If you’re anything like me, no other piece of advice makes you roll your eyes more than this: Just think positive.
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Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally against that advice and I fully believe positive thinking will benefit your life more than negative thinking will. Studies have even found that positive thinking can help improve your work, your skills, and your health. So it is scientifically proven to have some benefits.
But just because that advice works for some people, doesn’t mean it works for all.
While I’d love to live a carefree, “Hakuna Matata” sort of life, it’s not really in my nature. I worry. I overthink. More often than not, I really just need to see solid results and change before I can sit back and fully relax.
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Having someone tell me to just “be positive” is the last thing I want when I’m going through something challenging and, according to experts, that’s because that advice doesn’t work for every situation.
“Thinking positively tends to work best as a way of counteracting the tendency many of us have towards viewing neutral things negatively,” therapist Hayden Lindsey tells AwesomenessTV. “It’s the so-called negativity bias.”
However, Lindsey adds, it’s not always helpful if our situation actually is stressful and dire. “In these moments, urges to ‘think positively,’ whether the source is outward or inward, can feel dismissive and rejecting,” she says. “We all have a deep desire to be known and understood. In those instances, a compassionate ear is much more helpful than a positive voice.”
Just think about it. When you’re really going through a tough time, your friend saying, “Don’t worry, just be happy. Everything is going to be okay,” can make you feel like they’re just brushing off your problems even if they don’t mean to.
“If a negative thought is met with dismissiveness, we are likely to feel subjectively worse, even if the intentions are positive,” Lindsey says. “But if it’s held with warmth and compassion, our problem won’t be magically solved, but we won’t have to feel rejected and isolated because of it.”
So while positive thinking isn’t bad advice, it just isn’t always useful and can have a way of making someone feel worse. Instead of feeling frustrated over how positive thinking may or may not work for you when times get tough, here’s what you should do instead.
1. Start small by taking action
If you’re not in the right mindset to really shift your entire way of thinking, Jenna Reiss, founder and lead meditation coach at Breathe Accented Life, recommends starting smaller than that.
“Start with something that feels real and/or feasible,” Reiss says. ” Do something that feels positive for you. Go on a walk, do your favorite exercise, or an art activity. Allow yourself to physically connect with positivity in your life. This not only first reminds you that you’re not alone in your state of mind, but that positivity exists and is possible to be reignited in your life.”
2. Acknowledge the negativity
“For some people, faking ‘positive thinking’ can feel worse because it’s not in integrity with who they are and what’s really going on,” positive psychology coach Lisa Sansom tells AwesomenessTV. “So it’s important to recognize that ‘positive thinking’ is just one tool of many in your psychological toolbox.”
In addition to positive thinking, you also need realistic thinking, pessimistic thinking, analytical thinking, flexible thinking, big-picture thinking, dreaming and so on. They all make up the human experience, and they’re all equally important.
So when you have negative thoughts, don’t brush those aside or immediately try to replace them with positive ones. Let yourself know that it’s okay to feel down or negative when times get rough. Write it out, talk it out, or share with someone else.
3. Work on you core beliefs
Being positive is good for you. But the reality is, “positive thinking can’t fool our brain into believing something impractical,” Ruth Fearnow, licensed mental health counselor and owner of The Happiness Project, tells AwesomenessTV.
So if you want “positive thinking” to be more effective, you might want to look into meditation, therapy, or even something of the more spiritual nature.
“The good news is that with work, core beliefs can heal and those positive thinking tricks can be made more effective,” she says. “Positive thinking that is realistic and shifts how we feel are useful and should be repeated often. So there is hope for positive thinking, when used intelligently.”
So if you’re someone who hates being told that positive thinking is the solution to all your troubles, don’t think it’s just you. You’re not a “failure” if it doesn’t seem to make things easier.