All too often , in an effort to help out in the face of challenges, our friends, family members and colleagues tell us to “Think positive,” a piece of advice that we hear with disdain as we consider how unhelpful this suggestion is. If things are not positive why think positively? we ask ourselves. It sounds like another way to lie to yourself.
The term “positive thinking” is thrown around a lot these days by professionals in the growing personal development industry who toot its benefits, and by more traditional psychologists who are not quite so optimistic about it.
When doing individual coaching for depression, anxiety and self-esteem, I avoid the term. Instead, I help my clients learn to do something that is much better than just think positively.
What exactly does the term “positive thinking” mean? If you stop to consider it for a moment, the term “positive thinking” is extremely general and has little inherent meaning. My interpretation of it will be different from yours and if we ask twenty other people, we will get twenty different responses. How can the advice “think positive” be of any help when we don’t know what specifically it means?
When told to think positively, many argue that it is better to be realistic. Yet there are problems with this too. We each have our own unique model of the world, our own individual perception of what is real and what is possible, and often we adopted a certain way of thinking at a young age that stays with us into our later years. At some time in the past, usually when very young, when we had less experience and less wisdom, we formed certain beliefs or adopted them from others. Our most deeply held beliefs and perceptions often come out of significant emotional events, difficult or even traumatic events from which we made generalizations (decisions actually) about the way the world works. Due to this, thinking realistically often means sticking to an outdated way of thinking and it turns into thinking pessimistically.
I suggest we forget positive thinking (and “realistic” thinking too). What we need to do is rethink our thinking and think in the most useful and empowering way. We need to update our internal programming, let go of the limiting decisions we have made in the past and adopt beliefs that serve us. To think in the most useful way, we need to take responsibility for the decisions we make and the meaning we give to things.
Limiting beliefs about identity and capability are extremely prevalent in our society. A belief is essentially a command to the nervous system. If I believe that people don’t like me, for example, I will act in accordance with this belief and find evidence in my reality that people indeed do not like me. When you believe it, you see it. It is the notorious self-fulfilling prophecy. What about when it comes to our capabilities? If you believe you can’t, you will not even try. If you think you can’t, you certainly won’t. I could cite numerous examples, but how about this one: Bill gates would never have been able to create the worldwide software giant if he woke up every morning and said, “This will never work!”
A great example of beliefs at work is in the area of health. A person who accepts a doctor’s terminal diagnosis gives up and fails to take action that could increase their chances of survival. Yet a patient who believes they can overcome a fatal condition will act in accordance with that belief, doing whatever they can to get well.
When we face challenges, we make decisions as to what they mean. “I failed, and that means I will never be successful” is one such example. Yet a “failure” could be interpreted in an infinity of different ways. Failure can be an opportunity to learn something new and make an important distinction that will lead to success, and even more success than ever imagined. A perfect example of this is Lance Armstrong. Despite enormous challenges, Lance Armstrong became a cycling legend. He took the obstacles he faced and gave them an empowering meaning. He claims that cancer actually helped him win the Tour de France! What meaning are you choosing to give to things?
To become empowered, ask yourself, “How do I need to think to accomplish my aims and to feel the way I want?” If you do this, your thoughts (some 60 000 a day!) will be your allies instead of your enemies.
When you want to help someone out in times of trouble, instead of telling them to think positively, help them with specific advice about how to think. You might want to trying asking questions that direct thinking such as, “How will things change if you focus on the solution?” or when the problem is a belief, something like “What if you (decide to) believe you can?”
What old beliefs will you leave behind today and to replace with new ones that will lead you to more happiness and success than you ever thought possible?
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