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How to retrain your brain to be positive

This Mother’s Day, I’m without a mom. But I learned how to be happy again.

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I was at work facilitating a leadership workshop, when I noticed three missed calls on my cell phone. I felt butterflies in my stomach. It was the day of my book launch, and I couldn’t wait for my publisher to let me know how it performed on Amazon.

But there was no news from my publisher. All the missed calls were from my dad. That’s weird, Dad usually doesn’t call me when I’m at work, I thought. I made a mental note to call him back.

When I finally spoke to my dad, he was drowning in tears. “Mom died. Your mom died. I don’t know what to do. She just fell asleep and didn’t wake up.” He kept repeating these words over and over again.

I felt my whole body ache. Only two days ago, my mom had sent me pictures of her dancing at a wedding party. And now she was gone? I burst out in tears and called my husband to meet me at the airport. We were going to my parents’ home.

While we were waiting to board, an incoming message popped up on my screen. This time it was my publisher. “It’s a bestseller,” it read. I turned off the phone. I hated that book, and I wished I had never written a word in my life.

In the months to follow, two things I loved doing the most—facilitating workshops and writing—turned into something that caused me the most pain. They reminded me of losing the most special person in my life.

Each time I went to a workshop, I got a fever, nausea, or my throat ached. Each time I tried to write, nothing came to mind but memories of the funeral. I felt I had completely lost myself, until one evening I stumbled upon Marisa Peer’s book Ultimate Confidence: The Secrets About Feeling Great About Yourself Every Day.

In particular, one sentence jumped out at me: “The first stage in changing our attitude…is to be aware that nothing in life ever influences human beings more than what they link pain and pleasure to, and then using this information to our benefit.”

According to Peer, when we’re stuck, the problem is that we give confusing messages to our brains. “You can’t succeed at anything if you simultaneously link pain and pleasure to it,” she explains. “When you link pleasure to getting a pay rise or a promotion but pain to having to ask your boss for it, you will be stuck.”

This realization kept me up the whole night. Was I sending confusing messages to my brain? I loved writing and being in workshops, but now I also hated it. What if my mind made sure I got sick so I didn’t have to be in workshops? What if it shut down my creativity so I didn’t have to write? And what if it did all that to protect me from pain? Looking at my life from this perspective, I felt infinite compassion for myself. 

What I’ve learned is that we have the power to change our reality when we consciously choose what we want to associate with pain and pleasure. Here are three steps to do this, according to Marisa Peer:

1. Think about a life circumstance where you feel stuck. Write down what you associate with pain in this situation. In my case, I linked writing and facilitating workshops to the memory of losing my mom.

2. Turn that pain into pleasure. I did this by remembering that my mom wanted me to enjoy my work. I remembered how happy she was that I got to publish my first book. And each time I had an important workshop, she called to ask how it went. 

3. Write down what you link pleasure to in this situation. Here’s what I wrote down: “I love writing because sharing my struggles with others helps them deal with their challenges. And when I’m in a workshop, I help people be the best they can be at work.” 

Today I enjoy my work as a writer and leadership expert again. Most importantly, I know that I have the power to retrain my brain to help me achieve my goals whenever I need it.

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