“Positive” Thinking

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Maybe it’s just me, but the whole idea of turning “negative” thinking into “positive” thinking gives me a galloping case of the grumps. How many times have I read about using the “power of positive thinking” to change my situation? “Change your thoughts; change your Life.” “Turn that frown upside-down.” “Smile and the world smiles with you; cry and you cry alone.” 

We are inundated with messages that we are not allowed to express our naked upset feelings—I’m sad, I’m depressed, I’m scared, I’m jealous, I’m pissed off. And, that if we do, we are actually, through our thoughts and actions, creating more badness. If only we could just think “positive” thoughts ALL THE TIME, then our lives would be miraculously transformed. Want a better relationship? Start affirming, hundreds of times per day: “All my relationships are loving relationships.” Want a better job? “I have a wonderful job, with a supportive boss, making more money than I can now imagine.” Better body? “I am slim and fit.” 

I notice this tendency to quickly repress “negativity,” to never be guilty of “complaining,” in myself and in others, wherever I go. It’s a central issue in therapy work. I’ll be strolling along, thinking some random thoughts, or chatting with a friend, when some mildly emotional topic will come up. Something an old boyfriend did. Or a former boss who was a total asshole. I’ve noticed that the tendency is to say something like: “Man, I hated that guy…(pause)…but I don’t really wish him ill. I mean, he was probably having a hard time himself, right?” 

The pause in between the genuinely-felt hatred and the quick cleanup with a positive statement is the trough where healing happens.

Because, moving through life in our bodies, we pick up some negative stuff. That asshole boss? Every time she scowled at you, or gaslighted you, or blamed you for something you didn’t do, she handed you a  little package. A little black oozy sticky package of stress hormones that lodged in your body somewhere. Right in the shame center. Right where your 5th-grade teacher lobbed a shameball 30 years ago, that’s still stuck there, reminding you that you’re A BAD PERSON. 

And every time we quickly slide by our shame experience, every time we say, “Man, my 5th grade teacher was a harridan…(slight pause while adrenal glands pump out a shot of epinephrine)…but, I survived, and at least she taught me to be tough!” every time we sanitize that moment of emotion, push it back with a quick platitude and a shaky laugh, we miss a small opportunity for healing, for dislodging a piece of that shame-package that’s been blackly stuck underneath our rib cage for lo, these 30 years. 

Now, I’m not suggesting that we nurture our hatred, either, or our shame. I’m not an advocate of “wallowing,” as so many people put it, in hurt feelings. It’s not productive or good-feeling or helpful to cuddle up to our resentment of that long-ago teacher and blame her for our subsequent misfortunes, or use her as an excuse why, to this very day! we can’t remember the principal exports of Peru. 

So, many of us…all of us, I reckon, want to “let go of all that and move on.” We want to leave the past in the past and learn to enjoy this beautiful present moment, but we’re still derailed by our “negative” thoughts and our “negative” emotions, and we believe, despite all evidence, that quickly replacing the “negative” with a “positive” is the way to accomplish this.

I want people—my clients, my friends, myself, my kids and family—to “let go of the past and move on,” as well. I want to live in the present moment, which is a moment of joy at being alive in a body. I want to release the past into the past, where it rightfully belongs. I want all my relationships to be loving relationships; a wonderful job with a supportive boss making more money than I can now imagine; a healthy strong body. 

However, I note that the way forward isn’t through “positive thinking” alone. You can’t transform yourself simply by downloading a shell of shiny platitudes on top of your messy emotional life. The way through is to pause in that moment of hurt, of rage, of shame or sadness, and to note, “Wow, I hadn’t thought about Ms. Shameball for 30 years, but when I remember her yelling at me how stupid I was, I still feel terrible.” And then, to release a bit of it. 

Your body wants to release that old shame. It wants to shake, to cry, to rage and storm, to yell hurtful things, to right the wrongs that were done. Your adult mind wants to forgive, to understand, to have compassion for the person who harmed you. This adult voice inside you may tell you that you are A BAD PERSON if you feel angry, hurt, scared, or uncompassionate. The experiment is, to allow the 2 to coexist. In the pause, you can just notice how your body feels. You can say the name of the emotion you’re experiencing. You can notice your adult self bustling up with its little whisk-broom, ready to shuffle those naughty hurtful feelings back into the dustbin, and you can ask it to stand back a minute, while you feel this feeling—the pit in the stomach, the aching heart, the trembly breath, the clenched jaw. This wondering: “Am I bad?”

Then, you can sigh deeply, give your whole body a shake (really, stand up and shake it, from your feet up to your cheeks), take 5 good breaths, do 10 jumping-jacks, run for 5 minutes, tense and relax your muscles, from feet to head and back (probably not all at the same time; pick and choose. If you’re in public, you could just quietly tense and relax your hands and feet.). And THEN, only then, you can turn your mind back to your daily self, your daily compassion, your daily firefighting, and yes, the positive, creative thoughts that make a beautiful life; that make you A GOOD PERSON! Try it a few times, and see how life begins to change.