The Myth of Positive Thinking

On Monday, I had one of those days where you just need to ‘surrender’ and then ‘surrender some more’, as Gabby Bernstein would say.

For some context, the current state of my nation looks like this:

  • Our kitchen reno is underway and the main floor of our house is a construction zone and uninhabitable.
  • We’re officially nomads with our 17-month old for 4 weeks bouncing to and from three separate living spaces.
  • We’re currently residing in our second of the three spaces, an Airbnb home, which is a three unit space and comes with additional noise from the other two units, that is presenting to be a challenge for nap time, while also causing us minor anxiety about our own noise generated by our 17-month old’s ‘screaming phase’ (that has already produced a number of complaints).
  • My parent’s (and sole source of childcare) are have and will be out of commission for two weeks due to vacations and moving.
  • The co-working space that I also use for childcare on occasion is down to one childcare provider as the other is on vacation. She, subsequently developed a case of pink eye on Sunday and as a result childcare is available until she’s better.
  • This is null and void however as my daughter also developed a cold on Monday morning and can’t go to their daycare because she might get the other babies sick.
  • Sunday night, I also realized I needed to make a massive pivot in a business strategy I had been deploying which meant that I was going to have to work through everything on Monday so as not to be derailed by it further.
  • Did I mention I’m also #36weekspregnant?

So on Monday morning, with the hope of two long naps and an earlier bath/bedtime for my daughter, I was determined to find time to work and make lemonade out of (short-term) little lemon life.

Except those naps and that early bedtime never happened (thank you loud upstairs neighbours and a leaky bathroom ceiling with an Airbnb owner who neglected to be cognizant of the fact that my daughter was sleeping and prevented her from going down for her second nap and an earlier bedtime as he worked to fix the leak into the early evening.

As I approached the tail-end of what seemed to be an almost comical day of ‘ handle this setback’ (#firstworldproblems I’ve very aware), I took to social media for a bit of an exhale/rant about it all. The response to which from many was… ‘Think Positive!’ Which made me take a step back and really examine that concept for a minute.

The Positive Thinking Phenomenon

It seems as though everywhere we look now on social media, in society, and in mainstream media, ‘positive thinking’ has taken over. And why not? It seems like such a lovely concept to hang our hats on. It makes us feel better, allows us to call in more of what we do want and less of what we don’t’, and has been touted as the cure all for every problem and dilemma we have.

But is it actually true? I’m not so sure any more…

Here’s the thing… I wholeheartedly agree that creating more awareness around our thoughts and whether they serve us is a worthwhile endeavour. #selfdevelopmentjunkie However, the idea that when those negative thoughts surface, our response should be to simply shift them to more positive ones doesn’t sit well with me, for two reasons:

1. The Guilt and Shame of Having Negative Thoughts

Constantly being told that we need to ‘think positively’ at all times, can make us feel guilt and shame when we do experience negative thoughts. If we’re not feeling positive, great and empowered, we believe there’s something wrong with us. Which inevitably makes us feel even worse about the negative thoughts that we are already thinking. Creating a situation where, not only do you feel bad (because of the negative thoughts that you’re thinking) but then you feel even worse, because you’re told you shouldn’t be. So this ends up having the complete opposite effect it’s intended to.

2. Positive Thinking Doesn’t Teach Us How to Deal with Our Emotions

‘We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history’, according to renowned shame researcher, Brené Brown. The reason for which, according to Brené is that we numb our feelings. Whether it be with food, alcohol, drugs, electronics, etc. we are a society that prefers to avoid dealing with our negative thoughts and emotions and numb them out as a means of coping with them.

From my perspective, positive thinking is simply another tactic that reinforces that we don’t need to ‘deal’ with our feelings and instead can push them down and simply replace them with positive ones.

But here’s a question: Where do those feelings go? Just because we cover them up with positive ones, doesn’t mean that they’re gone… or won’t surface again… and again. So in the same vein that we numb with drugs, alcohol and shopping, positive thinking doesn’t actually help us work through our negative thoughts and emotions, it merely covers them up.

Wading Through Dark Waters

So then how do we deal with the fact that we all have negative thoughts and emotions? For one, let me just say that I’m not a therapist, so this stance and opinion is based on my own personal experience and the work that I have done with professionals to date.

But from that standpoint, I will say that one of the ways of dealing with our darkest feelings and emotions, is to sit with them. To be sad. The feel pain. (Incredible unappealing, I know.)

For example, let’s say that I’ve had a rough day at work. So I get home and think, ‘Everything’s fine, it’s just a bad day, tomorrow will be better.’ It’s quick, easy and for the moment, might help me overcome the negative feelings and emotions I feel. But then the next day is bad, and the next, and the next and I soon realize that this positive thinking stuff isn’t working. The days are getting any better no matter how much positive thought I throw at them. What gives?!

What gives is that we’re actually not getting to the reason behind WHY my day is bad and how to deal with overcoming that. In order to do that, I need to take the time and unpack what’s going on by asking myself questions like:

  • Is my boss being too demanding? Have I not put up appropriate boundaries with him or her?
  • Am I going through a lot at home right now and the extra stress of work is causing me to feel even more anxious and under the gun? Have I expressed this to my boss, my colleagues and asked for some space to allow me to work through everything?
  • Do I have a demanding client? Have I put up appropriate boundaries there? Could I to make things better?
  • How much of what’s going on is under my control? How much of it isn’t? What can I do to work through what is? how can I let go of the things that aren’t?
  • Are there stories that I’m telling myself about this situation that aren’t true, i.e. I’m a victim, I’m a bad employee, my boss picks on me unnecessarily, etc.
  • Is any of this rooted in my self-worth? My lack of confidence? What do I need to do for myself to help me improve these areas in my life and step in to them more fully?
  • Are there lessons in this experience that I need to learn from? Is there a pattern here that’s repeating that I need to break?

By being aware of my thoughts, asking myself these questions and actually working through my feelings about the day, I’m able to truly get to the real issues at hand and begin the work of resolving them (by having a conversation with my boss, creating boundaries, catching myself when I enter into that victim mentality, etc.)

Relying on our ‘quick fix’ numbing strategies is a natural solution for us to resort to because sitting with our negative thoughts isn’t fun. A great example of this also comes from Brené Brown when she recalls a session with her therapist after she lists all the vices she’s given up (sugar, drinking, smoking) and feels like she has nothing left to help her cope with difficult times in her life.

Brene: “I am like a turtle without a shell in a briar patch … Give me a shell ..”

Therapist: “I’ve got an idea. Why don’t you get out of the briar patch.. you’d be super happy without your shell. Comfortable, lightweight, nimble … You’re getting poked and hurt all the time not because you don’t have a shell but because you are living in a briar patch.”

These are not a ‘quick fix’ solutions and they require a lot of time and attention. However, unpacking these things over time, will help us to see that we too don’t need a shell. We just need to identify our briar patches and work to get out of them so that we stop getting pricked.

Compassion and Gratitude

Lastly, I want to talk for a moment about compassion and gratitude as they can seem similar to positive thinking, but (in my opinion) are quite different, and are effective tools for actually helping us work through our dark thoughts and emotions.

Compassion, to me, is about showing ourself kindness in those moments that are darkest, which as a bi-product helps us to show kindness to others in difficult times. It allows us to acknowledge that these are tough things that we’re working though and will take some time to unpack and resolve. Compassion also helps to shine a light on where other people in our lives may be experiencing some of their own darkness and helps us show them compassion instead of reverting to blame and judgement. As so much of the negative chatter in our heads comes from us being so critical and judgemental of ourselves (and of others), compassion is a great tool to use in helping us overcome these things.

Gratitude is another tool that can help us actually work through our darkness. According to Robert Emmons, the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude, ‘When people are grateful, they aren’t necessarily free of negative emotions—we don’t find that they necessarily have less anxiety or less tension or less unhappiness. Practicing gratitude magnifies positive feelings more than it reduces negative feelings. If it was just ‘positive thinking’, or just a form of denial, you’d experience no negative thoughts or feelings when you’re keeping a gratitude journal, for instance. But, in fact, people do. So gratitude isn’t just a nice, warm, fuzzy feeling. It has responsibilities that go along with it that can make it difficult or challenging for people under certain circumstances.’

Daily gratitude practices don’t need to be extensive either. Simply writing down or thinking of three things that you’re grateful for when you first wake up or before you go to bed is an easy way to start.

Living in Our ‘I Want it Yesterday’ Society

In a day and age where everything is immediately accessible to us, we’ve been programmed to believe that everything should come as easy. Careers, relationships, health goals… we expect it all instantly and with minimal work. Which I believe is why the Positive Thinking movement has grown the way it has – it’s on trend with so many of the ‘quick fix’ solutions we’ve been led to believe are the answers the problems we face.

However, like with all things that are of great value to us, work is required to obtain them. #sorrynotsorry Which means that as lovely as the concept of positive thinking is, it doesn’t address the core of the thoughts and emotions we’re dealing with. Which prevents us from overcome them long-term and simply offers short-term, band-aid solutions.

The answer (in my humble opinion) lies in our willingness to do the work, go through the darkness and eventually come out on the other side. Which is not easy, sexy, fast or fun… likely why so many people avoid it. However, if you ARE willing to do it, I do know this – that darkness brightens up over time and that positivity that you craved starts to become a natural state of being – making it very worthwhile in the end.

However, if opting for the band-aid solutions and fast fixes are more of your cup of tea… that’s totally fine too! Keep up your positive thinking in hopes of that perfect life… that comes with that magic diet pill… and the dream partner you know is out there just waiting for you. Eventually, I’m sure you’ll have it all. 😉

With love and nut butter,

Lindsey Xx

 

 

 

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