Google ‘books on positive thinking’ and you’ll get pages of results. In fact, the ‘power of positive thinking’ is such a strong belief in pop psychology that challenging it can seem heretical. Yet put in another way, if we are feeling sad, scared or, anxious but tell ourselves we just need to think positively to get rid of those feelings, we are denying the reality of our experience and telling ourselves it’s not okay to feel the way we feel. The more we deny the reality of our experiences and emotions, the more disconnected we become from ourselves.
Feeling difficult emotions or anxiety is certainly not very comfortable, so no wonder there is a desire to push the experience away. Positive thinking seems to promise an escape from this discomfort, if only we can get the positive thinking right! Yet a 2009 study from the University of Waterloo found that for depressed people positive affirmations resulted in many participants feeling worse.
Instead of ignoring our emotions through positive thinking or becoming stuck and overwhelmed by them, there is a middle ground of managing the discomfort of thoughts and emotions, without needing to disconnect from our experience.
One way to do this is to increase your ability to ‘sit with’ uncomfortable sensations, emotions and thoughts without reacting to them. Part of developing this ability involves being curious rather than judgemental towards our experiences.
- Judgmental: “I shouldn’t be so upset by what she said! I’m such a crybaby!”
- Curious: “wow, I’m feeling really hurt by what she said, I wonder what is going on for me that I’m having this sort of reaction?”
Do you notice yourself having different reactions to the two examples?
Ways of learning to manage difficult thoughts and emotions:
- Practices such as meditation, yoga or tai chi
- Mindfulness practices such as focused breathing
- Books such as Non-Violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg
What has your experience been with positive thinking?