Let’s be crystal clear: “attitude” is not a magic wand.
Despite what some motivational memes on the Internet may imply, “attitude” will not automatically overcome physical or logistical limitations.
Despite our attitude, we all only have twenty four hours in a day; we all have a finite amount of physical energy; most of us have a finite amount of financial resources at any given time.
It annoys me when attitude is presented as a cure-all for limits. It just isn’t true.
In addition to being simply untrue, implying that attitude in itself is enough to overcome any limitations opens the door to some particularly unhelpful thoughts and beliefs— notably, that if we happen to find ourselves constrained by limits at the moment, it’s merely our attitude that s holding us back.
Trust me: there are real things holding you back, aside from attitude.
Falling into the trap of believing it’s all attitude-over-matter is often a route to blaming and shaming ourselves in ways that are robustly unhelpful.
None of this means that attitude doesn’t matter, however. Quite the opposite.
Attitude is a tool. It’s just like any other tool we have at our disposal to cope with challenges, solve problems, nudge toward our goals, and live our values: it’s useful when it’s the right tool for the job…and even though it’s not the right tool for EVERY job, knowing how and when to use the tool of attitude is part of successful personal growth.
Attitude can’t solve every problem you have.
But consciously choosing our attitude can have a tremendous impact on how quickly and elegantly we do solve our problems.
Thinking of attitude as a tool has several important implications, chief among them that attitude is a choice.
Many people aren’t used to thinking of attitude as a choice. They kind of think of attitude as the cumulative sum of their thoughts, feelings, and impressions about a particular subject, something that is arrived at passively. And for many people, this is the case— because they haven’t been taught to think of attitude as something they can have all that much control over.
Our attitude toward something is not the same as our gut-level reaction to it.
We might have a gut-level reaction to something that varies from positive and welcoming to negative and rejecting. But that’s just our reaction.
Our attitude is how we deal with our reaction— how we then DECIDE how to think about and RESPOND to the presence of something in our lives.
For example: we can have a REACTION to, say, a coworker that is resoundingly negative. They may irritate us, and we may be annoyed that we have to spend time around them and energy dealing with them.
However, even if that’s our initial reaction, we can choose a productive attitude toward having to deal with that coworker every day. We can choose to selectively emphasize, in our own minds, their positive (or, maybe, just their less annoying) traits. We can shift our focus to the aspects of our job that don’t require heavy interactions with that coworker. We can decide that we are going to approach going to work every day with an attitude of relatively positive expectation, selectively emphasizing in our minds the interactions that went well (or, at least, that were less painful than others).
Understand: our attitude toward this coworker doesn’t solve the problem of having to go to work every day and deal with them. Limits are real, and attitude doesn’t immediately transcend them.
However, it is absolutely true that managing our expectations and focus and approach to the situation— our attitude— can dramatically impact how painful and inconvenient we find the task of going into work and having to deal with this person.
Attitude isn’t everything, but it matters.
Why do so many people want us to believe that “attitude is everything,” then?
Some people really enjoy the fantasy of being able to alter everything about their world with a simple shift of perspective.
For that matter, some people have experienced how powerful a shift in perspective— a tool cognitive therapists call “reframing”— can be, and they might get a little carried away with exactly HOW powerful a tool it can be.
Remember, attitude is a tool. It’s just like self-talk, grounding, containment, reframing, goal-setting, and time management.
All of those are incredibly important tools— but none of them, on their own, will solve every problem that we have.
Develop your tools. Use our tools.
But also remember that tools are only as good as their appropriateness to the job at hand.
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