Monday, April 4, 2011

Attitude Adjustment

Last week, I had a poor attitude - not really a "bad" attitude, just sad, unmotivated, a little hopeless. I kept trying to change my attitude, shrug it off, find the silver lining to the dark clouds hovering over my soul. It reminded me of how I've felt when I've been depressed and I was afraid that the clouds wouldn't part no matter what positive thinking techniques I attempted. It helped a little to hear from friends that I wasn't the only one. Some blamed mercury in retrograde, some the pull of the moon, some the shift in the earth from the earthquake in Japan, some the gloomy skies, and others just had some really crappy stuff going on in their lives. No matter the cause, we all have bad days, which sometimes turn into bad weeks or months.

This morning, even though it is cold and raining (again!), I could feel that the storm in my brain had passed. Whew, I did something right! Maybe it was the rest that I allowed myself, maybe the extra vitamins, maybe the loving support of my husband or the cumulative effect of the multiple friends that shared their lives with me during the week. They accepted my slump and shared their own struggles - and we all found something to laugh about. As I think about my past, and my varied approaches to attitude, I realize that during different phases of my 42 years I've experienced a lot of approaches to attitude adjustment.

Watercolor by Wendy Burchill
STAND UP STRAIGHT AND SMILE! This was delivered by my mother often enough that I remember it clearly. And usually said with an accompanying grip of my elbow or back of the neck. This hurt and made me angry. The message from my parents about a poor attitude was consistent: go to your room until you can come out with a smile on your face; if you can't feel it, fake it; if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. This approach didn't help me feel better, but at least they didn't have to deal with me.

ATTITUDE ADJUSTMENT:  The first time I heard this phrase was in grade school. One of the teachers at our small school used it regularly. "Somebody needs an attitude adjustment."  Sometimes it meant straighten up, other times it meant that the paddle was going to be employed. It never worked.

LET GO, AND LET GOD: This one is more subtle, but was pervasive in my life for 28 years. The gist of this approach is that if you trust in God, He will give you peace. If you don't feel peace, you are too self absorbed and not trusting enough. A true believer won't have much discouragement because it is all God's will.

LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE helped me through some really tough times, and has given me some measure of peace, but hasn't really cheered me up. For this to work, you need to wholeheartedly believe that everything happens for a reason. That something positive will eventually come from the negative. For example, my experiences with my second husband taught me a lot about addiction, drug dealers, and absolute desperation, that I hoped would help me later in life, either to relate to others in the same boat or just to make me a stronger person.

FAKE IT 'TIL YOU MAKE IT seems to work sometimes, but I've always found it to be a temporary fix. Faking it can also really backfire as friends can sense that something false is going on even if they can't put their finger on it. Trust is fragile.

DON'T LIKE IT? CHANGE IT!  I call bullshit on this one. There are people that like to say that we all have the power to change our circumstances. Talk to my cousin who has schizophrenia or a mother living in a war refuge camp about this one. Even when applied strictly to attitude, I have trouble with this. When a person is clinically depressed, they can try and try and try again to change their attitude without success. Telling a person, to "Just smile! Change your attitude!" is not helpful in any situation. On the other hand, I do think that it is helpful to think of our psychological attitudes like aviation attitude, that is, directional.  Even a change in attitude of half of a degree will change a long term outcome. And often a very slight change in attitude is possible and that slight change can make a world of difference in the long run.

My perspective today, as I'm coming out of a rough week, is that advice and forced cheerfulness don't really help someone that is hurting. SINCERE SUPPORT does help. It might take some of your valuable time and energy, but it really helps. If your friend seems down, telling them to 'buck up' isn't going to help; although it might temporarily make you feel better about yourself. The more I think about attitudes, the more I think we need to learn to accept ourselves and those around us, in good times and bad. We are human beings each with a unique combination of attributes that make us whole. And as Dr. Carl Jung said, "I'd rather be whole than good." As whole human beings we have dark thoughts and impulses as well as light. When we deny that part of ourselves, as with denial of any part of ourselves, that part of ourselves won't leave us alone. By accepting and loving the entirety of our beings, we can more easily focus on and share the light. The next time I'm in a slump, I'm going to do my best to accept my poor attitude as part of who I am, a beautiful, moody, sensitive, strong woman. I may try to change my attitude by a degree, but I'm not going to beat myself up just because I'm feeling sad. And when my friends have a negative or sad attitude, I'm going to try to give hugs and let them know that they are beautiful even when they are experiencing pain and that I am so grateful that they are a unique piece in the puzzle of my life.

Upon re-reading this post, I realized that the majority of what I wrote was negative, or "what not to do," leaving just the last paragraph to emphasize the encouragement part. I thought about changing it, but then decided to accept the process, to accept my feelings and thoughts, and allow them to be seen by you, dear reader. Hopefully my honesty and vulnerability will serve to inspire someone, someday.

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