This year, I’m synthesizing the discoveries and lessons learned from a decade of work with coaching clients, crystallizing what helped each of them overcome their obstacles and achieve their goals. I’m sharing these key insights and making suggestions for how you can apply them in your own life. Today, let’s take a look at another key skill that can help you break through Thirtysomething Panic: Narrate with neutrality. This means making the Negative—> Neutral Shift.
If you’ve ventured even a little bit into the personal development realm, you’re familiar with the power of positive thinking. You know—or at least, you’ve heard—that thinking more positively can actually lead to more positive results.
But if you’ve been feeling really crappy about your situation or telling a nasty story about yourself, jumping to positive thinking can be really, really hard. Positive thinking can become another “should”—one more thing you know you ought to do, but struggle mightily with. One more thing you’re failing at. While changing to a positive narrative can be really helpful, lots of people have trouble making that leap and really believing it or connecting with it.
What’s more, forcing yourself into a positive narrative can backfire. It can have the effect of denying part of your reality, and lead you to suppress grief and other tough emotions. But those emotions don’t go away just because you force them aside. They may shout louder, or they may get stored in your body in other ways. (Hello, mind-body connection.) Sometimes, forcing yourself to jump to positive thinking can create a big internal conflict—a perpetual power struggle inside of you. This can actually slow down or limit your progress in the long run.
If you struggle with positive thinking, I have great news for you: that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to think more positively, or that you can’t change your life until you truly feel positive about it.
Instead, you can practice setting your GPS to a different destination: Neutrality. That’s what the Negative —> Neutral Shift is all about.
Rather than trying to think positively, or continuing to think negatively, neutrality is about peeling back all of the judgment we pile on to our circumstances, and reporting the bare facts—sans spin. When you’re caught up in negative thinking, instead of trying to force yourself to think in the polar opposite way, the focus in the Negative —> Neutral Shift is on reducing judgment.
In a strange way, negative and positive thinking have a lot in common: they are both full of judgment, projection, selective inclusion, and interpretation. They both take in our circumstances and evaluate them. A positive spin is still a spin.
We are wired to place interpretations on our circumstances, and we do this so automatically that we sometimes don’t even realize we’re doing it.
If you’re feeling crappy about your life, your choices, or your circumstances, chances are you are putting a negative spin on the facts of your situation. If you’re feeling great about your life, your choices, or your circumstances, chances are you’re interpreting the facts of your situation positively.
Both involve judgment.
Let’s look at common example.
Say you’re single, and you want to be in a relationship.
Your negative narrative says: There’s something wrong with me. I suck at dating. There’s no one good left out there. I keep trying and failing to find someone. I waited too long. I tried too hard. I didn’t try hard enough. I should have broken up with X sooner. I should never have broken up with X. I’ve missed my chance.
Positive thinking might go like this: It’s so amazingly awesome being single! I can do whatever I want! I get to date and meet new people. I had so much courage not settling for the wrong person. There is someone out there for me—I just haven’t found them yet. I’m independent! I’m a catch!
All of those positive thoughts could be just as true as, or truer than, the negative thoughts. But if you’re like most people dealing with Thirtysomething Panic, those positive thoughts don’t FEEL as real as the negative ones. They feel like trying to convince yourself of something you WISH you believed, when what FEELS true is the negative thoughts. Positive thinking becomes another “should.”
I hear this plaintive tone so frequently in my clients: positive statements that sound like a balloon with no air in it—totally deflated and devoid of emotional resonance with the statement.
If positive thinking is not creating a shift in feeling, or not feeling “real” to you, consider practicing non-judgment, and shifting into neutral.
Remember, negative and positive are two sides of the judgment pole. They are both judgments. When you practice neutral thinking, you take all the judgment off of the facts, and simply describe what is, without evaluation.
In our example, neutrality might sound like: I am single. Many of my friends are in committed partnerships. Some are not. I thought I would be in a relationship by now, and I am not. I would like a partner. Sometimes I have actively pursued meeting someone and gone on dates, and sometimes I have not. I could have chosen to stay with X/break up with X sooner, and I made a different choice. There are some ways that not being in a relationship gives me experiences I likely wouldn’t have if I was in a relationship. There are also some ways that being in a relationship could give me experiences I do not have.
Notice that when you are in neutral, the statements are inarguable. They are observations without a spin. That doesn’t mean they don’t trigger feelings, or that they ignore feelings. (For example, “Sometimes I feel very sad that I’m not in a committed relationship” is not a spun statement; it is neither positive nor negative. It’s just a description of what is. Your feelings are inarguable experiences.)
When you describe your life in neutral, you may notice your nervous system settling down, because there is no tug of war. With each fact articulated, you might notice your inner voice saying, “yeah” or “yup” or “yes.” “That’s true.”
A curious thing happens when we practice stepping into neutral: once we’ve grounded ourselves in the non-judgmental neutral zone, we can feel a sense of peace. There’s something validating in not pushing against our negative feelings to try to force them to be positive. At the same time, we’re not wallowing in our negative story. We’re just sitting with the current facts, acknowledging what currently is.
Spoiler alert: once we’ve made this shift into neutrality, we are often more able to move into a more positive story with greater buy-in and ease. When there’s space for our pain to be part of our reality, without argument, it doesn’t have to keep shouting to be heard. And then we can get to work.
Put it into Action!
Let’s practice this! You’ll need a few sheets of paper, a pen, and 12 minutes. (I suggest writing by hand if possible, though you may choose to type instead.)
Choose an area of your life that isn’t where you want it to be. (If you feel like NOTHING in your life is where you want it to be, let yourself write about all of it together.) Set a timer for three minutes. Write out an UNCENSORED brain dump/heart dump account of the situation. Don’t try to make yourself be positive, or neutral. Just vent it out. All the bad feelings and thoughts, all the nasty stories, all the mean things your inner critic says to you about the situation.
When you’re done, get up and leave the room—get a glass of water, or do some stretches or jumping jacks—something to just clear the palate.
Now, set the timer for three minutes again. This time, describe the situation without judgment (positive OR negative). Aim to describe the situation in a just-the-facts style. You’ll know you’re on the right track if no one could argue with what you are writing. You can include your feelings (I feel very angry and sometimes I think that it will never happen for me!), because no one can argue that you DON’T think what you think or feel what you feel—even if they can argue that you could or SHOULD feel or think differently.
When you are done, set the timer for three more minutes. This time, write about your experience with this exercise. What did you notice? What difference do you feel in your body, writing from neutral?
The Negative —> Neutral Shift is important for many reasons. One of the biggest is that it helps you break the pattern of invalidating yourself, and adding pain and struggle to your circumstances. It also paves the path for more positive thinking: positive thinking that you can actually resonate with, vs. begrudgingly try to pretend to feel.
P.S. It’s one thing to read about this concept. This is one of those exercise that you really have to DO in order to benefit from. You only need 12 minutes. Is practicing a skill that will help you change your life worth 12 minutes?