Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about mindset. It’s something I’ve touched on before with regards to sustainability and animal rights, but mindset has a huge impact on our personal lives too.
In particular, I think our health and happiness often depend more on our mindsets than on external life circumstances. Let me explain.
The victim mindset
Many of us think of ourselves as being unlucky or bad at certain things. We may even come to identify with these labels – “I’m just an unlucky person.”
When we are in this mindset, anything that doesn’t go to plan ‘proves’ to us that we are unlucky (or incompetent, or whatever negative attributes we identify with). So perversely, things that go wrong can make us feel validated, as they serve as ‘evidence’ that we are right about ourselves.
This leads to self-pity, and often to the seeking of sympathy from others. By strongly identifying with our unluckiness, we feed our ego, which sees that trait as part of our identity. In an odd way, we almost enjoy wallowing in unhappiness.
But the truth is, few of us really are chronically unlucky. We tend to play down the good things that happen to us as flukes, or as exceptions to the rule, because they don’t fit in with our worldview. Our egos are desperate to preserve themselves.
“That’s just how I am”
Even if we do seem to be experiencing a lot of bad luck, this is often because of our unhelpful mindsets. For example, if we believe we are bad at maths then we may not study very hard, because we think we will do badly no matter what. And if we then fail a maths test, we see it as proof that we are bad at maths, rather than proof that we didn’t study.
In school, I was a prime example of this. I was confident in my abilities academically, but convinced I was terrible at sports. So I put in very little effort in PE, thinking I would only make a fool of myself if I tried. Consequently, my PE grades were unremarkable – I was charitably giving a C for turning up and always remembering my kit. There was no inherent barrier to me doing better; the only barrier was in my mind.
I have fallen into this trap many times since; for example, thinking “I’m just an anxious person” as a justification for avoiding situations that seem scary. This may bring a twisted kind of satisfaction or relief on one level, but it always brings misery in the long run.
Fulfillment in life
Most of us have ideas about how we’d ideally like our lives to be – where we’d like to live and work, how healthy we’d like to be and so on. But often we are held back by thoughts which tell us we aren’t capable of making our dreams a reality, that we don’t have what it takes and are stuck where we are.
This is particularly detrimental if we’re having a tough time, because we come to believe this is how things will always be – that we will never earn enough to live comfortably, do work we enjoy, or find love, for example.
When we are in a tough situation, there is almost always a choice about how to proceed, but it’s easy to become stuck in a mindset of scarcity, thinking we have only one unhappy option available to us. This means that we won’t even try to improve our life situation, because we don’t believe it’s possible. And so our belief that we are trapped is reinforced.
How changing your mindset can change your health
These principles apply in pretty much all areas of life, and health is no exception. I’m deeply saddened by the number of people around me who have given up after receiving a difficult diagnosis. This is not their fault – rather, our cultural attitude towards sickness is to blame.
Imagine that two people are diagnosed with heart disease. Person A is told they will have to take drugs with serious side effects for the rest of their life, and that there is little they can do to avoid heart attacks. They are told that they may need surgery if the condition worsens, and that their lifespan is likely to be shortened as a result of the disease.
Person B, on the other hand, is told that they can likely halt or even reverse their condition by making some radical lifestyle changes, and thus avoid taking medication in the long-term. They are also told that they will be given support to help them do this.
Who is likely to be in a better frame of mind after the diagnosis? And who is likely to do better in the long term? I’ll let you decide.
Currently, many people feel powerless when diagnosed with an illness, especially if told they will never recover. But people can and do recover from ‘incurable’ or even ‘terminal’ conditions. And whether they believe they will recover can be a huge factor, as demonstrated by the power of the placebo effect.
Childbirth is another example – women who feel positive about the experience and are empowered to give birth in environment of their choosing tend to have far better experiences than those who dread it and feel they have little control over how it takes place.
Powerlessness is a recurring theme here – the sensation that we are not in control of our lives and must accept an unwanted fate.
But this powerlessness is usually an illusion, imposed upon us by our minds. We create problems and barriers where there are none, and become identified with them. Empowerment is realising that ultimately only we can dictate how our lives play out.
Adopting a growth mindset
So what is the solution to all this? Entire books have been written on this subject, but there are a few things worth mentioning.
Recognise negative thought patterns
It’s easy to get caught in a loop of negative self-talk without even realising it. Escaping this means becoming conscious of it and asking yourself whether it’s really true. Does having a bad day really mean you’re terrible at that thing? Does that person really hate you, or are you interpreting their actions in a way that isn’t necessarily accurate? Probably the latter!
Work towards what you really want
Scrutinise the perceived barriers preventing you from achieving your goals. Are they really there, or are they excuses or distractions?
If you have goals, don’t refuse to acknowledge them because you don’t believe you’re capable. Do some research and you’ll likely find it’s more doable than you thought. Take little baby steps every day and you’ll surprise yourself. Don’t settle for a status quo that makes you unhappy.
Don’t live in fear
Very often, fear of failure or of making a fool of ourselves keeps us trapped. This is no way to live. Ask yourself what you’re really scared of, and how likely it actually is. Even if your fears did come true, what’s the worst that could happen? Is it really so bad, compared to the benefits you’ll experience if you succeed?
Meditation and mindfulness
In my opinion, meditation is the most powerful tool for clearing junk out of the mind and encouraging fresh, creative ideas to flow in. Take some time every day to press pause on that incessant loop of negativity. My new favourite way to clear my mind is to go somewhere quiet and focus intently on the silence. It’s impossible to do this and to think at the same time. Meditation is a must for feeling calmer and more in control of your life.
Change your mind, change your life
I’m still struggling with plenty of self-imposed barriers, but I have made a lot of progress. This has manifested itself in my external situation as well as my internal life. For example, it’s allowed me to start my own business, support myself financially and pursue projects that inspire and excite me.
My objective with this post is to help others to find a similar freedom and realise their potential. Of course, it’s a continual process, but it’s something we can all work on.
Are you feeling trapped right now? Or perhaps you’ve already experienced the power of changing your mindset? Let me know in the comments.