Are you using psychological warfare…on yourself?

What can we learn about positive thinking from a North Korean POW camp?

Quite a bit, according to Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton. In their book, How Full Is Your Bucket?, they examine one of the most effective instances of psychological warfare ever recorded.

The captive soldiers in North Korean POW camps were given sufficient food, water and shelter. More significantly, they were subjected to fewer instances of physical abuse than reported in prison camps from any other major military conflict in history.

And yet, these camps had the highest death POW death rate in U.S. military history: 38%. And roughly half of these soldiers died not from disease or injury, but because they had lost the will to live.

How did the North Koreans manage to convince so many American prisoners of war to simply give up and die?

Through a very simple four-pronged system of psychological warfare:

  1. They encouraged the POWs to inform on each other using cigarettes and other rewards. Neither the informant nor the informed-upon was punished, but the atmosphere of distrust that this generated gave the POWs a sense of being emotionally isolated and kept them from forming friendships or helping each other.
  2. They promoted self-criticism with “reverse therapy” groups. The North Koreans would gather a dozen POWs at a time and require each man to confess to the group a) all the bad things he had ever done and b) all the good things he could have done but failed to do.
  3. They undermined each POW’s sense of loyalty to country and to his superiors, making the POWs feel even more isolated.
  4. They allowed POWs to read letters from home which contained bad news–even going so far as to deliver overdue bills from collection agencies–but withheld letters which contained good news or loving messages from friends and family.

So…what does that have to do with you and me?

Everyday Types of Psychological Warfare

It’s true, we’re not prisoners of war, at the mercy of an enemy devoted to demoralizing us. But when was the last time you:

  • Bad-mouthed or gossiped about someone behind their back? This is essentially a type of informing, and it has the same isolating, relationship-destroying impact in the long term.
  • Repeatedly said or thought “I should have done X” or “I shouldn’t have done Y”? When you do this, you’re engaging in the same kind of “reverse therapy” that was so demoralizing to POWs in those North Korean camps.
  • Obsessively worried about all the ways that others have slighted or failed to accept you? By focusing on how you are an outsider, you increase your own sense of isolation, possibly even creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by acting in ways that make others less likely to include you.
  • Overreacted to negative feedback and/or discounted compliments and other positive feedback? It’s true that sometimes you have to think about a problem in order to resolve it, but making a habit of focusing on life’s negatives and failing to appreciate life’s positives is emotionally-draining and demotivating.

Stopping the Downward Spiral

These four negative mental habits are so easy to get sucked into. How can we stop doing this to ourselves?

  • Instead of gossiping or bad-mouthing others behind their backs, try to find a constructive way to deal with the person who’s frustrating you. Can you limit your exposure to them? Forgive them? Politely ask them to stop doing the thing that’s driving you nuts? Find a way to work around them?
  • When you catch yourself saying, “I should have done X,” stop and rephrase in a more positive way: “In the future, when I have this problem, I will do X.” Or “I haven’t done X yet.” (Assuming X needs to get done…why not take it a step further and plan a time to do it?)
  • Instead of focusing on your mistakes, focus on what you learned–and then remind yourself of something you did RIGHT. We all make mistakes, but the important thing is to learn from your experiences without overreacting to them or defining yourself by them.
  • One of the most reliable ways to eliminate feelings of alienation is to focus on what you can do for other people. Helping someone else in the smallest way–picking up a dropped item, opening a door, taking the time to smile or offer a sincere compliment–not only gives you a sense of positive social connection, but it also makes you the kind of person that others do want to include in the future.
  • Counteract some of those negative thoughts by practicing gratitude: make a list of five things you’re thankful for. No matter how small those good things are compared to the problems that are stressing you out, just acknowledging that things aren’t all bad can help lighten your mental load.

My Week 21 small step will be to pay attention to my thoughts and actions, and when I find myself practicing psychological warfare on myself, I will stop myself and take the appropriate positive countermeasure.

Do you regularly engage in any of these negative mental habits? Which one do you think has the greatest impact on your energy and motivation?

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22 Responses to Are you using psychological warfare…on yourself?

  1. Mona Karel says:

    What an incredible blog, I’ve shared it with the negative people in my various worlds. We need to concentrate on what’s going right in our worlds, and also on LIKING that person we see in the mirror every day.
    My worst enemy? Myself. Worrying about what I haven’t done well enough and on what might happen if if if.
    THANK YOU – you don’t know how timely this blog is

    • Lynn says:

      Thank you for writing, Mona! I’m so glad you found this post helpful. I know the feeling — my perfectionism is constantly driving me to wonder if I couldn’t have done better. I applaud your efforts to let go of that unproductive worrying! *hug*

      I’m going to talk soon about the Bright Spots analysis that Heath brothers recommend in their book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. It’s a method for solving problems by looking at what you’re already doing right and finding a way to do more of that.

  2. LJ DeLeon says:

    What a wonderful blog. This not only applies to writing and our country but to all aspects of life–how we treat our spouses, children, family, and friends. Thank you for a reminder of how not to sabatoge myself or my life or those in my life.

    • Lynn says:

      Thanks for stopping by, LJ! I’m delighted that you found it helpful, and yes, it does apply to everything. 🙂 There’s nothing in the world that can’t be made better with a touch of compassion, as hard as it can sometimes be to muster.

  3. Roni Lynne says:

    This is an excellent post. I just put a link to it on my Facebook page. Thanks so much for putting your Kaizen plan up for all of us to follow along and try out.

    Best wishes for your continued success!

    ~Roni Lynne
    YA Adventures in the Paranormal…and Beyond!

    • Lynn says:

      Thank you for your enthusiasm, Roni, and best wishes to you too! I’d love to hear about your experiences, whether you’re following along with my Kaizen Plan or creating your own.

  4. Thanks! This is great. It reenforces some things that have been coming to me through meditation. ?

    • Lynn says:

      How cool that what you’re discovering in meditation parallels some of the things we’re doing here. What kind of meditation are you doing?

  5. Fabulous post! Such great insights!

  6. This is a great post and very true. It’s easy to focus on the negative and to forget about the positives in your life. Thanks for this reminder. ( :

    Btw, I have this book in my TBR pile. Maybe I should read it.

    • Lynn says:

      Hey, Gabriella! 🙂 How Full Is Your Bucket? is an excellent book; I expect that I’ll probably re-read it at least once to really absorb it.

  7. Danniele says:

    Wonderful post. Thank you so much, not just for the encouragement, but for the action plan. 🙂

    • Lynn says:

      Thank you, Danniele! I’d love to hear what results you get from using the action plan. 🙂

      As I do it, I’m discovering that I spend a LOT of time telling myself that I should do things. It helps to write them down on the todo list when I catch myself thinking it, but it’s surprised me how focused I am on those shoulds.

  8. Thank you for the insightful post. People often don’t realize the impact negativity has on their lives and those around them. This reminds me of a statement a professor made to me over 20 years ago, who had been a POW twice. “The greatest poverty is the poverty of options. The only greater is the poverty of optional perspectives.” You encourage people to use that power of optional perspectives to make positive changes; thank you for the reminder.

    • Lynn says:

      Valerie, thank you for sharing that wonderful quote from your professor. 🙂

      It’s true, we’re so used to the negativity that it seems normal. In the last week that I’ve been paying more attention to my own words and thoughts, I’m surprised by how often I do one of these four things.

  9. PatriciaW says:

    Great post! Passing it on.

  10. Cy says:

    Wow, this is excellent advice. Thanks not only for pointing out those 4 negative things we might be doing on ourselves, but also for giving us ideas on how to counteract them as well!

  11. Julie Robinson says:

    Very helpful and historically informative post!

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