By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This is Episode 31 and this week I’m talking about mindset – I’ll be discussing how the way you look at things impacts on your mental health and how to develop a positive mindset. Listen to the podcast now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
How you think about yourself and the world around you has a huge impact on how you experience this thing that we call life. Do you believe you’re a victim of fate or do you believe that you’re the one in the driver’s seat and that it’s up to you to navigate your way through the obstacles that are inevitably thrown our way?
There’s that saying that has been floating around in one form or another for a while, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always gotten” (which is incorrectly attributed to everyone from Henry Ford to Tony Robbins and actually believed to have been first said by a woman called Jessie Potter speaking at a conference in 1981, but anyway…), the same notion applies to your mindset — if you always think the way that you’ve always thought, then you’ll end up with the same patterns emerging time and time again. So, if that’s happening then you have the option of changing your situation by changing your mindset – which takes time and effort, like everything, but which can also completely change your life. Let’s start by defining ‘mindset’…
Defining ‘mindset’ and mental health
The term ‘mindset’ refers to your attitudes, perceptions and beliefs, both about yourself and about the greater world. For example, do you think the world is a scary place or is it a place where both good and not-so-good things happen? How you think about things will have a direct impact on your outlook, and the person who looks at things as being terrible is going to have a very different experience than the one who looks at things in a more positive light.
Now before we go any further, let’s talk about the elephant in the room — having a positive mindset does not mean that you just stick your head in the sand and pretend everything is rosy even when the world is on fire nor does it mean that you believe everything is always unicorns, rainbows and Care Bears and so you never have problems… what it means is that you believe that things can and will improve, even when bad things are happening. For those of us who deal with mental health challenges, adopting a positive mindset has been demonstrated to have a direct influence on the severity and duration of symptoms of conditions such as anxiety and depression — for example, in a 2001 paper by Jacobson & Greenley called ‘What is recovery?’ a number of internal factors are noted to aid the recovery process including hope, a focus on ‘healing’ rather than ‘illness’, empowerment and connection (combined with external factors including human rights, a positive culture of healing, and recovery-oriented services) – if you’re interested, you can find the paper online at: https://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ps.52.4.482
Let’s talk about a current example — the incredible protests and riots that have been happening in the USA and around the world in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Someone with a negative mindset might look at that and not understand it or see it as being a waste of time, because they might think that change just isn’t possible, whereas someone with a positive mindset believes that every single person deserves equality and that each of us can indeed contribute to change, even if it’s just in some small way, and so even though things won’t change overnight (and even though the going will probably be tough, as it has been for so many major changes throughout history), positive change can happen and it will happen.
Your values and beliefs are a fundamental part of your mindset
Your values and beliefs are directly linked to your mindset, because they are the foundation of how you view the world and your place in it. I’m not going to tell you what to believe, because that’s up to you, but I’ve said time and time again in this podcast that being fair and focusing on equality for all is directly linked to good mental health and wellbeing because it all ties in to being kind to yourself and others, and doing no harm to yourself or others.
That paper by Jacobson & Greenley that I mentioned earlier talks about human rights as having a direct impact on the potential for recovery from mental health challenges — in this case, ‘human rights’ are defined as “a vision of a society in which power and resources are distributed equitably”. Let me read one specific paragraph that I think makes an important point:
“When applied to mental illness, human rights emphasizes reducing and then eliminating stigma and discrimination against persons with psychiatric disabilities…”Jacobson & Greenley (2001) – source: https://ps.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.ps.52.4.482
Can you imagine what the world would be like if we focused our energy on reducing and then eliminating stigma and discrimination, not just towards those who are dealing with mental health challenges but for everybody?
You might be asking why I bring this sort of stuff up all the time in a podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing — well, let me tell you why. No single person is better than another — I don’t care what colour your skin is or who you sleep with or how you identify in terms of gender or religion or nationality or creed… we are all the same on the inside, and when we allow ourselves to believe that one group is better than another, for whatever reason, we do harm to the world and harm to ourselves.
When you focus your time and energy on being a decent person, one who accepts all people for the individuals they are, one who emphasises kindness and respect for all, you are putting out positive energy — and what you put out comes back to you. Also, it takes a lot of effort to be a hate-mongering arsehole and quite frankly it’s a wiser choice to be on the right side of history! If you choose to maintain a positive and understanding mindset, one that doesn’t just tolerate differences but that actually embraces every person’s uniqueness, then you’re going to have much more positive experiences in this world – and that has a direct impact on your mental health and wellbeing (and that’s why I keep talking about this stuff — and will keep talking about this stuff as well).
Back in Episode 30 (Identity) I mentioned that you are able to choose your mindset and I just want to talk about that for a bit. I know as well as anybody how hard it is to just choose to be happy (actually, it’s more like pretty damn difficult or nearly impossible!) but you really can choose to be optimistic and look for the positives even when you’re feeling terrible. You can choose to believe that things can and will get better, and so on those days where perhaps you’re finding it difficult to push through the horrible feelings you have the knowledge that it’s not permanent to help anchor you.
One of the most common discussions around mindset is fixed vs growth mindset. A fixed mindset refers to when you believe specific traits or abilities are fixed at birth, whereas someone with a growth mindset believes that “brains and talent are just the starting point… [they believe that] their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.” (Dweck, 2006, cited in https://schools.au.reachout.com/articles/mindsets )
Back when I worked in the corporate sector, my leadership approach was underpinned by the belief that skill was less important than will – in other words, I believe that anyone can be trained to do pretty much anything (with enough time and resources) but if they don’t have the will or the desire to do something then it will never work. Now, a lot of that was driven by my experience as a trainer before I moved into management but I stand by it and I can definitely say that anytime I ever took disciplinary action against someone it was because of attitude rather than aptitude.
Henry Ford said it best in his famous quote, “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right” – so much of what we do or don’t do comes down to your predominant mindset.
There is no right or wrong mindset or personality type, but it’s important to be fully aware of what impacts your mindset can have on your mental health and wellbeing. If you have a negative mindset, you’ll be more likely to point the finger of blame at circumstances or other people rather than seeking to understand what is within your own control so that you can learn the lessons you need to learn and then make changes where you’re able to.
You are never powerless to take action – no matter how small – and so the risk of a negative mindset becomes the whole ‘throwing your hands up in the air’ thing and treating events as happening to you rather than happening around you. It’s the difference between reacting vs. responding – I’ve talked about this in previous episodes (like Episode 28: Feelings); reacting is quick and instinctive whereas to respond is to take time to process what’s happening, consider both the emotional and the rational side of your reaction, and then proceed in a considered and thoughtful manner. One is likely to bite you on the backside later, whereas the other (responding) gives you time to be thoughtful about the consequences of the words or actions you choose.
According to ReachOut Australia, someone with a fixed mindset is likely to:
- not deal very well with setbacks
- try to hide their mistakes
- believe that their abilities are limited to one area
- engage in negative self-talk by saying things like, ‘I can’t do it’
- avoid challenges
whereas someone with a growth mindset is likely to:
- welcome challenges and new things
- learn from the people around them
- understand that in order to get what they want, they’ve got to work hard
- recognise failure as an opportunity to learn
- acknowledge their own weaknesses, and focus on improving them.
Source: ReachOut Australia (2020), retrieved from https://au.reachout.com/articles/how-to-challenge-a-negative-mindset
Here’s how this whole thing applies to mental health, at least in my opinion. You might have (hopefully!) noticed throughout Let’s Talk About Mental Health that I limit the amount of times I mention ‘mental illness’ and instead I talk about ‘mental health challenges’ – and there’s a good reason for that.
It’s like when I used to train people in the corporate world – another trainer once taught me that instead of asking “Are there any questions?” (to which the answer will be ‘no’ 99% of the time), I could try asking “What questions are there?” when I wanted to encourage questions and demonstrate that it’s okay to ask for clarification or deeper understanding – I loved that technique and would use it a lot when I was facilitating. The same thing applies in this sort of discussion about mental illness versus mental health – one is negative, while the other is more optimistic. When I say the word ‘illness’, what does it conjure up for you? Images of sick people, perhaps in hospitals, struggling to breathe or move or just being confined to their beds, perhaps? Now what about the word ‘health’? It’s a much more positive word, making you think of strength and vitality and energy. Now add the word ‘challenge’ to the word ‘health’ – a challenge is something that can be overcome with time and effort and the right resources, and that is precisely why I’m talking about all this in relation to mindset and mental health today. A challenge is an opportunity – it’s for you to make of it what you will.
Having a condition like anxiety or depression really isn’t the end of the world – sure, it’s shitty… but it’s not the end of the world. With the right treatment and support, combined with time and effort, it’s absolutely possible to get through these sorts of conditions but if you’re prone to a negative mindset then it’s going to be much harder – not impossible, but certainly much harder and much more painful than it needs to be. If you believe that your situation is completely out of your control and can’t be improved, then you’ll end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy and it will be out of your control and unable to be improved. That certainly doesn’t mean that you can just magically wish your condition away, but what it does mean is that the way you look at things will then determine what choices you make and how those choices affect your condition. If you believe that you can influence your situation through healthy diet and exercise, limiting or stopping substance use, positive thinking and practices like gratitude and mindfulness, then you can also focus on the things that are within your power – like getting help and professional support – for dealing with your mental health challenges. No part of your personality or life is completely fixed – everything can be changed, with enough time and effort… and your mental health is no different.
The danger of a fixed mindset or a negative one is that you can be prone to believe that you don’t need to learn new things or that you can’t change – and that’s just not true. Everyone can change, if they want to. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “We shrink from change; yet is there anything that can come into being without it?”
So with that in mind…
What to do to challenge your mindset/build a more positive mindset:
- Your mindset is a choice – and it’s one you need to make many times a day. You don’t just do an I Dream of Jeannie blink and change in an instant; it takes making a conscious decision every single day to be positive and focus on the positive, and then backing that choice up with your words, actions and feelings.
- Actively look for the positives and treat negative stuff as an opportunity to grow instead of something insurmountable – that doesn’t mean that you just ignore the negatives, but instead you reframe them and that serves to help you challenge yourself to push forward instead of just staying stuck where you are (because without growth, you stagnate).
- Employ positive self-talk – and if you are prone to using negative language (or in general, in conversation), modify your language to focus on the positive e.g. Instead of saying “I can’t do it” try saying “I can’t do it yet” – and ask friends/family to point out if you use those types of phrases).
- Choose to give things a go instead of being defeated – e.g. “What can I do?” instead of “This won’t work” (because there’s always something you can do; sometimes, even no action is an action if that makes sense).
- Learn and try new things – say yes more often, and push yourself out of your comfort zone as often as you can (and while you’re doing that, if you are prone to perfectionism then let it go because ‘perfect’ just isn’t possible – and trying to be perfect actually stops us from learning).
- Find techniques that work to help you cultivate a positive mindset – practices like gratitude, mindfulness, and journalling encourage you to think about the positives in your life which will make you more inclined to notice more positives around you.
- Consider spending some time thinking about the key areas of your life – examine your relationships, work, creativity etc. and consider what is working well for you and what you feel has room for improvement, then consider what is within your control to change and come up with 1-2 small ideas for each item. Then, select just one small change in just one aspect of your life and make the change (then try something else once that change has had time to take hold).
- Give yourself permission to think about things differently – how much of your identity and mindset are wrapped up in old ways of thinking? Look at your life from a different perspective. Look, let’s be honest here – you might find it difficult to let go of old opinions or beliefs because it will take you into unknown territory… but that is where opportunity awaits.
- Ground yourself in realistic optimism – things are as they are and the past cannot be changed, only learned from. So where to from here? For yourself: change what you can (words, actions, feelings). For the external (i.e. The world around you/other people): accept, influence and/or let go.
- Choose to make kindness the foundation of your mindset – be kind to yourself and others, do no harm to yourself or others, and give more than you take from this world.
- When it comes to dealing with other people, it’s not about excusing behaviour or being a doormat – instead, it’s about putting your calmness first in all things; what’s more important, drama/being right or your own peace of mind? The choice is always yours.
- Give yourself time – Rome wasn’t built in a day! Take things one day at a time.
Summary and close-out
When it comes to mindset, what it all boils down to is this… your mindset is your choice. So much of this life is about perception, so how you choose to look at things will have an enormous impact on how you experience them. If you focus on the negative then don’t be surprised if that’s what you see left, right and centre – because when you’re looking for it, it becomes much easier to find. The same can be said for positive thinking – the more you look for the positives in your life, the more you will find to be positive about. Of course that doesn’t mean that everything will be perfect because you magically wish it to be; what it means is that when obstacles and difficulties inevitably come your way (and they will, because not everything is within your control) you’ll be much more inclined to look for the lessons and how the situation or challenge can help you to grow, rather than being sucked down by the negative aspects of the situation. The choice is always yours, and the decisions you make will have a direct impact on what happens next – so why not choose to look for the silver lining in things and give yourself a chance to grow? What you do next is entirely up to, so choose wisely.
That’s nearly it for this week’s episode. Each week I like to share a quote about this week’s topic and encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the great Albert Einstein, and it is:
“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”Albert Einstein
That’s it for this week’s episode. Next week I’ll be talking about letting go – I’ll be talking about the importance of letting go of your past to improve your mental health and wellbeing (and sharing how you can work through letting go).
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK & Ireland, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada. You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
You can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest – I’ve recently changed the account name to better reflect the focus on mental health and make it easier for new people to identify what LTAMH is all about, so the new username is now @ltamentalhealth on all social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest).
If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a five-star review on your podcast platform of choice and tell someone you know about the show (because word of mouth really helps new people to discover the program).
Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.