The Myth of Positive Thinking


By Kate Double, MSW, LCSW

What if We Change The Narrative?

Humans have been equipped with not only the capacity for abstract thought, but with a range of powerful and fabulous and frightening emotions.  We are able to feel happy, joyous, gleeful, surprised, sad, devastated, aggrieved, pained, confused, overwhelmed… and so much more.  And yet we are often told that we must be positive; that positive thinking is the key to feeling better and being better.  We are told that thoughts become things, and what better incentive is there than to try to make sure you are manifesting the right things.  Discontent in all its forms is to be controlled, reframed, squashed.  It is imperative that we be okay, or that we leave the impression that we are okay (read: strong). Even some therapies have coached us how to challenge our thoughts to alter our emotions, as if our emotions are the enemy.   And if to be okay under all circumstances is to be strong, then the opposite is also true:  If we are not okay, we are weak.  But what if we relearn these messages?  What if we accept and embrace all of our emotions?

The Healing Nature of Relationships

My oldest friend – we’ve known one another since we were 4 years old – almost always answers my inquiries into her well-being with, “Globally, everything is fine.”  This is her nod to her privilege, to her gratitude, and to the things in her life that she loves.  But the thing that really bonds us, from opposite sides of the country, is not only our shared history but also the depth of the way that we relate to one another.  We feel, and we share it all.  We call to share the happy moments: college acceptances, new boyfriends, engagements, pregnancies, jobs, home purchases, and everything in between.  We call to celebrate together when we feel we’ve had an achievement or there is a particularly happy time.  But we also share our fears, our sadness, our grief, our bad days, and our struggles.  When my mother was dying, this friend was there.  We were catching up, not having seen one another for a long time, and much was exciting about actually being together despite the circumstances. But during this visit to my mother, we went out for a walk, and my friend said: “Can we just pause for a minute to acknowledge that this is all very hard?”  And we did.  We had the moment I was reluctant to have even with myself.  And it helped.  I needed to feel all of the sadness and the grief, and I needed to share those feelings with her.

This idea that we must always be positive?  It isolates us in our pain because it creates an environment where we can’t share ourselves fully.  Relationships become shallow.  The belief that we must always be positive means that if we are feeling painful emotions, we aren’t working hard enough or we aren’t evolved enough.  If we are suffering, we aren’t looking at the right things.  But maybe, just maybe… Accepting all emotions helps us to connect.  And connection is healing.

What Now?

As a therapist, one of the hardest things can be the de-programming, like we are emerging from a cult that punishes displeasure… and we’ve believed this for so long!  The idea that we don’t have to control the sadness and the anger are novel concepts.  But here is the good news:  we are supposed to have a full range of emotions. We don’t need to learn how not to have them.  Our energy is better spent learning to sit with those feelings, accept them, tolerate them, come to understand them, learn from them.  Let’s not fear them – let them be a part of us and listen to what they tell us about ourselves.  Feelings, precisely and correctly identified, and spoken out loud, help them to lose their power over us.  And there are messages in our feelings.  When we are overwhelmed, it can trigger us to get a cup of coffee and rest in our favorite chair.  When we are sad, it can trigger us to breath, and talk, and seek comfort, and start to accept.  If we feel guilt or remorse, it can prompt us to take corrective action.  Only if we listen.

How do we begin to understand and honor our feelings?  We pay attention to what they feel like in our bodies as we experience different emotions so that we can better identify and attend to them. We come to therapy.  We practice mindfulness.  We journal.  We read and learn more about emotions so that we see the full range of feelings.  We allow space for quiet reflection and meditation.  We remind ourselves often that all feelings are normal, not to be feared, and will pass.

You Are Enough… Just as You Are.

Maybe instead of being boxed into a role that no one can sustain, we can liberate our feelings – let them out and let them soar,  and see them as beautiful parts of ourselves – and in doing so, maybe we will be able to see ourselves as beautiful.  Isn’t it wonderful to be human?  Isn’t it amazing to feel?  You are enough, just as you are.  In therapy, maybe the question shouldn’t be, “How do I feel better?”  Maybe the question is, “How do I listen to my feelings, identify them, and find the message that they are trying to share with me.”  Maybe the next questions is, “How do I learn to share these feelings in a way that will make my relationships deeper and stronger.”