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MCLEOD: Why positive thinking is like crack cocaine

Positive thinking is kind of like crack. Once you become addicted to it, you can't get enough. Before you know it, it's become a daily habit and you're trying to push it on all your friends.

But for many, positive thinking is just too wild and crazy for them to dive in head first.

I've identified two easier interim steps to pull you out of the abyss and give you the fortitude to deal with difficult situations and people.

Think of them as gateway emotions. Seemingly harmless, readily available quick hits that may lead you into a full-fledged positive thinking addiction.

1. Gratitude: Gateway drug to happiness

As my dear friend and colleague, author and motivational speaker Mike Robbins says, "Gratitude and victimhood can't exist at the same time."

Here's an example: A friend's car broke down. He didn't have the money for a new one. After many years of being successful, his business is now struggling, and he's gone through most of his savings. So there he is, practically broke at a time in his life when he thought he'd be prospering. His parents offered to lend him the money for a new car.

There are two ways to look at the situation.

I'm broke. I've been a grown-up for more than 20 years. I should have lots of money, but instead, I'm having to borrow money from my parents for a used car. It's humiliating.

Or: I'm grateful that I have parents who love me. I'm grateful that they're still living. I'm grateful that they have the money, and I'm grateful that we have a good relationship and they want to loan it to me.

It's hard to be positive about a broken-down car when you're broke. But it's not as hard to be thankful for your parents.

If you want to stop self-pity in its tracks, find something to be grateful for. It shifts your focus away from your problem and ignites more positive chemicals in your brain.

2. Sympathy: Gateway drug to peace

If you can't like someone, you can at least feel sorry for them.

My husband once worked with a guy who was a real jerk. This guy was so awful that my husband came home with knots in his stomach. His anger and frustration with Mr. Mean seeped into our home and it affected his performance at work.

It was unrealistic to expect him to be grateful for Mr. Mean. But what my husband could do was feel sorry for him. Instead of focusing on the knots in his own stomach, he imagined how knotted up Mr. Mean's stomach must be. Once he saw how sad, angry and unhappy the other man was, the bad behavior bothered him a lot less.

You can't go from despising someone to loving them overnight. Sympathy can help you bridge the gap. It unlocks your heart, and sometimes it opens you up enough to see the person's finer qualities.

I confess; I was born a sunny side upper. But after years of trying to hook my more gloomy friends on the thrills of positive thinking, I've come to realize it's easier to start with a softer drug.

Gratitude helps you deal with difficult situations, and sympathy helps you deal with difficult people. They're not hard core, but once you experience little highs, you often find yourself craving something bigger.

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of three books, including the best-seller, "The Triangle of Truth: The Surprisingly Simple Secret to Resolving Conflicts Large and Small."