I read an insightful article in the Harvard Business Review last year by Kare Anderson, co-founder of the Say It Better Center and a best-selling author. The title was “What Captures Your Attention Controls Your Life.” She makes this statement:
“Whatever we focus upon actually wires our neurons. For example, pessimistic people see setbacks and unhappy events as Personal (It’s worst for me), Pervasive (Everything is now worse) and Permanent (It will always be this way) according to Learned Optimism author Marty Seligman. Yet, with practice, he found that we can learn to focus more attention on the positive possibilities in situations to then craft a redemptive narrative of our life story. Consciously changing what you pay attention to can rewire your brain from a negative orientation to a positive one. ‘Attention shapes the brain,’ as Rick Hanson says in Buddha’s Brain.”
Analyzing Your Words, Phrases, and Thoughts
Have you ever spent some time analyzing what you focus your attention upon? It would be fairly enlightening to us, I’m sure, if we had someone follow us around all week long, taking notes of everything we said out loud. What would those notes say about our primary focus and orientation? Kind of a scary thought, isn’t it!
Every once in a while, my wife Shasta will inform me that she hears me use certain phrases a lot, often on the negative side. One of them used to be, “This is overwhelming!”
As I thought about my use of that phrase, I could see that my focus typically was negative, pessimistic. Every time I used those words I was telling myself that my situation was beyond my capability to navigate well. I was a victim to my circumstances. It was beyond me to push through the obstacles. In effect, I was wiring my brain to see weakness and inability and scarcity. So because my brain was getting this message, it was sending that message to the rest of my body and I would always start feeling a physiological sag, too. Body follows spirit.
Whatever we focus upon does wire our neurons. Anderson’s point is well made: Consciously changing what you pay attention to can rewire your brain for good. And that always impacts your whole body, as well.
Emphasizing Your Strengths Instead of Weaknesses
This is one of the reasons I love doing strengths coaching. The emphasis on strengths instead of weaknesses is very empowering.
The father of strengths psychology, Donald Clifton, began his ground-breaking work by choosing to change the question psychologists were asking about people. Instead of asking the question, “What’s wrong with people?” he challenged that exclusive focus by asking, “What’s right with people?” He said,
“What would happen if we focused not on pathology but on strengths, studying how people are strong, what do they do that makes them feel energized, in the zone, competent, and more fulfilled?”
With this focus, we don’t ignore weaknesses. We don’t pretend they don’t exist. We acknowledge that every strength has a shadow side that must be brought into the light and managed. But our primary focus is on what makes us strong, our innately wired strengths and themes and talents. Focusing on that reality creates an almost limitless possibility for growth, powerful change, and life transformation.
As Anderson pointed out, attention shapes our brain. So choosing to be intentional about what we’re focusing on in our lives will make a huge difference in the quality and outcomes of our lives.
Developing Your Conscious Competence
So take a few minutes to ask yourself these five questions and jot down some responses:
- What do my spoken words say about where I’m often placing my focus?
- How can I reframe my words/phrases to shape a more positive focus?
- What thoughts tend to captivate my internal attention? Are they primarily negative or positive?
- Am I a strength-oriented person or a weakness-focused person?
- Do I know what my top strengths are? And if so, how much focus do I put on them, how much intentionality in leveraging and using them more and more? What are specific ways I can step into those strengths more often and more deeply?
Answering questions like these develop what I call “conscious competence.” The more aware and enlightened you are about how you’re strong and what makes you strong, the greater your ability for competence and therefore for fulfillment and energy. You can’t practice and develop what you don’t know you have.
So next time I’m tempted to droop my shoulders in despair and sigh, “This is overwhelming!” I’m going to say instead, “This appears difficult, but I’m strong and I can find a way through!” It’s a good place to begin. Followed by applying my strengths to finding a way through. That’s a strong combination!
If you’d like some help going through this refocusing on strengths process, email me: firstname.lastname@example.org. It could be one of the more strategic decisions you make these days.