Overcoming negativity – perhaps your own

Some people are intrinsically negative.  Quite simply, negativity is an inherent component of their identity; it helps to define them.

Other people enter the realm of negativity only when major events cause their lives to fall apart in some way.  It may also happen when another person causes so much irritation or pain that customary patience and tolerance evaporate.  It’s probably fair to say that in recent years, the pressures of COVID-19 and other political and social changes have been pushing more and more usually optimistic people towards uncharacteristic negativity.

About 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates famously said that “an unexamined life is not worth living”.  In other words, if we don’t take the time to reflect and learn from life’s experiences, then our souls – our true selves – remain stunted and immature.

On the other hand, excessive introspection can have a similar effect, leading to depression and psychological paralysis that not only makes the individual less effective, but negatively impacts on those around that individual – friends, family, co-workers – everyone.

I can / can't do it.

Those in school leadership positions can be especially vulnerable to negative mindsets, especially if they take to heart the inevitable criticism that follows any and every decision they make.  After all, every decision affects other people, and even the most positive change will unavoidably disadvantage someone in some way.  As a generalisation, school leaders tend to be idealistic people pleasers (school boards less so!), and thus negative mindsets can easily become a common hazard of school leadership.

Here are four practical, and hopefully effective, approaches that may help school leaders overcome negativity.

1.    Take the time to pause and reflect. 

Decisions in schools are rarely required as urgently as most school leaders think.  In stressful situations, conscious deep breathing often helps, but there are also occasions when this strategy is inadequate.  This is when it becomes necessary to walk away from whatever is happening to a different venue and take a break.  Of course, doing so is seldom easy in a school environment, and it demands considerable self-discipline – paradoxically more self-discipline than remaining within the stressful situation!  Nonetheless, a physical break promotes clear reflective thought, especially when combined with some physical activity such as walking, swimming or cycling.  A chocolate biscuit or two (but never more than that) may also be a great help in overcoming negative thinking.

2.    Focus on the things that are going well before pivoting to the problems. 

Although it may be easier said than done, a positive, optimistic mindset is a wonderful antidote to negative thinking as it can calm internal conflict and place negativity in proper perspective.  Calling a halt (or ‘timeout’) to whatever events are happening and simply taking the time to reflect – or even better, pray (if prayer is part of your life) – can really help to restore optimism and idealism.  A productive thought process could perhaps begin by considering the detrimental things that could easily have happened but didn’t, and then try to find things that are genuinely positive.  To paraphrase and mix some common aphorisms, ‘take time to smell the roses’ and thus ‘wake up and smell the coffee’.  

3.    Make sure expectations are realistic. 

Many school leaders are not only ‘people pleasers’ (as described above’) – many are also perfectionists.  School leaders who hold themselves responsible or accountable for unrealistic, perfectionistic excellence – sometimes reinforced or even amplified by their board’s ambitious expectations – can easily find themselves feeling frustrated, fearful, anxious or hopeless in the face of hostility or resistance.  The tensions faced by school leaders in achieving their own aspirations while simultaneously satisfying others’ expectations and demands often lead to turmoil, and in far too many situations, backhanded complaints from others to the school board (to which the Principal is directly responsible).  Of course, aspiring to achieve the very best for everyone in a school community, inspiring others through personal example and taking the school to new heights are all admirable and worthy goals, but there are times when leaders need to refocus on achieving a lesser outcome that would satisfy the requirements even if not every facet of the outcome is ideal.  

4.    Maintain open conversations with trusted colleagues and friends. 

Loneliness is a strong ally of negativity.  Another accomplice of negativity is the need that many school leaders have to maintain an artificially positive public persona even when life and work are not going well.  Having a close confidante is almost essential in times of stress and uncertainty – ideally a spouse or partner, but perhaps alternatively a pastor, a long-term trusted friend, or maybe even the board chair if the board-head relationship is of such quality that transparency, frankness and confidentiality have been established.

I should emphasise that this article explores what I call ‘garden-variety negative thinking’, NOT clinical depression or anxiety.  If you think you may be suffering from either of these conditions, please seek professional help, or at the very least, visit a website such as one of the following:

In Australia: Better Health Channel or Beyond Blue 

In Canada: Public Health Agency of Canada 

In New Zealand: Manatu Hauora / Ministry of Health or Mental Health Foundation 

In the United Kingdom: NHS National Health Service 

In the United States: the National Alliance of Mental Illness 

-Dr Stephen Codrington   

The challenges of dealing with change are covered in our workshop OSG-S8 Directing and Managing Change.

We offer mentoring and professional support to meet specific challenges being faced by school leaders and/or boards; see this page for some details, or send us an e-mail at [email protected] to initiate a conversation.

Detailed advice on this and other aspects of effective leadership and school governance is provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

You may also be interested in previous articles which are archived at https://optimalschool.com/articles.html. You can subscribe to receive future articles by e-mail using the red button below.