You’re trying to be positive.
You’re trying to eliminate all your negative thoughts and do as everyone says. You’ve heard it thousands, maybe millions, of times — be positive, look on the bright side, don’t let things get you down, but it doesn’t work as smoothly as everyone says.
In fact, it often leaves you angry, sad and full of despair.
And you’re asking, “Why do I have negative thoughts?”
“Why can’t I be like everyone else?”
You’re even afraid to open your social media. It might remind you how positive everyone else is. Or you’re scared to see that friend, the one who will tell you to cheer up, be happy, and to get over yourself.
And it doesn’t seem fair.
But having negative thoughts is normal. Everyone has them all the time.
The trick is not to feel guilty about it.
The Positivity Crusade
For over a decade now gurus have proclaimed the benefits of positive thinking.
Spend a few minutes searching the internet or browsing social media, and you’ll come across someone telling you to change your thoughts.
In part, this is because most of us aren’t aware of our thoughts. Many of us go through life without being aware of how ideas affect day-to-day behaviour.
As a practising therapist, much of my work can involve helping clients examine their thought patterns.
Because exaggeration, thinking the worst, ignoring the positive, and other similar notions, often contribute to stress, anxiety and depression.
And many of us also have an inner critic: the voice, or voices, in our head that tell us that we are not worth it.
That we don’t deserve any better.
Quite often, these are echoes from the past, the critical uncle, parent or teacher, who always put us down. They may have done so explicitly or subtly almost without us knowing.
Shining a light on and getting to grips with our negative thoughts can be essential.
It’s the basis of at least one popular therapy treatment called CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy).
Cognitive means thinking or reasoning and CBT is all about how cognition — thinking — affects behaviour.
It has a good record of working, at least for many common conditions such as insomnia and anxiety. I use it a lot in my private practice.
But the problem comes when the crusade against negativity goes too far.
Instead of the sensible idea that we should examine or ignore negative thoughts that hinder us, we now have the idea that we should be positive and eliminate all negativity.
This is neither possible nor desirable.
The Illusion of Control
A human brain is a worry machine.
It’s a magnificent piece of kit that gives us some fantastic advantages as a species, but it was designed to keep us safe not to make us happy.
Generating negative thoughts is one of its jobs.
Which person do you think gives the better presentation?
The person who is supremely optimistic and does not worry at all or the person who thinks it might go wrong, they might be embarrassed, and that they had better prepare.
Do you see where we’re going with this?
Negative thoughts are useful in moderation, the brain’s way of asking ‘what if’ questions that can keep us safe.
If you weren’t having worrisome thoughts, then you’d always be in danger.
It’s only when these negative thoughts become exaggerated or when you pay too much attention to them that they can become a burden.
Moreover, you can’t turn off negative thoughts just because you don’t want them. It’s a myth that you have full control.
Suggesting that you can eliminate negative thoughts is like suggesting that you don’t think of a pink elephant. No matter what you want to do, it’s almost impossible to stop.
Nor do we have full control of our memories. You can’t delete and erase memories at will, for example. Sometimes bad ones pop into mind.
One more example:
Imagine someone puts a gun to your head. Can you be positive? Can you relax and be unafraid?
Thoughts, feelings, and memories are not that easy to control.
You have some control; just nowhere near as much as others make out.
To be blunt about it, if things were that easy, if we really could control all our thoughts, then we’d all be living in nirvana.
Stop Fighting Yourself
There was a time when I might have believed in the positivity crusade, but I’ve since learnt the hard way that it often causes more harm than good.
Many of my clients end up burnt out and blaming themselves because try as they might they can’t maintain a mind full only of good thoughts.
When we begin work the critical task with my clients is to get them to accept that they have much less control than they might like to think.
Instead of trying to solve the problem of negative thoughts by trying to take control, I ask them to accept their ideas as they are. No longer a problem to be addressed, they can be acknowledged and felt.
Acceptance means not trying to wish them away or make them into something they are not. It means letting go of the tendency to explain or deny your negative thoughts.
It’s a radical change in stance that stops us fighting our natural self.
Try it. You’ll find that embracing your thoughts and feelings as they are means they are more likely to vanish; like a disturbed rabbit at dusk.
The Freedom to Choose
Accepting and not fighting your thoughts means you can make peace with yourself.
Since not all negativity is undesirable, you don’t need to blame yourself.
You don’t need to open up a gap between the way you are and the way you think you should be, leading you to feel worse.
“What’s up with me? Why can’t I be positive?” you used to ask.
And your spirits sank further.
But you’ve now got a new perspective.
You can embrace your negative thoughts and avoid this trap, averting a downward spiral.
Any energy in those initial thoughts disappears.
Acceptance and awareness dissolve them like bright light dissolves the darkness of the night.
Rather than fight your body’s natural defence mechanisms, you can experience them as they play out, not wanting to change them or destroy them or make them into something else.
You’ll come to see that thoughts come and go and that they only affect you as much as you let them.
The thought that you might make a fool of yourself when you give your next presentation is a guess, a projection, a negative belief that stops you from being unprepared. It is not a fact, and its appearance is not always within your control.
The bit you do have control over is how you react to it.
You can choose to accept that you’re always bad at presentations; you certainly will make a fool of yourself. Or you can see the thought for what it is, just one potential amongst many.
This perspective gives you the freedom to choose.
Will you decline the presentation because you believe you’ll make a mess or will you ignore the thought and try your best?
Avoiding the Negativity Spiral
Learning to deflate or defuse your negative thoughts then is crucial to not fall into a cycle of self-blame.
You must learn to assess your thoughts as to whether they are helpful or not. This assessment is far more critical than of whether a belief is true or false, serious or ridiculous, positive or negative, optimistic or pessimistic.
If it is a helpful thought, can you use it to motivate you and move you forward?
If it is an unhelpful thought, what should you ignore?
If your thoughts are persistently critical, such as “You’re fat”, “You’re ugly”, “You’re stupid” and “You’ll never amount to anything,” is there any way you can lessen the hold these thoughts have on you?
Remember, it’s not about trying to be positive, but learning to accept and minimise the effects of unhelpful thoughts.
It’s about seeing unpleasant thoughts for what they are — fleeting words.
Acceptance of your thoughts may not make you feel better, but that isn’t the goal.
The main goal is to disentangle you from unhelpful thought processes so that you can focus on more important things.
Feeling better may be a side effect, but you shouldn’t expect it every time, especially at first.
But take solace in that you’ve now sidestepped a massive trap and avoided the spiral of despair.
By practising acceptance rather than positivity, you don’t need to beat yourself up when your mind doesn’t do what you want. That’s an excellent starting point to healing yourself.
Be Negative and Tell the World
For a long time now everyone has been telling you to be more positive.
They’ve been telling you that all you need to do is get rid of your negative thoughts and replace them with ones that are bright, colourful and fun.
But it hasn’t seemed so easy.
You’ve tried again and again, but negative thoughts keep coming back, causing you to blame yourself or think you’re defective.
The result is you sink into despair.
But negative thoughts are healthy and designed to keep you safe. Or they may be hand-me-downs from parents or other family members who mistreated you.
And you have much less control over their appearance than the ‘positivity’ crowd likes to think.
The converse of what is often proscribed works better.
Rather than try to eliminate negative thoughts, experience them as they are. Ask not is this thought positive or negative, true or false, but is it helpful or not.
By sitting with and just letting your unhelpful thoughts be as they are you diffuse their control over you.
You don’t have to beat yourself up for things that are out of your control.
These steps are the starting point for lifting yourself out of the trap that believing in positive thinking can cause.
It’s the starting point of more self-acceptance and the elimination of guilt.
So next time you feel down and in despair don’t be too hard on yourself, practice acceptance and tell the world you don’t need to be positive all the time. Self-aware and surviving is enough.