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:
- 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.
- 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.
- They undermined each POW’s sense of loyalty to country and to his superiors, making the POWs feel even more isolated.
- 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?