The Problem with Positive Thinking

JungleFirstGlimpseMany times I find my clients have incorporated the idea somewhere along the way that they need to be thinking more positively. While it holds understandable appeal, the problem with this strategy is that it is no more sustainable than thinking negatively. It rejects what is and attempts to replace it with what is preferred. Both negative and positive thinking result in delusion –  rejection of reality.

When we work hard at thinking positively, we expend much energy framing reality in a way that conforms to our value judgments. Inevitably, we will all be confronted with something not so positive. Pain is a part of living – we must all suffer the discomfort of birth, sickness, the infirmities of aging, and eventually death. To demand of ourselves a positive outlook on these difficulties of living can actually compound our suffering.

A related idea that clients internalize is that they need to think less or stop “over-thinking” things. Once again, the problem does not really lie with the thinking itself. Its the relationship we have with thinking that causes suffering. When we ruminate – repeatedly mulling over events from the past or worrying about the possibilities of the future – we are not really present to our experience in the moment. When we push away unwanted thoughts or grasp at and cling to wanted thoughts, we are fighting against what is, which is a battle we will always lose.

A more sustainable and helpful approach is to see thoughts for what they really are- phenomena of the mind, electrochemical reactions that come and go. We can observe them as we might watch clouds passing through the sky, waves forming in the ocean, or scenes projected on a movie screen. We can do our best to remain open to all of experience, including thoughts – even when our experience is not positive. We can acknowledge pain amidst difficulty, cultivate acceptance of what is here now, and relate to ourselves with greater kindness and compassion.

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