a perfect environment that makes us feel safe at all times. For some of us, it’s hard to move from the coddled world of childhood into the real world—you know, the one where we don’t get a blue ribbon just for showing up.

The risks of a new job, starting a new company, or changing careers can hit us with setback we hadn’t expected. What about illness, divorce, or financial uncertainty? Often, our first response is, “Why didn’t this work?” “Is there something wrong with me?” “Maybe I can’t do this.”

Life is hard. Shit happens. Pain is inevitable. Growth is optional.

Positive thinking means we don’t feel sorry for ourselves because a new project fails or we encounter challenges that we hadn’t expected. We can look our pain in the eye because we’re not afraid to look within and discover our talent and skillsets, as well as the root of our dark side. 

The only thing that grows in the dark is fungus and fear. Shed a light on the ugly thing that whispers in your ear that you’re not capable of taking on the hard knocks in life. Shut that negative voice down! When you do, it gives you incredible power over the way you view yourself and your place in the world.

If there are no heroes to save you, you be the hero.

Joy and contentment are not dependent on other people and they are not given to you. They are created within you. They enable you to have complete control of how you face your fear and struggles. 

How To Make It Work For You: When you’re in a bad situation act positive, regardless of how you actually feel. Grin and bear it, even if it hurts. In experiments, researchers asked people to force themselves to smile for 20 seconds when they felt stressed or anxious. The researchers found that this action stimulated brain activity associated with positive emotions. Remember, it’s a choice you make every day.

2. It’s Always Something

When I received notice that I’d been selected as a special FBI agent, I knew I’d passed a huge hurdle because only 40 people were chosen out of a pool of 25,000 applicants.

Silly me. I thought it would be smooth sailing from there on out. You can imagine my disappointment when I learned that jumping into a pool of water with an M16 and swimming to the other side was a requirement to graduate from the FBI Academy.

I had two problems: I couldn’t swim and I was afraid of heights.

As I stood on the diving board, I truly thought I would drown and that would be the end. My emotional brain was in overdrive and it hijacked my slower cerebral brain so I had a hard time thinking this through. How could I do this?

I took a few deep breaths, not because that would somehow change my situation, but because it gave my thinking brain time to catch up. It pointed out a few things:

  1. I’d never heard of a new agent drowning in this exercise.
  2. The FBI would not want the lawsuit my parents would launch against them if I did drown.
  3. I had a life vest on.
  4. My coach was in the water and could save me.
  5. I truly felt as though the FBI was my path forward.
  6. I jumped, with the weapon, and paddled to the other side of the pool. It wasn’t pretty but I made it.

Little did I know at the time, but research has found we need between 3-5 positive thoughts to counter each 1 negative thought. I was able to calm down my drama queen emotional brain long enough that my thinking brain could take over so I could make the jump.

People who start a new job, a new career, or a new company all produce an environment of both uncertainty AND incredible potential. Mental toughness is positive thinking on steroids.

Change the mindset. Change the behavior. Change the outcome.

How To Make It Work For You:

  • Acknowledge your negative emotion. 
  • Accept the situation for what it really is, not what you want it to be. 
  • Find 3-5 positive things to counter that one negative emotion.
  • Pause after each one to ponder it for twenty seconds. Take the time to think about each positive thought.
  • Ground yourself in the simple reality that no amount of hassle or worry can rob us of what matters most.
  • Forget about perfection. Just get on with the job at hand.

3. It’s Very Important To Choose Our Thoughts

I spent the last four years of my career as the spokesperson for the FBI in Northern California. If I thought chasing terrorists and spies was hard, it was nothing compared to a live TV interview where the reporter was determined to uncover a deep, dark secret about the FBI. 

A reporter contacted me after an FBI raid on a terrorist cell. It was a tremendous victory because the investigation had uncovered several key people planning a bombing in downtown San Francisco. Like many arrests where gunfire (or resistance) was likely, the FBI carried them out in the pre-dawn hours to catch the suspects unaware.

Instead of wanting details on who the FBI had arrested, the reporter said he talked to a witness who said one of the FBI raid vans backed over tire spikes in the dark as it left a parking area, leaving the van with four flat tires. 

I was indignant! The reporter should have focused on the good news of the arrest, not the bad news of the flat tires which made the driver of the van look a bit incompetent.

I learned something important that day; the media knows what sells—negativity. Newspapers, social media, and TV broadcasts can smell it in the air like a wild animal, nose upturned to pinpoint the threat. 

Fear gets our attention. A vast body of research confirms that destructive emotions are stronger than pleasant ones. We have a strong negativity bias that keeps us safe from threats in our environment. 

Since the caveman days, our brain had paid more attention to bad news because that’s how it kept us safe from saber-toothed tigers. But not everything new or different is a threat to our safety.

Good news is nice, but not essential for our survival. Research has shown that good news is like Teflon, the information easily slides away. Bad news is like Velcro, it sticks and hangs around. It’s why we remember the bad easier than the good that happens in life.

Positive thinking reminds us that it’s important to acknowledge our negativity bias because it explains why we:

  • Think about insults more than compliments
  • Respond quicker to negative information
  • Dwell on unpleasant or traumatic events more than pleasant ones
  • Focus our attention more on negative rather than positive information

Entrepreneurs and startups need to learn from a failure or stumble on the road so they can focus on how to improve next time. 

How To Make It Work For You:

Since we’re wired to pay more attention to our negative thoughts, here are 4 excellent ways to crush them:

  1. Stop using the word no. Researchers have determined that when you see the word NO for less than a second, your brain releases several stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These are the chemicals that impair our logic. 
  2. If you say the word NO, even more stress chemicals are released into your brain!
  3. Pinpoint the fear that sparked your NO response. Then replace NO with this question: why not?
  4. Create new brain connections. When you reinforce a way of thinking, either new connections are formed or old ones are strengthened. When you stop negative thinking, those negativity connections become less durable and less easy to activate. 
  5. When you use the word YES, you train your brain to make positive patterns more automatic.

Avoid using the words “always” and “never”. If you use these words when confronted with an obstacle or barrier, you activate the emotional limbic brain system. This produces emotions like fear and anger. Absolutes like “always” and “never” are rarely correct:

  • My children never listen to me
  • I never get recognized for my hard work
  • Everyone always takes advantage of me
  • I always end up with the short end of the deal

© 2021 LaRae Quy. All rights reserved.

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Author of “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths

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