Positive thinking is fine. There is nothing inherently bad about it. Usually when people refer to thinking positively, they are actually experiencing unpleasant thoughts….thoughts that might create imaginary catastrophes, thoughts of criticism or judgment, or just overt pessimism. Those thoughts generally don’t lead to better outcomes, so people want to change them. And that’s okay.
If all it took to recover from traumatic stress was positive thinking, we’d probably all be just fine. And therapists like me might have a lot less to do at work.
There is a lot that happens in our thinking. And there is also a lot that happens in our minds apart from our conscious, word-based thoughts. That’s where the over-simplification of “positive thinking” starts to fall apart.
What else is in there? If you sit, quieting your body and breathing and just noticing your mental activity for a period of time, you’ll become aware of the constant overlapping parade of ideas, words, memories, anticipations, and images that are flowing through your conscious mind. Then you might be able to start to notice the spaces: can you find space between the discrete items in that steady parade? Then, over time and practice, you might notice specific types of items in your continuous mental flow, or you might focus on paying more attention to the empty space, allowing stillness to come into your mind as well as in your body.
This practice helps us to become more acquainted with the contents of our minds, and helps us to access some things that we may have been avoiding or simply not noticing in the chaos of the untrained mind.
The danger of “positive thinking” is that we might use it to avoid looking deeply into ourselves, to pack away uncomfortable feelings and memories, to try to keep ourselves from feeling sad, for example, or angry or afraid. While there is certainly some short-term utility to that approach, in the longer term we end up cutting off parts of ourselves.
Wow, that sounds brutal! But what might it actually look and feel like, to have cut off parts of yourself? Well, one example might be that you have very poor memory for parts of your life. Or you may only experience a very restricted range of feelings: you feel happy, sad, angry or afraid, but only a little bit and you wonder what all the fuss is about, when other people seem to experience their feelings more powerfully. Or you just feel slightly anxious much of the time, with no apparent reason. Perhaps you everything in your life looks just fine from the outside, but you feel like something is missing….but it is embarrassing to say that because your life is “just fine.” These are all possible indications that you are out of contact with parts of yourself.
Looking deeply into ourselves, staying with the thoughts, feelings, and body sensations that arise, can be an act of great courage. Really experiencing our experiences, whether we label them “good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative,” or (my preferred label) “pleasant” or “unpleasant,” allows us to find the hidden parts and embrace them.
Positive thinking isn’t bad, especially if you are trying to change a pattern of catastrophizing, what iffing, or shoulds. Using it to numb us to our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings can keep us stuck in our old patterns, though. Be aware of what you most want to avoid…there is usually something of value there!