Cant get the hang of positive thinking? Here's why.
Positive vibes only. Choose happiness. We see these hyper-happy phrases all over social media, in our advertising, and on decorative pillows at target. And I get the appeal. Who doesn’t love feeling positive? Positivity can be infectious and inspiring. These idioms also remind us of the power we do have to influence the way we perceive the world around us. There is truth in the idea that we can create new mental tracks when we refocus our attention on what’s good in life. The more we practice looking for the good, the more we find it.
But the advice to just think positively is not only invalidating of the genuine pain that many people experience, but it ignores our basic human biology. So called “negative thinking” has played an important role in our evolution. Our survival as a species way- back- when, hinged on our ability to detect danger. Through the ACT framework (a type of therapy I use most often with clients) the brain is humorously referred to as the “don’t get killed machine”. After all, its primary function is to keep us alive! Our survival was dependent on being able to prepare for threats, like being eaten by a lion, or making it through a food shortage. We HAD to be able to think about everything that could go wrong in order to take precautions against those things. Similarly, if we witnessed another member of the tribe’s demise at the hands of a wild animal, it only makes sense that we be able to recall bad events from the past in order to learn better ways to deal with similar situations in the future.
The problem today is that the same very helpful function of our brain, suited for life all those many years ago, is a miss- match for the world we live in now. Where in prehistoric times, it may have made sense to assess how you measured up to other members of your tribe (as being part of a group meant security), now a days your brain can compare itself to your family, friends, classmates, coworkers, church members, teammates, THE ENTIRETY OF THE INTERNET etc. etc. etc. to infinity and beyond. Before you know it, your brain has an avalanche of examples of all the ways in which you are “not measuring up”. Not exactly a happy or productive feeling.
For all of you out there who are struggling with anxiety, depression or low self-worth, who just cant win the battle against “negative thinking”, I want you to know that you are not broken. In fact, Your mind is merely doing what it was designed to do.
Knowing and understanding this about the human brain is where change can start.
Don’t believe me? What does your own experience suggest? Have you ever felt as if you were in a battle with your own mind? Trying your hardest to silence that negative, self-doubting, critical voice? Did you win? Is that voice gone? Or has it come back? And maybe it’s even nastier and more vicious than it was before hand?
What has been most successful for me and my clients isn’t about us trying to change the content of their thoughts and feelings, but rather working on changing their relationship to their inner experiences. Doing so may not get rid of these thoughts, but it does significantly reduce the impact it can have on a person.
I say we end the battle with yourself. Negative thinking is here to stay, so let’s instead invest our time and energy into the things that really matter to you, and learn to compassionately deal with whatever thoughts and feelings come up along the way. You don’t have to believe in yourself to take that risk. You can start creating change, even if your mind tells you otherwise. When we can recognize when our thoughts are working for us, and when they are not, this gives us the space to forge a path based, not our thoughts or feelings, but our deepest personal values.
For more information about ACT (Acceptance and Commitment therapy) some helpful resourhces are:
The book: The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris