People who preach positive thinking are just the worst, aren’t they?
Okay, not really. But doesn’t the endless exhortation to ‘think positive’ or ‘look on the bright side’ every wear on you—especially when you’re already feeling not so cheerful and positive?
It’s invalidating, for one. When our pain is glossed over and we’re told to proceed directly to solutions, it can feel like we’re not really being heard. Consequently, we tend to feel isolated and alone in our suffering.
What’s more, being told to ‘cheer up’ can imply that our concern itself isn’t all that valid—that we’re making ourselves anxious over nothing, sad for no good reason, or that it’s all in our head.
The suggestion to ‘think positive’ is also frequently selfish. Most people are deeply uncomfortable in the presence of other people’s emotional pain. They feel obligated to do something but don’t know what to do. So they suggest thinking more positively as a way for them to escape the awkwardness of having to sit with another person’s pain in relative helplessness.
When people tell us to ‘think positive’ it’s often not so much a genuine attempt to help as a quick fix for their own discomfort.
But even if well-intentioned, the advice to ‘think positive’ is rarely helpful. Most of us have tried this strategy and found it wanting. After all, if transforming painful emotions and difficult moods were as simple as conjuring up a few happy thoughts, every therapist in the world—myself included—would be out of a job.
But that’s the strange part…
There’s plenty of evidence that changing our thoughts and interpretations of what happens to us can profoundly affect how we feel. From the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome to modern cognitive behavioral therapy, we know that changing how we think does change how we feel.
So why does positive thinking so often fail to make us happier?
Negative Thinking Isn’t the Problem
At the heart of the thinking positive dilemma is a subtle distinction. We advise people to do more positive thinking because we assume that negative thinking is the problem: If you think about scary things all the time, of course you’re going to feel afraid! If you think about tragic things all the time, of course you’re going to feel sad!
But sometimes life is negative, in which case it makes sense that our thoughts about it would be similarly negative. When you watch a news report about drunk driving deaths increasing in your city, it’s perfectly natural to worry at least a little more about getting behind the wheel.
The typical response to this is that it’s irrational or unrealistic negative thinking that’s the problem. You’re more likely to get struck by lightning than to die in an airplane crash, so why are you worrying about your upcoming flight so much?
But if it was as simple as recognizing that our thinking is a little unrealistic, why do so many of us engage in obviously irrational negative thinking, especially when the emotional costs are so high?
Why do we worry when we know it can’t help and that it will only make us more anxious? Why do we ruminate on past mistakes when we know we can’t change them and doing so will only make us more depressed or ashamed?
Look, we all think negatively sometimes. And from time to time, we all experience irrationally negative thoughts like worries or dwelling on past mistakes. In my experience, neither negative thinking or even irrationally negative thinking is the problem.
What leads to major emotional suffering is too much evaluative thinking.
Why so judgmental?
As a psychologist and therapist, by far the strongest pattern I see among people with chronic emotional struggles is that they are profoundly judgmental of themselves, especially of their own painful emotions.
For example: Everybody worries sometimes. Chronic worriers worry about their worry. They’re afraid of getting anxious. They get panicky when they start to feel nervous. They constantly look for meaning behind every little pain in their body, inflection in another person’s voice, or thought that pops into their head. In short, people who have significant struggles with anxiety tend to be judgmental of their anxiety.
Another example: Everybody feels down sometimes. People with chronic depression get down on themselves for feeling down. It’s one of the great ironies of depression that, from the outside, depressed people look extremely inactive and lethargic. But internally, the storm is often raging. And that storm is usually characterized by extreme forms of self-criticism and brutally negative self-talk. In other words, people who are depressed tend to be judgmental of their own feelings of sadness or lethargy.
On the other hand, one reason many people don’t seem to get trapped in cycles of anxiety and depression is that they don’t judge themselves for feeling bad. Often without knowing it, they practice self-compassion with their painful emotions rather than self-judgment. They acknowledge that feeling that way is hard and unfortunate, but they don’t interpret it as a sign that’s something wrong with them or that they’re broken. Emotionally resilient people, in other words, don’t think evaluatively about their moods and emotions.
The problem with ‘think positive’ is that it primes us for evaluative thinking more generally. And it’s surprisingly easy to go from one form of evaluation to another. For people with chronic emotional struggles in particular, it’s surprisingly easy to slip from “I’m amazing” to “I’m the worst.” So while positive thinking may lead to some momentary relief, it’s not worth it if it kickstarts your evaluative thinking engine in the long-term.
So how should we think?
The key idea underpinning this entire discussion is that just because an emotion feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad or you are bad for feeling it.
And because we can’t directly control our emotions, it doesn’t make sense to evaluate them at all. Emotions aren’t good or bad any more than cloudy skies and rain showers are good or bad.
What if you just stopped evaluating how you felt altogether?
What if you could observe your emotions without judging them?
What if you could describe your emotions without analyzing them?
What if you could feel your emotions without telling stories about them?
What if you committed to being aware of your emotions without insisting on thinking much about them at all?