If you could look inside my brain you might be surprised to find some pretty negative thoughts: “Nothing works out,” “Everything is too hard,” “He always forgets,” “They always leave messes.” Do I have optimistic thoughts as well? Yes … but I’ve noticed they’re much harder to hold onto than the painful ones.
The world of social science research has some bad but validating news for us. Negative experiences are imprinted more deeply in our brains than positive ones. They are recalled more easily and unfortunately lend themselves to rumination … which strengthens their negative power even more.
We aren’t doing it intentionally. Our brains are just natural efficiency-machines, trying to get us safely through the day. They work hard to spot patterns, especially potentially negative ones, so they can cut corners in the future and not have to work as hard to figure things out. This is one of the reasons why stereotyping is a global societal problem; we make quick judgments and the unexamined mind is loaded with negative stereotypes. If humanity at large is guilty of operating out of this default setting, then as wives and mothers we are no exception in our own tiny domestic kingdoms.
Our husbands, kids and selves are the victims of a great deal of automatic, unreflected upon, harsh, black-and-white thinking. My husband sighs and I automatically assume he is exasperated with the messy house. Therefore, he’s being a ridiculous jerk … before the poor guy has even said a word. I assume my older daughter is being selfish with her abundance of toys when I hear my younger daughter scream from upstairs. I cut corners by yelling from the kitchen about taking turns. Next, I call myself an awful multitasker for having a messy house and squabbling children; all this impressively happens within about five seconds.
These negative assumptions are my unintentional, automatic shortcuts. My efficiency-machine of a brain is trying to be helpful by supplying information when reality itself has not supplied me with very much. I’m ready to work my butt off to combat this trend because I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer in these precious but challenging years with my young family.
Forsake the Automatic
We have to intentionally work at this. Starting today: Notice the mental corners you cut that lead you to negative assumptions about your husband and kiddos. Take a moment to reflect on the nuances and complexities of how you understand these treasured people and how you truly feel about them. This knowledge is a mixture of both positive and negative, and in most cases the scales ultimately tip toward the positive. Do you see how this definitely takes more work than just going along with your brain’s split-second assumption that you married an idiot and your kids are absolutely going to end up in prison? Do the extra mental work, it’s worth it.
Develop the Habit of Positivity
In order for a positive experience to make a lasting impression inside our noggins, it must be mindfully taken in and reflected upon for a moment (about 15 seconds will do it). When your husband finishes up meal prep, hands you a cup of coffee or makes you laugh – take it in. Take one breath; feel the tiny spark of life he just gave you and enjoy it. Repeat. Over and over and over again. The more you practice this, your brain will get out of the habit of projecting the word idiot onto the movie screen of your mind when he falls short because it doesn’t mentally fit or feel as true anymore. The same with kids, try to be consciously aware every time they bring you joy. Marvel at the look in their bright eyes, soak in a hug from those tiny arms, really feel that sticky kiss – well maybe I’m going too far. Whatever you treasure about them, taking a moment to soak it in will help combat your parenting pessimism and even your fears.
I know you’re tired of hearing about practicing gratitude, but we really stink at keeping it up long term. Keep a journal, write on Post-it notes, practice it every time you unload the dishwasher … gratitude for electricity, running water and infinite sippy cups. Notice as many good or beautiful things as you can, in your home, family and the natural world around you.
Make Your Mercies New Every Morning
Let us wake up every day with new, soft and open hearts, with minds intentionally directed toward the good and redirected away from the bad. Can you imagine months and years of living this way? Pain will still come to us, but a heart and mind that have cultivated the habits of positivity and gratitude are so much more resilient and creative – and they are far more comforting for children and spouses in these precious but challenging years.
Kelley Gray has been a private practice psychotherapist in the Denver area for 14 years. She is passionate about promoting growth, healing and making messes with her daughters.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of The MOPS Magazine. If you didn’t get a copy and would like your own, you can subscribe to get The MOPS Magazine in your mailbox every season. If you subscribe, forward your receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll shoot a copy of the current issue in the mail to you for free … just because we like you.