Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Always Work

Positive thinking doesn’t always work, and I’d like to jump into a time that it failed big time.

When I was in high school, I was at a dance and sitting with this guy I didn’t really know. He was feeling really bummed out because he wasn’t getting much attention from our mutual friend, whom he had a big crush on. We chatted for a bit but he just couldn’t feel better. Then I made a fatal mistake: I offered some canned positive thinking, probably something along the lines of “make the best out of the situation”. The memory of what I said is pretty fuzzy- but what’s extremely vivid is his extremely hostile and dramatic reaction. He stood up, slammed the table with his fist, and yelled “I DON’T NEED YOU TO HELP ME FEEL BETTER!!!!”. SO loud. Oh my God. The only thing that could have made it worse is if the DJ had stopped playing music in that very second so everybody could see this big emo senior yelling at this little brown haired freshman. He wasn’t having any of my positive thinking in a big “screw you” kind of way. Way to go, BRIAN.

Besides learning that unsolicited advice can rub people the wrong way, I reconfirmed that positive thinking isn’t a cure-all.

Oh well… I am sure that many of you could attest to that right along with me. Sometimes, it simply doesn’t work. In fact, when you are in a situation that isn’t optimal, attempts at positive thinking feel like you are attempting to hijack your common sense just to believe something that doesn’t ring true.

What I tried to do with Brian was change his emotional state by trying to convince him of something that wasn’t true to him. I have come to realize that it’s natural, normal and even necessary not to have positive emotions all the time. Sometimes we are going to feel badly and honestly, if that’s what is authentic, we should not talk ourselves out of negative emotions. They are of service to us just as much as positive emotions, and we certainly don’t try to talk ourselves out of positive emotions.

Take grief, for example. An emotion like grief isn’t pleasant but it allows a fuller expression of our humanity. When we lose a loved one, we will feel grief as a natural result. In that grief, we are reminded of the fragility of life, the beauty of the one that we lost, the preciousness of time, and we may feel a hunger to appreciate people in our lives even more. We may learn the power of forgiveness and get clarity on what really matters to us. You won’t get there unless you allow for the grief rather than trying to talk yourself out of it.

Authentic and effective positive thinking occurs after you’ve been able to work with and through your negative emotions first.

Otherwise, you will end up feeling controlled by them because you’re running, repressing, and reacting. You’re in defensive mode. You’ll feel like you NEED positive thinking to work, but the more it doesn’t work, the more intensely you need it to so that you can have some relief.

That’s not what positive thinking does. It helps you feel great when you believe it. You can’t believe it if you feel terrible. The key to feeling better is to stop resisting negative emotions. Negative emotion is a way for your body and brain to communicate with your mind. Listen to what it has to say because it will keep speaking to you until you acknowledge it.

Acknowledging and accepting the cause of your negative emotion puts you in a position to decide what you want to do next.

It’s like you stopped running from the pain and you’ve turned around to face it. What will you do? Regardless of what you choose to do, you are finally facing the emotion instead of running. THEN positive thinking can work. It is most effective when used to help you as you face your pain, not instead of facing your pain.

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