The positive thinking debate
A few months ago, I was sitting at a cafe reading an article about positive thinking. The writer was describing a particular day in which she was determined to think positively for the day. And so begins a manic day with children running riot at breakfast to a car crash and a house burglary. And throughout one drama after another the author kept smiling through gritted teeth determined to be positive. Did positive thinking work? Was she all joy and smiles by the end of the day? Hardly. Not only was she mentally and physically drained but she was also disheartened by the failure of positive thinking.
Now if you are a pessimist or realist, you would be shaking your head right now at the absurdity of the author and her futile efforts. If you were an idealist, you would perhaps be thinking the author just didn't try hard enough - or perhaps are nodding in frustration and empathising with them. And if you are an optimist..... well let's come back to that in a moment.
The article highlighted a common misconception about the purpose and process of positive thinking. So firstly, let’s clear up some facts. Positive thinking is NOT:
- · Ignoring the situation
- · Pretending or telling yourself you feel different to what you do
- · Pretending you are happy when you are not
- · Using positive body language (eg. smiling) to ignore your emotions
- · A way to change your reality
If you are doing any of the above, then at best you are trying to manifest and at worst you are denying reality. The former is likely to be unsuccessful as it a relatively primitive form of manifesting and is missing many key elements. The latter is likely to lead to disheartenment and unhappiness as denial and ignoring one’s emotions often does.
Positive thinking is not about altering your reality but your perception of that reality. Positive thinking is:
- · Accepting the situation
- · Acknowledging your emotions & expressing them appropriately
- · Being proactive & taking action
- · Finding the positive within the experience
- · Being aware of your self talk and its effect on your perception and behaviour
- · Appreciation and gratitude
Pessimists and realists insist they are seeing life as it truly is; but the reality is, they are seeing it through a negative perception and self talk. They generally do not accept life but rather resist it, lamenting and focusing on the negative; often leading to inaction or unhappiness.
Likewise idealists that use positive thinking through gritted teeth or rose coloured glasses are also resisting life. They reject acceptance; preferring to colour their perception with what could be rather than what is. Disheartenment closely follows.
In contrast optimists see life without the influence of negative self talk or idealism and with eyes that take in the bigger picture. They recognise that acceptance enables them to make peace with their present and appreciate it as they flow and swim towards their future.
So going back to the author's trying day; an optimist would allow themselves to feel the madness of the day but they would not hold on to those feelings. Instead they would be replaced by acceptance, and the bigger picture:
The kids are running riot - An optimist will still feel anger and tiredness but will think: 'The kids are happy and healthy; and soon I will thankfully be dropping them off at school! :)
Car crash - An optimist will feel fear, and perhaps worry and financial stress but these will be replaced with their final thought: 'At least no one was hurt'.... or perhaps even 'I get to buy a new car!'
Burglary - An optimist will feel fear and that they have been violated. But as these emotions subside, they will focus on being grateful that the family wasn't home during the burglary.
In a pessimistic environment, positive thinking cannot break through the negative perception and self talk that completely steals focus. In an idealistic environment, positive thinking tends to be misused as a mask to hide more stressful emotions. In an optimistic environment, emotions and situations are accepted, felt and released; making room for positive thinking to enter and flourish.
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