When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work

positive thinking

positive thinking doesn't work

By Jonathan Decker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” This satirical self-affirmation, made famous by Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, highlights the type of thinking advised by many therapists, researchers, life coaches, and others. While there is much research to support the power of positive thinking, sometimes it just doesn’t work.

Even when actively trying to focus on the good and “count their blessings,” people still get caught in self-defeating cycles of thinking and behavior. They still fail to make improvements. Sometimes they over-correct, turning a blind eye to their faults and failing to take accountability. In my estimation, positive thinking is necessary, but not sufficient. Here’s four things to do when optimism doesn’t cut it.

1. Be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses.

All of us are a combination of talents and flaws. People who see only their strengths tend to exaggerate them, leading to arrogance and lack of self-correction. On the other hand, persons who consider only their flaws have a self-perception that is equally unrealistic and distorted, leading to hopelessness and (again) lack of self-correction.

In our worst moments, we tend to magnify some aspects about ourselves while minimizing others. When you look at yourself and see mostly flaws, ask yourself if shame is causing you to exaggerate. If you don’t think you have much to improve upon, or believe you’re hardly ever wrong, ask yourself if you’re blinded by overconfidence. If necessary, ask a trusted friend who’ll be honest with you. Strip away whatever is magnified and distorted by emotion to work with the truth of the matter. Be humble and willing to change.

2. Label your behavior, not yourself.

Instead of “I’m a liar,” redirect your thoughts to “I should have been honest. I’m better than that, and I need to make this right.” In this way, you don’t engage in self-defeating thinking. After all, if you see yourself as a failure at your core, you’ll stop trying to improve because you won’t believe you can change. However, if you see yourself as a good person who needs to correct a behavior, you’re far more likely to do so.

3. Practice “Yes, But.”

I knew a woman who, when confronted with a weakness, would counter with: “Yes, but I’m good at other things.” I loved that. She acknowledged her mistakes and the things she did not excel at, but didn’t allow this to drag her down. She focused on the positive, on her strengths, without negating the areas she could improve upon.

Many of my clients have found it helpful, after seeing the kernel of truth in their negative perceptions (and stripping away the excess), to practice the mental  exercise of thinking “yes, but,” and finding a positive. This looks something like this:

  • “I’m not in as good of shape as I want to be… yes, but I can start today to eat better and exercise more.”

  • “I lost my temper and yelled at my children… yes, but I also apologized, held them close, and told them that it wasn’t their fault. I took accountability and showed affection.”

  • “I feel so rejected after this breakup… yes, but I’ve got loving family and friends who’ll help me through it.”

  • “I feel sad about growing old… yes, but at least I have the opportunity to do so.”

Many people find that “yes, but” helps them to think positively while also being realistic. To them, many positive thinking exercises seem like hokum. Accustomed to negative thinking, their brains reject optimism like the body rejects an incompatible organ transplant. The “yes, but” exercise allows them to redirect their thoughts while also being honest with themselves.

4. Set specific long-term goals, than make attainable short term goals to get there.

Focusing on the good will fuel your progress but, in and of itself, will not change your situation. Combine your positive thinking with goals of what you want to accomplish, and set smaller goals to help you get there. These smaller goals should take you an hour or less to complete. The accomplishment of achieving these mini-goals will facilitate positive thinking, giving you the confidence that only actual progress can provide.

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