When Positive Thinking isn't Enough

Ever experience a devastating loss only to be told, “Smile. It will be okay?”

It feels like a slap to have someone pour a big jar of happy over you when suffering from a broken heart, diagnosed with cancer, experiencing a critical financial setback, or dealing with a death.

All of us want to “get back to happy” when a life event causes us to suffer, but in those deep, human, painful moments, we often can’t even remember what happy feels like.

Normal life makes us feel disconnected. And the more positive the messages thrown at us—whether by well-meaning friends, self-help books, or quippy Facebook memes—the message seems flat. Like some big conspiracy stamped with round grinning yellow balls.

This idea that we can simply think our way out of suffering is pervasive in our culture, and while there is demonstrable evidence that people who think more positively are healthier and happier, there are places where it simply breaks down.

After all, if we were able to bootstrap our own positive thinking, we would do it already. Are we really just not trying hard enough? 

What if there isn’t actually anything wrong with you?

We often attempt to combat depression like we do with most problems. We try to fix it. Except the challenge is that the thing we want to fix is us—which usually leads to us simply feeling more trapped as our brains tell us to quit screwing up and get back to “normal.”

When we were kids, we didn’t have this problem. Sadness was an appropriate response whenever something bad happened to us. We cried freely whenever we were disappointed, felt pain or experienced loss and never judged ourselves in the process.

The authors of the book, The Mindful Way through Depression state, “For most of us, depression starts as a reaction to a tragedy or a reversal in life. The events that are particularly likely to produce depression are losses, humiliations, and defeats that leave us feeling trapped by our circumstances.”

Most of the things that cause us the deepest pain are those that touch our sense of safety or our identity. For example, a wife who finds out her husband has a pornography problem may initially respond with, “that jerk!” or “what a liar!” but as the deeper thoughts set in, they run more along the lines of, “I am not enough” or “I am not worthy of love.” It isn’t the external action that causes pain; it is our internal thoughts about the meaning of it. Those identity-chipping ideas produce sadness because what we believe about ourselves has a major impact on our emotions.

Our guidance counselors lied to us—self-esteem is a myth

Ever watch a reality TV talent competition where the winner of the prize says something like “I just believed in myself?” Did that person have a bigger belief than all of the other people on the competition who tried but did not get the same result?

Was their thinking demonstrably more positive than the second and third runner ups?

We form our thoughts about ourselves from the reactions of others. When a baby plays with her father and he points to her tiny nose and then his larger one and says “nose”, the baby isn’t learning that her father has a nose, she is learning that she has a nose.

This external data gathering to form our identity goes on not only through adolescence but into adulthood. We process the messages we receive and make judgments about our worth and value which can alternately make us feel terrible when the evidence is bad and amazing when it is good.

What if we could get off that treadmill?

You may have heard the terms convergent thinking and divergent thinking. Convergent thinking is pouring all of our resources into finding one, right answer. But divergent thinking is a thought process that generates creative ideas by exploring a variety of possible solutions. It is the mode we are in when we are brainstorming.

What if divergent thinking is a more useful tool than convergent thinking when it comes to our identity? While convergent thinking is very useful on standardized tests or solving an algebra problem, we are not a linear problem to be solved. Taking a factory approach to try to find the broken widget and get an appropriate substitute can’t work with our psyche. We are quantum in nature—full of love, light, dreams and possibility.

Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, has a brilliant illustration in her TED Talk. She asks the audience how it feels to be wrong. They shout out a few answers…embarrassed, failure, just feels bad, etc. She pauses and says, "No. That's how it feels to find out you are wrong. Being wrong feels exactly like being right."

No matter how true our current identity feels, we don’t always see ourselves accurately. There is a world of possibility in who we can be. (tweet this)

We all have identity hang-ups based on culture, circumstance, and family of origin, but while we are this moment at a fixed point in time, we don’t have to stay here. There are multiple paths forward. We aren’t confined by who or what we’ve been before.

Why just “thinking happy” isn’t enough

There is a chemical and physiological component to our emotions. Neuroscientist, Candace Pert writes, “Most psychologists treat the mind as disembodied, a phenomenon with little or no connection to the physical body. Conversely, physicians treat the body with no regard to the mind or the emotions. But the body and mind are not separate, and we cannot treat one without the other.”

Many times we can ignore the positive thinking all together and just get to positive doing. After losing her husband Mitch in 2009, Michele Steinke-Baumgard turned to exercise as an outlet for grief and a way to handle stress. Michelle found it so powerful that she eventually quit her corporate job to become a fitness trainer. Her blog, One Fit Widow details life on the other side of loss and the role that working out played in the healing process. Steinke-Baumgard isn’t the only one to discover the value of “positive doing.” We don’t have to slap a positive spin on anything in our minds. We just have to take the next positive step.

How we see ourselves can be influenced by our daily practices. Small, daily habits influence the way we see ourselves because the actions create evidence about who we are that we believe. (tweet this)

Many self-help books emphasize the positive impact of everything from journaling, to yoga, to gratitude and the reality is that these things help because they aren’t about thinking—they are about doing. We have the power to positively influence the mind through the body. We don’t have to wait for other people to hand us their validation. We don’t have to sit around saying affirmations to ourselves in a mirror trying desperately to develop positive thoughts. We wind up creating them through our action.

Move from positive thinking to positive doing

While we can’t always control our thoughts, we do have major control over our hands and feet. What we do—how we spend our time—can influence our thoughts. How do we know if something qualifies as positive action? Well, usually by the way it makes us feel. Handing a pair of gloves to a homeless person who isn’t wearing any on a freezing day, usually feels pretty good. It impacts our mood. It changes who we see in the mirror. And while a major life crisis might make it harder to enjoy the activities we used to, taking time to do small things that bring comfort to ourselves or others has value. And all of those little positive actions can build cumulative effect.

Depression is characterized by its paralysis. We have the power to break the gridlock with small defiant acts of forward motion. (tweet this)

What happens when we move from trying to generate positive thinking to implementing positive doing? Well, as it turns out, our thinking changes to become more positive. We just cleverly use our body to make it so.

Dare to take a small, defiant step

When we experience pain, sometimes the hardest thing to own is that healing takes place on a timeline. We so desperately want our fairy godmother to come wave her wand and bail us out. But we aren’t powerless to impact the timeline. We can keep ourselves from getting stuck.

What does a small, defiant step look like?

Any positive thing that feels like motion. It could be as simple as stepping outside to feel the sun on your face or as complex as starting a training regime. The best part is that you choose and then you move. And when your brain says that you shouldn’t, you simply tell it to positively, “shut up!”

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© Random Cathy
Maira Gall