Summon Your Cosmo Superpowers

Published : Cosmopolitan May 2008.

Whatever adversity you are faced with, whether it’s crime, retrenchment or a broken heart, help is closer than you may think. As a COSMO girl you have self-respect, confidence’ optimism, assertiveness, resilience, humor and good old common sense deep within you, and there’s little that these qualities can’t overcome. ‘The way you respond to adversity is largely in your hands,’ says Nelspruit psychologist Tembeni Mhlongo. Being fearless and fiery, you shouldn’t be slinking away from challenges. And you certainly don’t need rescuing from them. What you need to do is dig within yourself and draw on the powers that you, maybe unwittingly, have been cultivating for years. They are there – you just need to find them and grow them.




To have self respect means you accept and like who you are. When you do that you’re primed to protect yourself and your interests. ‘Self-respect is powerful because no one can rob you of it,’ says Mhlongo. It comes from having core qualities such as kindness, consideration, honesty, integrity, good manners and the will to work hard. These give you courage and make you believe in your worth as a person.


Call on this power any time someone questions or threatens your ability or integrity – whether it’s a boss overloading you or overlooking you for a promotion, a colleague subjecting you to unwelcome advances, a friend using you, or a lover two-timing you or taking you for granted.


Define your key values and moral qualities. Write them down to clarify them, then reassess your relationships and your life in terms of them, and commit yourself to acting in line with them irrespective of what others may say, or whether they are watching. Tune in regularly to your inner voice, taking 10 minutes for yourself each day to sit quietly, meditate or listen to soothing music. Set boundaries according to your values and, if they’re infringed, point it out calmly and firmly.



The way you see yourself affects the way others see you. The greater your self-confidence, the greater the likelihood you will face down adversities and successfully overcome them, says Haydee Antezana, impression-management specialist and owner of Professional Impressions in  Johannesburg.


The instant you’re confronted by abusive or demeaning people, at work or in relationships, put this power to use.


Instead of apologizing and automatically compromising, or giving way to anger, or fear, recall your true worth and stand tall. Always present your best face to the world so you feel good about yourself. To feel good about yourself, eat healthily, exercise regularly, dress smartly, carry yourself well and walk purposefully, says Antezana. Use some of your 10-minute me-time to remind yourself of your strengths and past successes. (Keep a brag file with cards or e-mails of appreciation.) Be generous and sincere in giving compliments and avoid negative gossip – others will trust and like you, which will help bring out your best self. At meetings or lectures, sit where you can be seen, and contribute at least once each session to build your confidence and get recognition. Remind yourself no one is perfect, and smile – studies of ‘facial-feedback theory’ indicate your facial expressions can affect your brain and produce certain emotions, so if you look cheerful and confident, you’ll feel cheerful and confident too.



By consciously examining your thoughts and focusing on the positive, you can control your reactions, and therefore often the outcome of a situation, says psychologist llleana Cocotos from Johannesburg. Studies show pessimists buckle early in adversity and are prone to depression, while optimists press on and are more likely to triumph.


Whenever you’re faced with daunting, dark or depressing developments, such as losing someone you love, being diagnosed with a major illness, or changing jobs or cities, let your optimism pull you through.


Don’t allow negative events (‘l was dumped/robbed/ had a project rejected’) turn into generalizations (‘ Everything always goes wrong for me’), advises Cocotos. ‘An adaptive way of dealing with a negative experience such as being turned down for a job would involve thinking about the interview, assessing your performance, taking responsibility for any shortcomings and looking for ways to prevent it recurring.’To boost optimism you need to function as a rational problem solver, she says, and to use reality testing to sort out issues as they arise. ‘Allow yourself a mourning process around negative events,’ says Durban psychologist Duncan Cadwright. Put things in perspective – recognize life is at times unfair, and you will have struggles. Then, instead of shutting down defensively when faced with them and taking the pessimist’s unhelpful ‘why me’ approach, ride them out. Express the complex emotions they awaken in a healthy way, through writing, painting, music, physical exercise or relaxation techniques. Break the problem into less overwhelming chunks and tackle them one day at a time. Avoid catastrophising (letting a minor snag in one area of your life unravel it), looking through a mental filter that lets you see only negatives, leaping to conclusions, labeling yourself (for example ‘victim’ or ‘loser’), assuming you know what others think, and personalizing problems. Optimism is much easier when you get enough sleep, stop comparing yourself to others, find positive friends, practice positive affirmations (‘l always have a choice’) and pay attention to your special needs. Have small treats to look forward to, from a massage to watching a comedy on TV.



Knowing how to stand up for yourself and ask for what you want puts you in control of your life and helps you avoid or overcome sticky situations. It builds self-respect and earns respect from others,’ says Cape Town executive coach Shirleen Titus.


lt’s time to be assertive if you’re threatened, abused or ignored at work or in a relationship.


Ask for what you need. from someone’s attention to an increase, always carries a risk, says Durban industrial psychologist Bobyn Sandy, MD of Interchange lnternational South Africa. ‘You’re frightened of being rejected or humiliated, or of upsetting or disappointing people, which can make you underestimate your abilities and exaggerate the possible cost of speaking up.’You need to push through the fear to survive and thrive. If you’ve always battled to be assertive, ask yourself why,’ says Titus. The reason is usually rooted in childhood, so consider therapy to deal with it. Start practicing assertiveness in little everyday ways, such as politely but firmly telling a street vendor or waitress ‘no thank you’. Before making a major stand, prepare by having all necessary facts at your fingertips. (For instance your grounds for promotion or for more of your man’s attention.) Breathe deeply and slowly, adopt a confident stance, modulate your voice and speak calmly but clearly. Guard against turning statements into questions (raising your voice at the end), apologizing unnecessarily (‘I’m sorry, I don’t agree’), or using disclaimers (‘l may be wrong, but’), as they indicate inner powerlessness. Stick to the facts. For instance, say, ‘We were supposed to meet at 8 pm; when you’re late without letting me know, I feel neglected,’ rather than, ‘You’re so late and so rude – you don’t love me any more!’ Being assenive should feel right, says Titus. ‘An uneasy feeling may mean you’re still too weak or you’re bordering on aggression, which is not helpful.’



The ability to bounce back helps you endure adversity, adapt to change and move ahead in life. ‘Like a marathon runner, when you’re resilient you’re able to complete the race,’ says Titus. ‘This means you work smarter or are smarter at what you do. Surprises and pitfalls are kept at bay. Resilience is about a sense of preparedness – come hell or high water, you’re going to make it to the end!’


Resilience is essential whenever you’re faced with rejection, defeat, a major life change or a loss, such as being defeated in a sports championship, losing an important work report when your computer crashes or having to deal with the death of a loved one.


Have realistic expectations. Bad things happen, so accept this or you will set yourself up for stress, depression and a dis-empowering sense of victimization. Control what variables you can in life. (For example, keep up with developments in your field to remain optimally employable.) Then let go of what you can’t control. Worrying is a waste of time, so unplug with meditation or exercise, or unburden with a friend or a professional, suggests Cape Town Positive thinking ties in closely with self esteem and is partly hereditary but mostly learnt, says Seligman. Although it’s harder to learn when you’re already caught up in adversity, as many South Africans are today, he and other therapists say it can be done. ‘The way you react to adversity rests largely on your past experiences,’ says Mhlongo. ‘But just because you usually think negatively and take the role of victim doesn’t mean you can’t change!’ Here’s how.


Examine the way you interpret adversity by identifying your thoughts and beliefs. Beliefs are often so embedded as to be automatic, says Bartlett. ‘We have a tendency not to question them and we develop “cognitive errors” such as overgeneralizing and catastrophising.’ (See’Thought errors’.) Consciously watch for these. ‘When you notice them, check them with all the practical, tangible evidence surrounding you, both that which supports the belief and that which refutes it,’ she advises.

Johannesburg psychologist llleana Cocotos suggests writing down your beliefs, reading through them and examining the evidence behind them. If the negative beliefs are too deeply ingrained to manage this and are causing excessive anxiety, go for counselling.


To be positive you need to focus on the positive but also to consider the negative, says Bartlett. To refuse to contemplate negative factors is to repress fears about them, which encourages them to grow. It also prevents you making informed choices in life and taking sensible precautions.’Violence, corruption, poverty and the like are very real issues – we can’t just think them away and feel positive,’ she says. ‘There’s nothing more annoying than someone telling you to “just think positively” when you’ve recently experienced a traumatic negative event. Rather than a simply “positive” perspective, you can focus on a “balanced” perspective.’ If your friends are emigrating because of crime, for instance, acknowledge that this is their choice and that we’re all different.


‘What has happened is past. Take what lessons you can and move on,’ says Bartlett. ‘lf you’ve been a victim of crime, remind yourself that you couldn’t control that but you can control your emotions now and how you deal with it.’


Sharing information about negative situations can be useful, fueling action against them and helping us unburden, but constant, unproductive negativity simply brings us down. Ask whingers to stop, or to commit to doing something to improve the situation. ‘None of the people I surround myself with talk about leaving the country because having our families and friends close enough is important to us,’ says Rangappa. ‘But when I hear it from others, I remind them children also go missing in London and Portugal, bodies are also found in the Thames, and fathers also molest and impregnate their daughters in Austria.’


You can help change how you feel about yourself and the world with small, unobtrusive acts of kindness. Those you help will be inclined to follow suit, says Catherine Ryan Hyde, author ot Pay lt Forward (Black Swan). ‘Giving keeps me positive,’agrees Rangappa. ‘Seeing the gratitude on the face of a mother begging at a robot when I pass her some food humbles me and makes me feel connected.’ ‘Start a conversation, help someone, fix something, mentor someone,’ suggest Justin Foxton and Amanda Maidman on their Stop Crime Website.


No matter how positive you are, says Bartlett, there will always be things happening that test you. Keep reminding yourself of your strengths and of the reasons you have to be grateful. ‘There are many valid reasons to feel hopeless, but what good does that do you?’ says 23-year-old Kopano Matlwa, author of Coconut (Jacana). ‘l try to search for the equally valid reasons to be hopeful. We’ve been through worse times and we’ve come out of them. Let’s not forget the “us” we knew then. ls there anything a South African can’t take on?’

I Know I’m fortunate because I I all I’ve had stolen is my heart’ I says Uveka Rangappa. 32. As I a news anchor, desk editor and TV presenter she’s more plugged in than most of us to crime and the other bad news currently battering us, from climbing costs to corruption and xenophobia. But unlike many of us, she’s found a way to stay positive. I’ve chosen to surround myself with positive people who don’t spend every second moaning about how bad things are,’she says. I’ve decided that bad eneroies have no place in my space!’ If only we could all say that. But with self-examination and determination it is possible to feel positive, say psychologists and life coaches. Even in the face of some of South Africa’s worst-case scenarios – if your friends are emigrating, your best friend was raped or your mother was hijacked – it’s possible to find something positive to cling to. Take, for example, Cape Town rape victim Rene Burger, 20, sister of Springbok rugby-player Schalk Burger, who told the media in May, ‘You stop being a victim when you choose not to allow something like this to destroy your dignity and self worth, your trust in others, hope for the future or commitment to the country you love.’ The parents of murdered 26-year-old American student Amy Biel poignantly proved to us 1 5 years ago that it’s possible to take something positive out of a tragedy. Refusing to bow to negativity, they used their daughter’s death to start a foundation to help eradicate causes of crime, from poverty to HIV/Aids, and to build dialogue and reconciliation. You can’t ignore the terrible cost of crime or turn your back on its victims because they are being negative, says Nelspruit psychologist Tembeni Mhlongo. But you can analyse what’s happened and control your response to it, tapping the inner strength at the core of us all – and the motivation that comes from knowing positivity can help pull us through. ‘lt’s our best and often only hope.’ Positivity is not a single thing but ‘a combination of cognitive principles’, says Durban clinical psychologist Justine Bartlett. ‘lt’s the ability to look at the world around you and evaluate it rationally, seeing both the good and the bad. lt’s also the ability to separate external factors and internal ones, and keep perspective on those you have control over. And it’s the ability to keep looking for the information around you that both substantiates and refutes your existing beliefs – not just the info that supports what you already believe.’

Today much of what many of us believe is negative is due to the negativity we’re bombarded with in all forms of media – not only in SA but worldwide, she says. ‘Access to information is so much easier now, and bad news is often more dramatic, so it sells. This means we have to fight to maintain a balanced perspective – to look harder for the small, positive items in the media and the small, positive happenings in our lives.’


The payoffs are potent. ‘What we think, we become,’ says Marko Saravanja, CEO of Regenesys Business School in Johannesburg and author of Secrets Of Success (Regenesys). ‘lf you think positively, you act positively, which leads to construction and development. Positivity breeds positive energy that unleashes potential, creativity and inspiration, which lead to success.’ Positivity is not just vital for seeing us through hard times, says Bartlett. It’s essential for our mental health, physical health and overall wellness. The mind body connection is strong, and keeping a healthy perspective on the world around us promotes general well being.’ Thinking positively raises our resilience, writes Dr Martin Seligman, author of Learned Optimism (Vintage Books) and director of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in the US. lt keeps us hopeful and ups our chances of a successful or at least acceptable outcome. Studies now show that while negative thinkers may have a more accurate understanding of some situations, these are usually not the sort of situations that matter most, reports Seligman. Faced with real adversity, such as many of us face in South Africa today, negative thinkers tend to buckle early and are more prone to depression. Positive thinkers persevere, and are far more likely to Prevail. ‘Negativity generates negative energy, fear and contraction, which ultimately leads to destruction,’ says Saravanja.

Fear and anxiety can prevent You from doing the things you enjoY and seeing the people important to you, as you become too frightened to venture out, says Bartlett. ‘Fear has the ability to narrow your life to an extent that you become isolated. The more isolated you become, the fewer points of reference you have in your life, and the less you’re able to gather other perspectives into your own to create that all-important balanced perspective.’ Fear can also develop into more serious anxiety disorders such as panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and lead to debilitating depression.


Staying positive, says Saravania, requires ‘the courage to confront our fears, to walk into the unknown, expand our self-imposed limitations and experience true freedom and happiness. They are not in the external world. We won’t find them in Australia or Canada, we will find them within.’