Affirmations scrawled in lipstick on the bathroom mirror. Whispering, “I am confident and calm” before work presentations. Assuring yourself, “Everything happens for a reason!” while watching your house burn down.
That’s the power of positive thinking. All your worries fade away if you can just stop your dark thoughts, and instead search for that silver lining.
Stop being anxious. Stop being depressed. Just think positive. It’s so easy.
At least, that’s what the self-help bestsellers tell us. Even our well-intentioned friends will sometimes urge us to turn our frowns upside down. God damn it, even Disney movies insist we “Let it go!”
But is positive thinking really helpful?
Turns out, looking on the bright side might make our mental health worse.
When positive thinking sucks
A 2009 study found that positive affirmations (like “I am loved”) only lift the spirits of people who already feel fabulous. If you’re down or have low self-esteem, affirmations will only make you feel lousier.
The research team concluded, “Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ‘need’ them the most.”
Bit of a catch-22, right? You have to already be positive to benefit from positive affirmations.
So that’s a big fat zero for positive thinking.
Also consider this: worrying you’re not positive enough is a bloody good way to feel more anxious. Read enough positive thinking books, and you’ll start to assume everyone has their shit together. Look at them, prancing about in a self-assured glow, while you can’t even put your socks on without feeling overwhelmed.
Dude. It’s just not true.
But if you believe it is, you’re on the fast-track to feeling guilty and ashamed. Guess what happens next? Yep, you slide even deeper into self-loathing. And you end up exhausted.
Don’t get me wrong, there are loads of helpful books and resources out there. And even the fluffy stuff is created with good intentions. But telling someone with severe anxiety or depression to just ‘think positive’ to create a life they love? It’s unhelpful. And downright dangerous.
Also consider this:
Anxiety can help us cope
For many of us, anxiety is actually a clever little coping strategy. Sure, it makes us worry about all the little things that could go wrong in any situation. But that’s actually a positive. Why? Because we end up better prepared.
Check out this quote from a Scientific American article:
“Defensive pessimists tend to fret a great deal about upcoming stressors such as job interviews or major exams, and they overestimate their likelihood of failure. Yet this worrying works for these individuals, because it allows them to be better prepared.”
It then cites work by Wellesley College psychologist Julie Norem, which shows “depriving defensive pessimists of their preferred coping style – for example, by forcing them to “cheer up”– leads them to perform worse on tasks.”
So by worrying about the worst, we end up doing better than if we try to be optimistic.
One study found we also end up less depressed:
“Pessimists were less prone to depression than optimists after experiencing negative life events, such as the death of a friend. The pessimists had likely spent more time bracing themselves mentally for unpleasant possibilities.”
Don’t forget, anxiety arises when we perceive a threat. It triggers hormones that prepare us to fight or flee. So if we ignore those signals, pretend the threat doesn’t exist, and adopt faux optimism, we could set ourselves up to fall.
That’s what psychologist Christopher Peterson termed ‘unrealistic optimism’ back in 2001.
On the flipside, ‘realistic optimism’ is when we stay alert to threats, but still hope for the best – and prepare ourselves to get through it.
And I think that’s the secret:
Just Accept All Thoughts
Otherwise known as JAAT (kidding, I just made that up), Just Accept All Thoughts is more helpful than positive thinking.
When you JAAT, you don’t pretend you’ve got life licked.
You accept that sometimes you’re anxious, just as sometimes you’re angry, or hurt, or happy, or grieving. Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down.
And that means always you are human.
When we pretend we’re happy and positive all the freaking time, we end up feeling worse. We blame ourselves when things go wrong. We feel frustrated when our positive thinking doesn’t ‘work’.
When we JAAT, we know things will suck sometimes. But when we do experience anxiety or depression or other crappy feelings, we take a step back.
We ask, “Why do I feel like this? What’s triggered it?” and we then focus on how to either remove the trigger, or move through the feeling. Or sometimes, we simply nurture ourselves with a warm bath or chocolate sundae (or both at the same time. Omg. Bliss.) Because sometimes that’s all we can do.
Another thing you can try?
Choose helpful thoughts
This is a Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) technique. Rather than think of thoughts as positive or negative, see them as helpful or unhelpful.
It’s like when you want to lose weight: instead of seeing foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, dieticians advise us to see them as ‘healthy’ and ‘less healthy’ foods. You turn the judgement ‘good/bad’ into a fact ‘healthy/less healthy’.
Ergo, instead of cursing yourself for having ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ thoughts, ask yourself:
- Does this thought help me feel how I want to feel?
- Does this thought help me become the person I want to be?
If it doesn’t, swap it for a more helpful thought.
So, throw out the affirmations. Rub the lippy off the mirror. And really feel your anxiety.
Work on your problems.
Allow yourself to experience the full smorgasbord of emotions.
It’s what helps us heal. And really create a life we love.
And that’s something you can be positive about.