Attitude: What Is it and Who Can Change it?

A woman in a business suit blows a bubble with her gum while two businessmen look at her with odd expressions.For many years, I felt uncomfortable when someone started talking about another person’s attitude. It always seemed as if the speaker was simply angry and wanted to make the other person change, often using their own negative attitude. When the angry party eventually explodes with, “I don’t like your attitude,” it is as if they fully expected the other person to magically manifest a better one. This does not make sense to me. As a result, I’ve done a lot of thinking about what an attitude really is.

In the course of cognitive behavioral studies I’ve learned that when it comes to the concept of attitude, there are a number of factors involved.

  1. A given situation
  2. A collection of thoughts a person has about that situation
  3. A collection of feelings surrounding the situation
  4. Behaviors that result from these thoughts and feelings

Based on these factors, I asked the question, “What part of the equation is an attitude?” It’s not the situation, nor is it a thought or a feeling. It must have something to do with behavior. Indeed, an attitude is a set of small behaviors. An attitude is comprised of facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language, all of which express an individual’s thoughts, feelings, and often one’s present mood.

The problem is that no one can simply tell someone else to change their attitude and expect it to happen. Either the situation has to be changed or the people involved need to change their thoughts and feelings, which are the source of behaviors. Sometimes we can change the situation and negative attitudes will disappear.

Usually, we have to change our own thoughts and feelings. No one can accomplish it for another person. Of course, changing our thoughts and feelings is much easier said than done.

Feelings seem to simply exist, giving us important information. Feelings rise up according to what is going on around and within us. There is no such thing as a “wrong” or “bad” feeling. Everyone has a right to their own emotions.

However, our thoughts influence our feelings, and can be modified to create happier, healthier behaviors. If somebody is approaching me with an angry look on their face and I think, “Wow, they are angry at me,” I will probably feel afraid. This will lead to processing the important information and creating anxiety or aggression as a result.

If, on the other hand, my thoughts lead to such points as, “I wonder what they are angry about,” I will probably feel less afraid and more curious. Therefore my behaviors and attitude will be different than those originating from an anxious or aggressive thought process. How I think affects my feelings and my behaviors.

All of that seems straightforward and simple. Situations usually are much more complex and can involve long relationships, such as those between partners or parents and their children. The most important thing for everyone to be aware of is that the only person we have direct control over is your own self.

The main attitude to work on is your own. Although we can influence another person’s attitude, we cannot really change it. Changing an attitude is the right and responsibility of the owner. This is an individual’s power.

© Copyright 2009 by Anne D. Ream MA, ATR-BC, LPC, therapist in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Gina

    Gina

    February 26th, 2009 at 1:14 AM

    I feel attitudes are also based on the influences in our life in our growing years. Sometimes I’ve found my attitude to someone maybe based on something that comes deeper than my knowledge of that person and I can only think of my roots. We need to grow to a broader view point as we age. As they say, there is no black or white only shades of grey.

  • Melinda D

    Melinda D

    February 26th, 2009 at 5:15 AM

    you can’t always change someone’s attitude but often if you call them on it they will do enough to change it for the time being

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    February 26th, 2009 at 11:14 AM

    Yes, Gina, I agree with you that the influences from our childhood have an affect on our attitudes. It is wonderful that you have nurtured your self awareness well enough to help yourself be aware of when those deeper influences are affecting your attitude. One gift of age is that deepening self awareness which we can grow.

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    February 26th, 2009 at 11:24 AM

    I agree Melinda, we can call another person’s attention to their attitude. It is helpful if we do this using a kind, even understanding and empathic, approach. Most people are better able to hear, absorb and use another person’s observations when the observer presents his/her comments in a pleasant, or even helpful manner. Then it is up to the person with the attitude to choose if they will change. If the person with the attitude has less power than the observer (is a child or student or employee) they may need some ideas about how they can help themselves change.

  • April

    April

    February 26th, 2009 at 11:45 PM

    I remember the day I had a singing competition in school and I went blank halfway through the song. I remember my mom criticised me so much that day that I couldnt compete in anything till I reached college. My son went blank in a debate in school. I watched him get off the stage feeling so small. I decided to take my kid to his favorite restaraunt and treat him like he had won the competition that day. Today he is a very successful language trainer. I am so happy for having the right attitude about his faltering steps.

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    February 27th, 2009 at 12:37 PM

    April, your ability to respond so well to your son is a great example of how an individual can take her own parents mistakes and make sure she responds positively with her own children. This is how humanity grows stronger and healthier. Well done! Kudos!

  • Hollis

    Hollis

    February 28th, 2009 at 4:08 AM

    And that is what is called breaking the cycle because if you had done to him what your mom did to you then he would more than likely be destined to repeat that behavior with his own children.

  • Beth

    Beth

    February 28th, 2009 at 5:37 AM

    April, your comment gave me a lot of inner strength and hope. I am constantly criticised at work by my boss and colleagues. However, I feel like I need to keep my chin up and carry on doing a good job despite whatever people say.

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    February 28th, 2009 at 12:56 PM

    I agree, Hollis, it is breaking the cycle. In this case the cycle of emotional abuse.

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    February 28th, 2009 at 1:05 PM

    Beth, it sounds as if you could use some positive feedback! Do you think you could ask your boss or co-workers for positive feedback? How do you think they might respond? A highly critical environment, full of negative attitudes can undermine the morale of a work environment. It speaks well of you that you are able to keep your chin up and continue to do a good job!

  • callie

    callie

    March 8th, 2009 at 9:36 AM

    Way to Go April… We really need more parents and adults like you… Bad attitudes can stem from almost anything and you played a positive person that day.

  • Jennica

    Jennica

    March 8th, 2009 at 9:37 AM

    I don’t really think you can change someones bad attitude… you may be able to call them out on it as Melinda had said.. and make them realize what they are doing… we don’t know what is going on with them and their lives.

  • The Real Gal

    The Real Gal

    March 9th, 2009 at 3:00 AM

    Thank you for posting this. I quite agree that one cannot change another’s attitude, the other person has to see for themselves and want to change.

  • Michelle

    Michelle

    March 10th, 2009 at 3:03 AM

    Sometimes if you simply to give to another what you wish to receive in return the difference in attitude can be amazing!

  • LauraBelle

    LauraBelle

    March 12th, 2009 at 1:53 AM

    I love Michelle’s way of thinking.. We must treat one as we would want to be treated… What does one have to lose.. I always heard you draw more bees with honey…

  • Amanda

    Amanda

    March 12th, 2009 at 1:55 AM

    It doesn’t matter where you go or where you work, there is always that one person who gets under your skin, has a terrible attitude and brings one down. I try to stay away from people who are really negative because I don’t want it to affect me or my attitude. I know this can’t always be helped, but the less I have to be around people like this, the better I am.

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    March 12th, 2009 at 5:38 AM

    I agree with both Michelle and LauraBelle…the Golden Rule is truely golden! Kindness, compassion, understanding and empathy are so vital, especially as this earth becomes more crowded. And I believe those attributes are healthy, emotionally intelligent relationship skills.

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    March 12th, 2009 at 10:39 AM

    Amanda, your are speaking about a reality most people experience. Being around someone whose attitude is difficult, is one of life’s greatest challenges. And the coping skill you are using, trying to avoid being around that person, is healthy. If you cannot avoid them there are several possibilities including, (but not limited to), changing how you perceive that person. It is possible that they have a serious problem which results in their negative attitude. They may be behaving out of their perceived need to defend themselves against some insecurity that you and others cannot know about. So, their attitude may have more to do with their personal problems and little to do with you. If that person’s attitude is affecting other people, too, it is possible that, as a group, you may be able to do something. Many times a person who has an attitude is unaware of how they are affecting others. Self awareness is a vital social skill that many people do not have.

  • Natalie

    Natalie

    March 13th, 2009 at 2:24 AM

    Anne Ream has a good point… It wasn’t too long ago I had read a book by a great author who encourages one to if at all possible to eliminate being around negative people and if you can’t, try to use it to your advantage and change your way of thinking…. don’t take it personally, but the bad attitude is stemming from somewhere else and not you directly. Avoiding the negative is not always possible, but you don’t have to act upon that person’s negativity and put yourself in the same position… You have a choice to be positive or negative.

  • leajo

    leajo

    March 15th, 2009 at 11:19 AM

    This is such a great article and seems like everyone has to deal with this. No matter where you go, you are gonna run into someone with a bad or neg. attitude… i try to think as if they must be sad people or have nothing better else to do…. I don’t think its personal toward anyone.

  • shivakumar

    shivakumar

    March 16th, 2009 at 12:10 AM

    is there a way that i can change my attitude towards things.to be positive all the time and gain confidence to perform.

  • Brandi

    Brandi

    March 16th, 2009 at 2:16 AM

    I think a lot of the bad attitudes comes from issues the person is having to deal with on a daily basis, whether it be at home, work or school. It’s hard not to take it personally if they direct it to you, but we really really need to remember that it is probably coming from somewhere else and that we are more than likely the first person in line of fire when they throw out their attitudes toward us.

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    March 16th, 2009 at 9:45 AM

    Brandi, your are right; often a person is having problems from other sources and we happen along and get the brunt of their attitude. For Shivakumar, all of our feelings give us vital information. It is important to learn how to pay attention to them so that we can learn what we need from them. Being positive all the time is unrealistic. If you get hurt, it is normal and healthy to feel hurt, sad, scared or angry. That feeling gives us information concerning how to avoid being hurt that way again. Being able to perform well involves knowing what we are feeling and doing whatever we need to do to take care of those feelings as soon as we can. Self-awareness, self-understanding and self-care can help us recover from getting hurt so that we can perform again, another time

  • Trinity

    Trinity

    March 18th, 2009 at 7:21 AM

    I know all of us have run into bad attitudes and i had dealt with a person who was always mad at the world. always talked about everyone… i just continued being nice to her, some days i didn’t want to…I usually take things fairly easy, don’t really consider much about how people act… i guess being nice to her over and over, she finally acted a little nicer toward me and not as negative…

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    March 19th, 2009 at 10:27 AM

    Wonderful, Trinity! It sounds to me as if you have a naturally positive attitude!

  • Lindee

    Lindee

    April 10th, 2009 at 3:53 AM

    To Shivakumar, If you really want to become positive, I believe you have to believe it’s mind over matter. Meditation can do wonders and I know it may seem strange or silly at first, but it really does…It seems to calm one’s self. And being around negative, rude people doesn’t help you to be positive. When you are around negative people, it seems as if their energy rubs off on the people near them. Just practice thinking, acting and doing positive things. If you do these things, I’m sure you will reap the good benefits of it.

  • Yvonne

    Yvonne

    April 11th, 2009 at 10:31 AM

    This may seem short and blunt, but I prefer not to be around negative people unless it’s an absolute have to. I don’t want to be brought down with their bad moods.

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    April 12th, 2009 at 4:26 AM

    Yes, Lindee, I agree with you…meditation is an excellent tool to help any of us maintain a calm state of being. Yvonne, sometimes “short and blunt” says a great deal! I don’t think anyone likes being around people who are struggling with “bad moods”. That’s why we have therapists. Good therapists can help people, who are behaving negatively, work their way through whatever issues they are struggling with. Negative behavior and bad moods are often symptoms of a deeper problem.

  • Mike

    Mike

    February 18th, 2012 at 5:50 AM

    Hi, I’m a male and I also have an attitude problem with a co-worker at the cafe. There’s actually more than 1, and they all seems to display hostility when being called on. Expressed through Facial Expression, Tone of voice, body language…etc. I’m their Supervisor and even though they do what I asked, they do it like they don’t give a damn what I say or think, and do it like a misbehaved child. They are not professional but they are good at what they do and have been there longer than me, and they are also younger by a few years. The interesting thing is, they are all girls, all the boys seems to bond nicely and easily on the contrary.

    On a bad day, it makes my blood boil. And I reacted by giving her a silence treatment, that only also lasted for only a few minutes because of our busy workplace and communication is important.

    I am already nice to everyone and I try to be nice to them also, so if you ask me to change my attitude in order to affect them, I’m not sure if it will help or they just think i’m weak-willed, as mean girl do to nice guys.

    Lol for bringing up old article.

  • Laquita R

    Laquita R

    December 3rd, 2014 at 11:04 AM

    My attitude is something else, makes me wanna break stuff and just hit someone. What can I do to control it. It’s like a have allot of anger build up in me, and sometimes I don’t know what to do!!!’

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    December 3rd, 2014 at 12:23 PM

    Hi MIchael, For some odd reason I am only getting this now. Being a boss is difficult. Most people don’t like being “bossed around”. It takes a lot of tact to be a good enough boss. There are a lot of articles written about how to do that. Good luck, Anne

  • Anne Ream

    Anne Ream

    December 3rd, 2014 at 12:25 PM

    Hi Laquita,

    it is possible that underneath all that anger you may be depressed. I highly recommend individual therapy. Look for a therapist that you feel safe and comfortable with. Good luck, Anne

  • ARUP C.

    ARUP C.

    May 27th, 2015 at 11:33 PM

    “The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a company… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes.”

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