You’ve heard it a million times:
‘Think positively, be grateful!’ It’s become virtually impossible to scroll down your Instagram feed without seeing a barrage of posts with messages like,
‘Inhale The Good, Exhale The Bad’. It’s a #positivevibes takeover!
Yet, when ‘life happens’, no amount of positive thinking, laws of attraction and self-help books seem to work. In fact, we find ourselves feeling emptier
than ever. So while positive thinking is well-intentioned, it only works when you allow for negative thinking as well. Don’t believe us? Studies at Harvard and Stanford have actually proven that ignoring or overexpressing unresolved emotions is actually toxic. The next time you feel terrible because you’ve lost your job, boyfriend or a loved one and anyone dares tell you to be grateful, positive and strong, just ignore them (in your head).
Acceptance-Commitment Therapist, Mindfulness Consultant and the Founder of the Free Spirit Project, Briar Jaques busts positive thinking myths:
DISTRACT YOURSELF, SQUASH THAT NEGATIVITY! BE POSITIVE”
Let’s take a trip down memory lane. As children, every time we hurt ourselves, dropped our ice cream or were upset, we were told, ‘Honey, don’t cry, be brave, it’s going to be ok, here’s a lollipop’. Or some of us were just left to cry because our parents thought that ‘crying it out’ would make us resilient.
Ever since we can remember, the subliminal messages we’ve been receiving from our unsuspecting elders have been ‘shut down, distract yourself… or deal with it!’
When a child hears ‘stop crying, be brave, be strong’ his or her premature brain understands it to mean ‘suppress your emotions, stop feeling and weakness is substandard’. And when a child is given a lollipop, he or she understands that the only solution to a problem is ‘distracting yourself with something unhealthy’. The final nail in the coffin is the good old ‘wail on’ which is understood by the child as ‘cry, because emotions are a hopeless abyss to lose yourself in’! It’s no wonder then that none of us know what the heck to do with our feelings and most of us end up with unhealthy coping mechanisms like emotional repression, over-expression and distraction.
DO THIS: Allowing yourself to feel and express how you feel is super important. Example: “I know you’re upset. Hold the child (AKA you), let him or her feel and then help explain why they’re feeling what they are.
“TELL YOUR MIND TO HEAL, IT WILL. BE POSITIVE!”
“Ah magic! If only life were this simple,” says Briar. “Emotions and feelings are an integral part of human existence and reality; to experience both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ feelings, is a human being’s natural state and birth right,” says Briar. Emotional pain is felt very similarly to physical pain. Repressing your emotions after a life changing or difficult event, is the equivalent of ignoring a broken bone after an accident and hoping it will go away without any care. Telling yourself that you’re not experiencing sadness by thinking positively, when you REALLY are sad, is like telling your festering wound to heal with positive thoughts, not meds.
DO THIS: “Uncomfortable feelings are an essential part of human reality and experience. Positive thinking starts with working through your uncomfortable emotions in a healthy way. Accepting them, feeling them, talking through them with someone, perhaps a friend (who doesn’t blindly tout the positive thinking manifesto) or a therapist, and finally allowing them to be released from deep within your mind and body. Sometimes, this process takes a few tries before you feel free of them, depending on how rough the personal or professional circumstance was.
“YOU ARE SO BLESSED, BE GRATEFUL, LOOK AT... THE POSITIVE!”
“You’re upset because something is going wrong in your life. You’re anxious, sad, irritable and not fun to be around. The pain is showing up in obsessive-thinking patterns and as stomach upsets, tension in the neck and jaw, headaches and insomnia.
And just when things can’t seem to get more difficult, you remember – or you’re told – that you should be grateful. That your life is actually great because you have your basic and physical amenities. So in effect you have no right to be feeling this way, as there are others really suffering,” says Briar. Because if all your needs are technically met, then you’re just a whiny, spoiled brat right? Adds Briar, “So on top of feeling down in the dumps, you’re also guilty now and are basically left with a cocktail of feelings with no idea how to manage them.” Most people think they’re doing you a favour by helping you remember the ‘positive aspects’ of your life. But really in such cases gratitude serves to become more of a focal and distraction point, from the real task at hand – feeling what life really wants you to feel.
DO THIS: The first thing to address is that emotional and physical pain are one and the same. If you’re feeling out of whack, address it like you would a broken arm. Never ever let anyone – including you – talk you into thinking that just because you have things to be grateful for, that you have no right to feel badly. You can be grateful and still face circumstantial difficulties every day; it’s not an either-or scenario, they are mutually exclusive.
“IF YOU ARE POSITIVE, YOU WILL ATTRACT SUCCESS”
Ah yes, The Secret. The Law of Attraction. If you haven’t been harangued by this motto, well… lucky you! Positive thinking is indeed essential for successful manifesting. But yet, we’re not all millionaire super models engaged to Zac Efron, right?
That’s because positive thinking ‘alone’ doesn’t lead to manifestation; it’s merely one of the many components of the ‘secret formula’. The key to the Law of Attraction is to authentically align the vibration of our thoughts, feelings and belief systems so perfectly with each other, so that we may achieve what we want. However, most of the time, we ignore our feelings, don’t know anything about our deeply buried subconscious belief systems, and yet expect to attract ‘the dream’ by thinking positively.
DO THIS: Address your subconscious belief systems (with the assistance of a therapist) and rewire your stubborn neural pathways to align together with our positive thoughts! And then… Zac Efron, may not be a dream after all!
“HAVE COURAGE, BE BRAVE, BE STRONG.”
Firstly, it’s important to define what courage is. It is the ability to address uncomfortable feelings and non-resourceful behavioral patterns when they show up.
DO THIS: The famous last words ‘face your fears’ are only half referring to bungee jumps and white water rafting; they’re really referring to the demons within and facing the emotions that human beings have a hard time accepting, feeling and facing! Of course, once you’ve addressed what, how, why of how you feel and learned how to deal with them (perhaps with the assistance of a counsellor or therapist) then ‘thinking positively’ is an essential part and productive part of the process.
“RECURRING NEGATIVE THOUGHTS LEAD TO DEPRESSION. SO THINK POSITIVELY”
There’s no doubt that bad, evil and sad thoughts, if allowed to take over our lives, minds and bodies is unhealthy for us in the long run. If thoughts are recurring, you need to be aware that your body’s alarm system is telling you that there’s something that needs attention. What happens when you ignore the smoke alarm ringing in your house? You risk a fire burning it down. So take stock! Our brains have neuroplasticity, which means that they’re constantly changing and being re-shaped by our experiences. We develop habitual ‘neural pathways’ when we do or think the same thing over and
over again. This can be both helpful and unhelpful. Rumination or over-thinking is one of the unhelpful ones.
DO THIS: The good news is that we can change these neural pathways through mindfulness practices and training our attention away from the thoughts that don’t help us live the life we want to live. We can also develop those thoughts and behaviors we want to develop (the positive ones). And learn how to respond to other unhelpful ones with a definitive ‘mind, talk to the hand, meh.” says Briar. “Our minds are there for us to use to our benefit. However, most of the time we allow our minds to use us,” Briar points out. “We spend hours doing all sorts of other stuff in our lives, but somehow don’t dedicate that time to learning to relate properly to what goes on in our minds.”
“IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG, THINK POSITIVELY & YOUR REALITY WITH CHANGE”
There’s truth to this, but ONLY when your emotional body and mental body are equally aligned. “When we’re emotionally and physically upset, our minds operate with cognitive distortions. These are thought patterns that include out-of-control thinking like: ‘What if?’ They tend toward black-and- white reasoning, superstitions, over-focus on the threatening elements of the situation, too much future and past focus and often magnified future prediction.
When we’re in a ‘thought and emotion storm’, our minds are hijacked by our limbic system (the emotional, more automatic part of the brain). When this happens, we are in fight-or-flight mode and our ability to think fairly, logically and effectively is limited due to the pre-frontal regions of the brain (parts responsible for higher reason and impulse control) going ‘offline’,” says Briar
“When we try to beat these distortions back with positive statements, rational thoughts and thinking strategies, it has limited impact and we end up with an argument in our head.
When we are experiencing such a reaction, it’s best to dis-empower the thoughts – both negative and positive. Then center the mind’s attention outside our thoughts, in reality and focus on breathing through the feelings - the anger, the annoyance, the frustration, the fear - and not feeding them with the thoughts.
DO THIS: When we withdraw attention from thoughts and focus on our breath and the body senses, emotions (unless they are being stimulated by a real-life emergency situation) will last for about 96 seconds in our body and then subside. Then positive and rational thoughts may be used to bring the mind back to a state of equilibrium,” says Briar.