Where Do You Focus Your Attention?

There is a lot of talk about the importance of focusing on the positive. There is certainly value in focusing your attention on the positive. However, like anything, too much of a good thing, can work against you. There are times when it is valuable to focus your attention on the negative.

The idea being pedalled is to stay positive about your goals, and don’t let the negative distract you.  I’m familiar with the examples used to illustrate the point, but it doesn’t make the point true all the time in every instance.

Do you have absolute control over your attention?

First of all the axiom assumes that all people have complete control over their attention. This just isn’t the case. Most people haven’t been introduced to the idea of controlling their attention. They haven’t practiced it, and they aren’t skilled at it, particularly when it comes to dealing with their emotional situations.

Very often people will focus on a positive aspect of a bad situation and then four, or fourteen minutes later their mind has wandered back to the old negative story.

When you attempt to follow the axiom “Stay focused on the positive you are set up for failure. Not because you are a failure, or undisciplined, but because you have not practiced and developed the skill of controlling your attention. This is particularly challenging when in the midst of unpleasant emotions.

Focusing your attention without distraction for as long as a day is roughly equivalent to running a marathon. You need skilled and effective training before you could expect to do either. (In the Self Mastery Course there are exercises and practices to gain and control your attention.)

Without the development of this skill you are set up for failure. If you expected to succeed, in spite of no instruction, training or practice, you are probably in for a dose of self judgment from the voice in their head. If this is you, then stop it. Quit trying harder to do something that doesn’t work.

But let’s put aside the issue of controlling your attention. Let’s take another look at this philosophy of focusing on the positive all the time and see where it falls apart.
Not Every Situation is the Same

The philosophy assumes that the persistence that worked for one person will work for everyone all the time. It assumes that you should apply this approach to every situation. There’s a part of the mind that loves this simplicity and likes to believe it is somehow true. This is also the same part of the mind that is prone to believe in illusions.

Different situations call for different strategies. Just because a persistent positive approach worked in one case, doesn’t mean it will always work. There is such thing as irrational exuberance. Look at the cycles in the real estate or stock markets. There’s a wrong time to assume the positive about the markets, a relationship, or be overconfidence in your abilities.

When Positive Focus Strategies are too General

Suppose I’m out sailing in a boat and I discover there is a leak. I’m taking on water. I don’t think I should be focused on the beauty of the day, the sun on the water, or the wind in my hair. Sure that would be “more positive”and fit with a live in the moment philosophy, but it goes against my survival instinct. I’m going to put my attention below decks on the water problem. Focusing on the negative is the best use of my time.

If a young child is having difficulty with math, should they just give up on learning long division? Perhaps they can do some problems well, but they keep making mistakes with others? Should they leave the difficult ones alone and focus on the positive of what they do well? Maybe they should just focus on the subjects they feel more positive about like English and History. I’m going to assume that people espousing the philosophy don’t mean it in this way, but they leave it open for misinterpretation when they are not specific.

When you distill life strategies down to one sentence you lose and distort meaningful elements like context, application, and exceptions.

Theres a time and place to Focus on the Negative

A student struggling with math could potentially gain more by focusing on what they are struggling with. For the greatest benefit they might want to focus on the specific causes of those problems. What faulty reasoning are they applying that is creating the mistakes? What mental images and abstractions does their mind construct that distorts their understanding? How much sugar did they have during the day affecting their ability to concentrate? If they put their attention on the specific part of the process that is getting them to produce bad results they can change it.

The problem isn’t the wrong answer. Getting the wrong answer is a symptom of something distorted in their reasoning. Focusing on the faulty logic producing those mistakes is where they can gain the most value.

Focusing on the positive like History, English, or the problems they can do easily won’t serve them as well. It fits the “Focus on the Positive”mantra but is a disservice when poorly applied. If a teaching isn’t presented with a proper context, it can be misapplied and cause more problems than help. This is often the case with spiritual or self help teachings.

Self Reflection on the Negative

If I’m not achieving my goals I want to know what I’m tripping over. I want to know the faulty logic that drives sabotaging behaviors and produces negative results. I want to put my attention on the negative so I can figure out what is in my unconscious decision making process and make changes to it. I can’t change something that I’m not aware of. If I attempt to always focus on the positive I’ll never be able to make these important changes.

There is real value in focusing on the negative, or what is sometimes called the darker side of our self. However that is still too vague. When you focus on the negative, you have to be precise in what you are looking at or you can waste a lot of time and get no where.
In the sinking boat story, it is the water that will sink the boat. However it doesn’t do much good to focus on the water. The water is a symptom of the real problem. Focus your attention on finding the leak that is letting all the water into the boat.

You can bail the water and that can help for a while depending on the circumstances Bailing is a good temporary compensating strategy that can buy you some time, but eventually you will have to rest, and who will bail then?

A compensating strategy is a short term, hold things over, and make your self feel better, without really addressing the core issue approach to the problem. The real solution is in finding and fixing the leak. This is the specific part of the negative that should get your attention and bring you the most benefit.

Jealousy and Anger:   Example emotional reaction

The emotional reaction of jealousy is something that can sink a relationship. Jealousy can produce anger and other controlling behaviors. Attempting to change the anger and controlling behavior is like focusing on the water in the boat. It’s just the symptom of an underlying problem. Underneath that layer of anger and jealousy is likely a feeling of insecurity. Putting your attention on that issue brings you closer to the leaking emotions.

If you spend time exploring and understanding the issue of insecurity you will find that one of the elements is rejection due to self judgment. If you thin slice self judgment you find specific beliefs that cause the self judgment. (I explain these in detail in the Self Judgment audio) The structure of core beliefs that generate self judgment is the hole in the boat.

You can’t address jealousy until you address the underlying insecurity. But you can’t address insecurity until you address the contributing self rejection from self judgment. Restructure those core beliefs and you no longer have the overflowing emotions of jealousy and anger to bail out.

Its not enough to focus on the negative.

It’s not enough to focus on the negative. If you want to make changes in your emotional reactions you will need to focus on the cause within the negative. You have to bring your attention to those causes with clarity and precision. The exercises in the Self Mastery Course guide you through developing these skills.

I’m not advising that you focus on the negative all the time. That’s too general and to be helpful we need to be more specific than that or we get into trouble. I’m suggesting that you focus on the beliefs and assumptions creating the negative emotions. I’m also suggesting that when you do this you do it with the skills necessary to change those beliefs. It is best to be specific about these things.

Some people will look at the process of identifying and changing core beliefs and interpret that it is a lot of work. At least that is the assumption their mind will make as a reaction. When they make this observation I don’t think they considered how much work the alternative is; Working the rest of their life to compensate for the emotional reactions sinking their happiness.

Emotional Issues

There’s a lot of pop advice for emotional issues like insecurity, jealousy, and anger. Focus on the positive is just one example. That approach is just too simple, and general to be effective. Like most one liners, it doesn’t address any of the causes to those emotional issues. It doesn’t address or change the underlying assumptions, and interpretations that the mind is habitually making.

The approach to “Focus on the Positive” is often used as a compensating strategy. It gives the appearance of making things better. You feel better when you focus on positive things, but only temporarily. The beliefs at the root of the problem are still there and keep creating problems. Kind of like that hole in the boat, or that faulty math logic that keeps producing the wrong answer.

Dwell on the Negative

There are those that say, “Don’t dwell on the negative.” They say it without regard for the finer points. They say it in a way that tempts people to ignore the causes of their problems, and thereby repeat them. That kind of general advice without a proper context can be dangerous. You run the risk of applying the axiom to every situation without checking to see if the circumstances are applicable or measuring how effective the strategy is.

The persistence of thinking you should “Focus on the positive” will hypnotize you into ignoring the real causes that created the negative situation to begin with. Ignore those causes and your emotional drama patterns in your history will likely repeat. Pay attention to what caused the negative reactions and you open up a gold mine of discovery for self awareness and personal growth.

Practical exercises in gaining control over your attention as well as identifying and changing core beliefs can be found in the Self Mastery Course. The first few sessions are free.