Isn’t one of the most common pieces of advice given to us when we don’t feel that great “to think more positively”? In fact, we are often told that personal success and happiness are virtually impossible to achieve if we frequently have negative thoughts.
Take, for example, this statement from a SUCCESS article I recently read: “Be sure to eliminate negative, toxic energy around you. If you want to soar in life, you need to unload what is weighing you down.”
I would argue that it’s actually one of the worst pieces of advice to tell you always think positively. Let me explain why.
Why a “think positive” focus can be harmful
Just control your thoughts! Don’t be so negative, but think more positive! If it were so easy, you probably would have done it long ago.
Maybe you’re more relieved to hear that it’s actually very difficult to change or suppress your thoughts. Although you can, of course, consciously “think” thoughts, most of them pop up in your mind entirely at random and on their own, often as a result of a previous thought or the situation you’re in.
So all this “Think positive” stuff is not only overrated, but it can actually become harmful to your mental health. We know that when we try to control our thinking by pushing a thought away, we usually experience a rebound effect. The more we push a thought away, the more it tries to come back into our consciousness. It is similar to trying to hold a ball under water. The more we push the ball down, the more it pushes back and tries to come to the surface.
We have much less control over our thoughts than we think
So it can take a lot of effort to push thoughts out of our minds. And although it is sometimes possible, couldn’t the energy spent on pushing thoughts away be used better elsewhere in our lives?
So the important message is that we probably have much less control over our thoughts than we would like. It’s just too tempting to try to change our thoughts, especially when their content is negative, as is the case with anger, worry, or envy.
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However, the key is learning to respond to thoughts in more effective ways rather than suppress them. And here, the first step is to become aware of the process of thinking.
Do all of your thoughts deserve the same attention?
If we’re honest, we often spend our days letting our thoughts push us around. It’s as if a thought deserves attention and recognition just by showing up and being in our consciousness. While this may be the case for some thoughts, many thoughts don’t deserve attention because they’re simply not helpful.
Each of us experiences many thousands of thoughts every day. Which ones are the ones that get our attention? What kind of things and topics are our thoughts mostly about? What are the favorite stories our minds love to tell us? As you read this blog post, all kinds of thoughts have probably already crossed your mind. Some of them you may have paid attention to and even acted upon; others you probably just let pass. But how did you decide which of your thoughts to pay more attention to?
It’s all too easy to let this process run on autopilot, which usually means that we let ourselves be guided by whatever thoughts come up at any given moment. The problem with this is that we are basically acting on impulse and missing out on doing more of the things in our lives that really matter to us.
Why is it so difficult to do the important things?
Focusing on what’s important to you sounds at first as if those are the things we really like to do. But this is not necessarily the case.
Imagine, for example, that your greatest desire is to write a book. But to complete this project, you actually have to sit down at your desk and write. And there it is – our inner voice that tries to stop us from doing exactly that with thoughts like “Today I have so much else to do, tomorrow is another day” or “I’m not in the right mood to put something creative on paper”.
Or imagine you want to boost your professional career, and for that, a job change is inevitable. This includes struggling with application letters and going through mostly rather unpleasant or challenging job interviews.
In these situations, you can constantly try to think “positive”, but does that actually work? Probably not, because no one can take away your concerns and feelings of worry or fear. And that’s good because these feelings often point to exactly those things that are very important and thus an essential part of a fulfilled life.
Unpleasant or “negative” thoughts and feelings are just natural
In other words, situations in which we step out of our comfort zone and experience many unpleasant or “negative” thoughts and feelings are usually also precisely those moments that are especially important to us.
Instead of suppressing such thoughts or blindly following their advice, which usually leads to avoiding the challenge and procrastination, it’s more effective to train ourselves to observe our thought process and see thoughts for what they are – as possible advisors, tools, sources of information, but not necessarily as the fundamental literal truth we must act upon or obey.
So let’s do a little exercise to become better at observing your thoughts.
Exercise: Observing your thoughts
Sit back in a comfortable position in your chair. I want you to recall an action where you did something important to you. Something that you know enriches your life and that you are not doing right now; something that has meaning and purpose.
It doesn’t have to be a huge thing; it can be something small like spending more time with a loved one, meeting friends more often, or exercising more. But it has to be something that involves stepping out of your comfort zone. Something where you feel a twinge of discomfort that tells you this action would be a challenge for you.
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Now take some time to really imagine yourself doing this activity. Then carefully begin to observe your thoughts as they pass through your mind. Notice each thought and register what kind of thought it is. It could be a judgment, a prediction, or a thought of some other quality. Your task is only to notice the process of thinking. Keep doing this for about five minutes.
Being curious about your thoughts at work
What did you notice in doing this exercise? What did you notice about the quality of your thoughts when you took some time to observe them? Did you notice thoughts that were “positive” and supported you in this activity? Were there thoughts that tried to stop you and said you couldn’t do it? Or that you wouldn’t enjoy it or that it would be a waste of time? And pay attention to your reaction to these thoughts.
How easy was it to just let those thoughts be there? Which ones were tugging at you, wanting you to “play” with them? Did you feel an urge to suppress these thoughts? To argue with them, change them or move on?
Learning the ability to step back and detach from your thoughts
Remember, the point of this exercise is not to find specific answers but to curiously observe your thought process. Our goal is for you to be able to turn your attention to what is important to you in life, no matter what thoughts – negative or positive – arise.
And learning the ability to step back and detach from your thoughts is crucial for this. Your thoughts have less power over you to control your actions. However, you can choose to listen to them if you want to but it’s your choice what happens next.
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So the central message is: Just because a thought happens to be present doesn’t mean you have to act on it. Accordingly, it’s entirely possible to have the thought, “I’m a loser,” and still engage in meaningful activity. Or it’s possible to have the thought, “Nobody likes me,” and still pick up the phone and stay in touch with friends or family.
It’s like developing a new habit
It usually takes a little practice to develop the ability to break free from the dictates of your thought processing mind because, after all, it’s an old habit. It’s a bit like crossing your arms. Most people cross their arms a certain way every time – one arm naturally crosses over the other without much thinking.
Developing a new habit is a bit like learning to cross your arms the other way. At first, it feels strange and unnatural, but with a little time and practice, it becomes more natural and comes off more easily.
Giving yourself time and space to choose
So what can we do when we notice that we are caught up in our hought? The exercise before is an essential step because it helps you to catch yourself noticing it. You pause and take some time to simply notice our thoughts.
That in itself can be very powerful because right in that moment, you have the opportunity to respond a little differently than you normally do. It gives you time to choose, and you can ask yourself the following questions:
- What is my mind telling me right now? Is it words or images?
- Label the thought: Is it a judgment? A criticism? Is it about the past, the future, or what’s happening right now?
- How attached am I to the thought? Is it an old story? Am I open to it and feel alive? Or am I closed and feel constricted?
- Is what my thoughts are saying helpful? In other words, what is most important in this situation – doing the task in front of me or being right?
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By asking yourself such questions, you create space for yourself to act. Of course, you can also decide to give in to the urge of your feelings provoked by the thought and react, for example, irritably or anxiously. That’s perfectly okay; the important thing is that you can decide and are not dependent on your mind’s autopilot.
What about positive thoughts?
So far, we’ve talked primarily about “negative” thoughts. These are usually easier to recognize as unhelpful, and we know that they tend to slow us down in life.
But what about the supposedly desirable “positive” thoughts? Are these really so beneficial that we should make it our business to replace the negative thoughts with more positive ones?
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Not at all, because even so-called “positive” thoughts can act as obstacles to effective action. For example, someone might get stuck on the thought that they are the best boss ever. Or even more subtle positive thoughts that we all find in us in one form or another, such as “I’m a great parent” or “I’m a nice person” or “I’m a good partner.”
These thoughts may be true in many cases. But what if they aren’t always? If we hold on too tightly to such thoughts and merge with them, it can prevent us from hearing important feedback and changing if necessary.
We can’t control our thoughts very well, whether they are positive or negative. That’s just how our brain works. So it’s not about not having negative thoughts or trying to turn them into positive ones. What’s important is how you relate to these thoughts. It’s up to you whether you attach importance to them and act according to them, or whether you act differently.
Your thoughts can give you essential information, but it’s always better to look at the content with a little distance. This way, you keep the possibility open to decide as you see fit in a particular moment, instead of being blindly guided by your thoughts and emotions.