Why I Gave Up “Positive Thinking”

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In my first teaching job, we always began the year by setting a goal.  We would write this goal on an index card and place it in an envelope.  Midway through the year, this goal would turn up in our mailbox, so that we could monitor our own progress.

This was kind of an inside joke between my aide and me, because we always had the same goal: to be more positive.

It wasn’t that we didn’t take our goal seriously or try to be positive.  It’s just that those pesky “negative” thoughts and words always crept in.

And it wasn’t only at work that this was happening.  I noticed negativity in my conversations, in my self-talk, and in my mood, in all aspects of my life.  And during my last winter living in the house in Michigan, I launched an all-out effort to change it.

How did I change it?  I got up early and recited a positive poem to begin my day.  I wrote a gratitude list.  I watched subliminal videos with positive affirmations on You Tube.  I read books about positive thinking.  I recited mantras throughout my day.  I wrote a list of everything I hated about myself and turned it all into the positive, opposite. 

I sought to bombard my mind with positive messages, multiple times a day, so that there would be no room for the negative.  And when I did have negative thoughts, I worked to replace them with positive thoughts, right away.  I worked as hard as I could to fight against that toxic negativity.

And I failed, miserably.  Changing my thoughts was never, could never be so simple. 

After I abandoned my journey toward “positive thinking,” I began a new journey–the journey toward truly understanding my mind.

I learned that in my effort to only think positive thoughts, I was rejecting my own mind.  Negative thoughts are an effort of the mind to communicate something, a cry for help.  And I was attacking my mind for its cries, because they were “negative.”

The alternative course of action is to make peace with these cries for help, and to answer them.

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This is what I learned in my journey to pursue that course:

1.  Negative thoughts are often based on misunderstandings.  When I attacked myself with my thoughts–when I called myself fat, stupid, or a failure–I was misunderstanding myself.  There was something about me that I needed to look at more closely, a misunderstanding that I needed to clear up.  Now, when I think poorly about myself or someone else, I gently ask my mind “why.”  Why am I thinking that?  In looking at the answer and clearing up the misunderstanding, I am able to stop a lot more of those thoughts than I was through “positive thinking.”

2.  Negative thoughts can stem from neglecting our own needs.  If I’m crabby about doing something, helping somebody, or going somewhere, I’ve found that it’s usually because I need to spend some time doing something I want.  In some way, it’s because I need to spend time meeting one of my needs.  Martyrdom and overextension breed such “negative” thoughts, which are really just the mind’s cries for help.

3.  Hopelessness comes from misunderstandings and exhaustion.  “It will never get better; why do I try?” is the mind’s way of saying, “I don’t know what to do, and I need a NAP!”  Learning to relax, then think calmly about a situation has done a lot more to open up my creativity, than any positive affirmations ever did.  And learning to ask for what I need, when I need it, has worked wonders toward stopping that feeling of overwhelm.

In the end, I learned that every negative thought has a purpose, and that simply trying to override them can never work in the long-term.  By abandoning “positive thinking” and moving toward understanding, I have found my outlook to be sunnier and my mind to be calmer.

8 thoughts on “Why I Gave Up “Positive Thinking”

  1. Your post is very thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thank you. I agree with everything you said. I’ve had a very different experience with affirmations. I’ve found them a very useful tool over many years. There’s a misperception, encouraged by many “experts”, that we must rid ourselves of our negative thoughts and affirmations are often employed to do it.

    We must always listen to thoughts and our feelings. I’ve discovered that our species – individually and collectively – has negativity as a default setting. It’s why most of our spiritual narratives end with some cataclysm. It’s why many people spend their lives a prisoner to their negative thoughts.

    Listening has a place. Positive thinking has a place. Our negativity can be instructive or destructive. Our challenge is to know which and employ the appropriate tools to deal with our current situation.

    • I’m curious why you think that most species have negativity as a default setting? I agree that it can be destructive, but wouldn’t the solution be to redefine the negative thoughts, rather than simply trying to fight them? And I would love to know how you have used affirmations–you have piqued my curiosity! 🙂

  2. There is a place for positive thoughts but never,as you found out, as a way to ignore what our minds are trying to tell us. Simply telling ourselves we are not fat or stupid (two you mentioned) will do nothing to change the underlying feeling that we are not in the place we want to be. Yet, where positive affirmations have been helpful to me have been more along the lines of turning a thought that I can’t accomplish to a reminder of how many things I have accomplished and that this is just another challenge not the end of the world.

    • Good point, Lois. I think there is a definite difference between redefining a thought and simply denying it. For example, when I think I’m stupid, I try to figure out why I am thinking that in the moment, redefine it, and remind myself of all the accomplishments I have made. It’s a subtle, yet very helpful, distinction.

  3. Thank you for this insightful piece. I have been thinking a lot about the duality of positive and negative thoughts. I have a cancer diagnosis and the most frequent one-liner I have heard is “BE POSITIVE”. This is often a filmy veneer on a deep pond of fear. I really like that you have given purpose to the negative thoughts we have.
    Pls feel free to stop by my blog and read some of the letters I write to my son Seamus. I always enjoy hearing different insights and feedback.
    Thanks for a great piece.
    Warm regards,
    Melanie
    dearseamus.com

    • Welcome aboard, Melanie!

      I think people have this image of the archetypal, “brave” cancer survivor (or survivor of anything really–a lot of people have called me “brave,” hoping I was), and nobody can be brave all the time! To do so would be to deny the reality of your situation. You have a life-threatening diagnosis, and there is no way that such a situation isn’t sometimes terrifying. But I think people want people with illnesses to be brave and positive, because THEY don’t want to think about the fact that there is something for you to sometimes be terrified about. It’s their own fears, and they are going through their own process with your diagnosis.

      I love your blog, btw. It’s absolutely beautiful! I have another blogging friend who is facing a cancer diagnosis, and here is a post he wrote about it: http://theendlessfurther.com/cancer-again-naturally/ .

      And of course, I am wishing for healing for both of you. 😉

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