Positive thinking is a trap. Straight up. We are humans living in a crazy world; negative thoughts and feelings are everywhere. From how we judge ourselves, to others — everything from serious life-changing issues through to the person who accidentally bumps into you on public transport. We feel annoyed, we feel sad, we feel angry. Crappy stuff is everywhere.
And yet, so much of the self help out there talks about negative thoughts like they are the origin of all evil — we should just try to push out the negative thoughts, and insert more “good” thoughts. It’s not far off from telling depressed people to “just lighten up”. Seems logical on the outside, perhaps, but not exactly appropriate or in any way achievable for the person “inside” the experience. We can’t just “be happier” as if it’s a switch on or off.
These past months, I’ve been reading the Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris, and I have mentioned Harris’ work before in my articles, but feel it is particularly poignant on the point of positive thinking (that was a lot of ‘P’ words…). Harris doesn’t “disprove” positive thinking as a notion, merely casts it aside in favour of his Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) based recommendations. And they are compelling. In particular, on the subject of emotions. Harris asserts that emotions are neither positive nor negative, we simply accrue these connotations, “because of the stories we believe about emotions.” We receive a variety of learned responses to emotions — Harris gives the very gendered examples of “women shouldn’t feel angry” and “men shouldn’t feel afraid”. As much as these stereotypes are being broken down, he’s not wrong that they remain present as a result of our upbringing. We learn that certain emotions are okay and others are not okay, depending on religious, cultural, gender and other aspects of upbringing.
With negative stories about emotions come negative sensations — we associate ‘fear’ with a bad feeling in our actual bodies. We associate these negative emotions with each other, and other sensations in the body — so fear can lead to panic, or anxiety, etc. These things can lead to shaking, or shivering, or sweating, or vomiting, or any other number of things. We then do our best at avoiding ‘bad emotions’ that lead to ‘bad feelings’. And ironically enough, if we are fixated to avoiding the sweating, we tend to sweat more.
I experience this viscerally, as I have a tremor in my hands. I used to be extremely self-conscious of this, particularly when speaking with groups of people or new people. I once went to a film networking event and was so shaken up in trying to introduce myself to the producer who was speaking, that I could hardly hand her my card, or write down her email that she kindly gave me. The more I worried about the shaking, the more I started shaking. The more I shook, the more fearful, anxious and angry I became.
These days, I’ve accepted that the shaking is there and it doesn’t trouble me at all if people notice — I feel more confident in general about who I am and what I represent, and I interview people all the time, both for written articles and on several podcasts. As a result, I’ve had a lot more chances to practice speaking to new people, and to groups, and this has lead me to accept the feelings in my body to a far greater extent — I can feel them build, then subside, as I grow into the feelings I know will come. And of course, as a result of this process of acceptance, I shake far less.
Harris says that acknowledging “this feels terrible” when we experience a bad emotion doesn’t really help us deal with the discomfort or pain. And as you can see in my above example, this was extremely true for me. He also says that trying to understand why you feel bad isn’t always helpful either. The thought, “I shouldn’t feel this way” is one he responds to simply: why not? Why shouldn’t you occasionally feel ‘bad’?
I have a lot of thoughts about this as a method of dealing with negative emotions. I can see Harris’ point that drowning in the thought “this feels terrible” doesn’t exactly provide a coping mechanism, or a way to deal with it. It simply revels in the discomfort, such that we then become twice as fearful of that feeling. We deliberately avoid things as a result — perhaps even everyday, mundane things. For instance, if I have had a terrible phone call with someone at work, that left me angry or upset, I might then start to feel anxious if I saw that person calling. And then perhaps, I’d start to associate that nugget of a feeling of anxiety with every phone call that comes in. I can hardly decide to stop picking up the phone, though, in the context of my job.
Recognising bad feelings in ourselves is useful in terms of awareness. Not every emotion is a ‘good’ one, but recognising the extent of a bad feeling can help us figure out other aspects of our lives — like recognising toxic relationships, or toxic work environments. If a sphere of life is dominated by ‘negative’ feelings, it’s good to know that and to be able to act on that. But this isn’t to say that negative feelings should build up to a point where, like I used to experience, you’re shaking before you even get started.
The ‘negative feelings’ are often not as bad as we make them out to be. I realised this as I once mentioned to someone who I had been nervous around that I had a tremor. “Oh,” they said, “I really never noticed!” There it was. This thing that I’d obsessed over was totally absent from the consciousness of the other person.
Taking a moment to feel the fear, recognise it and recognise what it does in the body is a much gentler way of working through the emotion, than simply trying to throw it aside of cover it up — after all, the more we try to distract or distance, the louder these emotions get over time. Experiencing them fully, accepting them as part of life and part of the everyday, does help us to simply deal with them. Why shouldn’t we feel bad feelings sometimes? They are actually really helpful, too.
Are You Living A Life Based on What You Really Value?
Overcoming Blocks By Reasserting Your Values
Harris connects the ability to accept thoughts and feelings as the first step towards creating actions that are meaningful — value-based actions. I’ve been thinking a lot about values lately, and how important they are for driving us towards a happier, more contented life. Without clear values, it’s easy to languish and lose motivation for things, or to feel as though we’ve lost meaning in our lives. What seems like the wrong way round, however, is to try to apply a ‘positive’ bandage where the fundamental work of determining values and desires hasn’t been done. Simply thinking more positively won’t get us to a happier place — it’s too superficial, too temporary, too avoidant of our true selves.
So don’t make “positive thinking” or “think more positively” your aim for the year ahead. Focus instead on becoming more aware of your actual feelings, good or bad, and figuring out how you can accept those emotions. Understanding your values will help keep the compass clear, steering you towards a life lived in pursuit of what matters most — over what feels easiest or best, in the moment.
Have a safe and healthy new year.