Think about the last time you were told to "think positively." Did you find this to be an all-or-nothing approach? If so, it is probably time to redefine how we think positively. Unquestionably, the benefits of positive thoughts are hard to deny. By thinking optimistically, there is a notion that we can start willing good things back into our lives. We don't need science to tell us that being positively disposed leads to enhanced physical, mental, and emotional well-being. The problem is that diabolizing negative, less-comfortable thinking can also be dangerous.
When we're told to think positively, it's a gross oversimplification. Determining thoughts to be either positive or negative can lead to jumping back and forth between opposites in our heads. The idea that we must maintain a positive outlook is unrealistic and harmful. We feel guilt and inadequacy for failing to remain positive. The real power of staying positive is allowing feelings to coexist like a lighthouse shines light through the dark.
Negative emotions serve a purpose. According to the article "Positively Blinkered" in this month's edition of Breathe Mental Health,
“The idea that it’s not okay to be angry, sad, jealous, or afraid falls short of the mark. These are valuable navigational tools. They let you know that something isn’t quite right, identify areas that need attention, and propel you in the direction of a happier, more meaningful life.”
I find this particularly helpful to discuss, given how so often people in aviation are told to remain blindly optimistic by "sucking it up" because "so and so is happy; why can't you be?" The stigma is compounded in these situations by ignorant individuals not realizing the harm they are doing. Often, these thoughts arise over finding differences in values. For example, when issuing overtime, supervisors quickly mention that "Jon did twelve hours the other day and was fine; what's Bill's problem?" Well, Bill and Jon place different values on time and money, so it is no one's fault per se.
We must give negativity a place to live that we can manage. By neglecting to acknowledge negative thoughts, we are passing over chances to make "deep and powerful adaptations." Instead, these negative emotions lay unseen, festering more as time progresses. Metaphorically, I imagine a shark underwater. In the article, we are given seven steps to chart our positivity.
Avoid suppressing negative thoughts. They pop into your head for a reason. Sometimes, they are unconscious thoughts surfacing for air. Other times, they are intrusive thoughts we must brush aside. Determining which it is is essential in gathering how to handle what comes next. Think of this as an opportunity to address an underlying issue.
The article uses an excellent analogy to help paint a picture. Imagine we are pulling weeds. The weeds will keep returning over time unless we pull out the roots. The next time you are feeling critical or self-doubting, it is crucial that you analyze what you are feeling and ask, "Why am I feeling this way?" Review the following thought pattern for analysis:
Thought: "I am never going to be trained to tow!"
Feelings: Stress and impatience with the process.
Question: Is my thought 100% accurate, or might there be a more compassionate truth?
Updated thought: "It might take some time, but so long as I continue to work hard, I will be trained to tow eventually."
See the reality. Positivity is "the presence, rather than the absence, of a certain substance, condition, or feature." We must be truthful about our circumstances and whether they are negative or positive. Unquestioning optimism is harmful since positivity is not present, a condition required by definition. There needs to be a foundation of truth to your optimistic feelings instead of forcing a concept that does not exist. The author uses an excellent example of candidates preparing for a job interview in the article.
For one candidate, they will feel optimistic about the job and that they are the best fit for the role. They think the job is theirs before they even walk through the doors. They are sometimes correct, and their attitude can generate some success. However, this approach is more than one-size-fits-all. Imagine someone with lesser confidence, possibly yourself, were to attempt this approach. The optimism would feel forced, leaving a hollow feeling inside and likely to generate a different result.
I do not need to explain why feeling unfit for the position will likely not land you the job you want. The first approach only worked because it was founded in truth - the individual thought he was the best because he was, potentially landing him the job. The other two individuals are left in compromising positions with the same thought process.
I always say life is about the grey area. No one is perfect, and there is nothing wrong with acknowledging the places you could improve on. This is why feedback and introspection are so important - we are all works-in-process, and constructive feedback tools or processes will help guide us in the right direction. Please remember to be nice to yourself during the process. There is nothing wrong with the grey area; we should live here.
Develop mental agility. Where do you lie on the spectrum between over-affirmation and self-depreciation? If you find you lie on one extreme or the other, chances are you are subject to harmful black-and-white thinking. Like a rainbow, there are other different colors on the spectrum. In life, we rarely come across purely black-and-white situations. Similarly, the events we encounter in our work are never all-or-nothing.
Aviation is dynamic, requiring us to remain flexible. Avoid seeing words such as "no one," "always," and "never." These are generalizations and should be avoided. It would be best to place doubt in those thoughts when you do, turning the table on your circumstance. Ask yourself, "Do bad things always happen to me? Am I always getting the short end of the stick?" These efforts should be made to see how things are so we can appropriately handle our reactions. At first, you may find this problematic, so it is essential to retrain how we think about our situations slowly. One step at a time!
Knowing it takes more than thinking. Staying positive is admirable; it goes a long way to influencing who you are and where to go. But, if you are a commercial pilot flying with advanced computers, you must do more than enter an airport code. We must first construct our flight plan and finally reach our intended destination. Our actions must reflect our thoughts along the way.
With this in place, we grow stronger as we pursue this end destination. Remaining constructive about our development will keep a feeling of positivity and allow us to remain flexible should we momentarily veer off course. It will happen. Maybe not a perfect analogy, but you may be able to think of a time you veered off course. We can correct and navigate back on the path with the right tools and proper training.
Sometimes, planes have to change course or divert. You may think you know where you are heading, but even that is subject to change over time. Career-wise, most of us will eventually encounter a possible fork in the road. Looking at this from a black-or-white perspective may have fatal consequences for our potential hopes and dreams. When seen as an opportunity, we must calculate and adjust course if needed to get us on the right track.
Recognize the things you can't control. Sometimes, it is foggy, and your airplane cannot land. Bad things are bound to happen no matter how hard someone tries to stay positive. This is just a part of life we must accept. Recognizing our span of control helps us evaluate our influence in a particular situation. If you can do nothing, you must take this as a fact. The problem is already going to entail adverse feelings. Why complicate it further?
What we can control, however, is how we respond. Our response begins with how we interpret the situation. Accepting our limited control can, in a way, be liberating and helps keep perspective. For example, my grandfather recently passed away. While I will miss him dearly, there was nothing I could have done personally to change this fate. Understanding this relieves me of intrusive guilt; I am more able to clearly remember him for all the great moments and his accomplishments, something I will forever be grateful for.
When it all gets too much. We all have our capacity that, when exceeded, will not be resolved solely by bolstering our positive thinking. This capacity will be surpassed now and then, especially in trying times. Some of us can weather the storm unscathed through the other side. But that is only sometimes the case; nothing about that is wrong. Thankfully, there are resources, even in our stigmatized industry.
I always suggest talking to someone professionally as the first step. Shortly after, I chose medicine (I am very open about it), but this is optional. Do not be intimidated by the big pharmacies - no doctor will require you to be medicated. Aviation isn't the only industry that operates under a microscope regarding who can take what, but options exist. If you have thought about speaking to a professional but have reservations, talk with someone close to you. Baby steps help get some of the weight off your shoulders.
As always, you can always reach out to me. I hope to one day grow enough to partner with organizations like BetterHelp as a resource for troubled aviation professionals. But I am always here to talk, no matter what you'd like to chat about. I'm here for it!