What if positive thinking sucks?
'The Secret' tells us that our thoughts create our reality, but what if you've tried positive thinking or affirmations and it didn't work for you?
Did you know it can actually make you feel worse, if you don't do it the right way?
Turning your inner critic into a genuine cheerleader is the foundation of most of the stuff I teach, so I'm a massive fan of positive thinking, but I've also seen over the past twenty years how getting it wrong really hurts.
Whether you're just starting out on the positive thinking journey or you're an old hand at doing your best to get affirmations to work for you, this episode is for you if you haven't yet been getting the results you were hoping for.
Hint: it's not your fault!
Here's What We'll Cover About Why Positive Thinking Sucks
- What positive thinking is - and what it shouldn't be (but this is actually what most of us try)
- Three reasons why it sucks
- The single biggest mistake I see people making
- Why positive thinking isn't enough, no matter how good you get at it
- And the one thing you can do today, to start turning this around, in under sixty seconds
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Prefer to read? Here's the transcript for why positive thinking sucks:
Welcome to episode 22 of the Ditching Imposter Syndrome podcast. And today, we're looking at three reasons why positive thinking sucks, and what you could be doing instead. This one is for you, if you've ever tried positive thinking, or affirmations and they secretly made you feel worse, and you want to know what on earth was going on, what you're going to do to fix it. And I'm going to let you in on a secret, why it wasn't your fault.
So I remember about 15 years ago, when the book, The Secret and the film, The Secret came out. Everybody was getting the vibe that our thoughts create our reality. But nobody was out there explaining how we could shift our thoughts. How could we change them? So, what I saw people doing over and over again was trying to plaster these positive thoughts onto foundations that were supporting negative self-talk. This was creating inner conflict. This was meaning that people were beating themselves up when they weren't manifesting their dreams as the book, and the film had promised because there was a missing ingredient.
Positive thinking sucks when you haven't created the foundations for it to succeed. So, in this episode, we're going to talk about what positive thinking is, and what it shouldn't be. Why it sucks, three specific reasons that I have seen over and over again in the last 20 years of teaching stuff. I'm going to give you a fourth bonus reason. I'm going to let you know why positive thinking is not enough, no matter how good you get at it, and what you can be doing instead. Some practical suggestions to turn this around.
So, what is positive thinking? It is having a genuine inner cheerleader that natural really looks for the silver lining, rather than using it as a way of escaping the tough stuff that might be going on around you, and whitewashing, and pretending. So, having a positive mental attitude doesn't mean you never think thoughts that make you feel bad. It just means you don't get stuck in them. And you're inner radio station is naturally tuned to play you the happy songs.
So, I want to talk about three main reasons why positive thinking sucks, and why it is not your fault if it's not worked for you, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't be doing it. So number one, we're just pretending. Yes, fake it 'til you make it can work. But what happens when we are pretending to think positive thoughts, but we're not really lined up with them is your inner dialogue will use something called the backfire effect. That means you will dig your heels in, and defend your right to believe the negative thoughts. You're creating a flip flop, an inner conflict, like a pantomime. It's like, "Oh yes I can. Oh, no, I can't. Oh, yes I can. Oh, no, I can't."This floods the body with stress hormones, that triggers more negative thinking.
So, pretending everything is whitewashing our lives, that spiritual bypass, pretending that the brown stuff isn't hitting the fan does not form the basis for healthy, positive thinking. Instead, it's about having an open and accepting attitude towards the challenge, and being open to making something good of it. It's about being able to set yourself free from the what-iffing and the catastrophising, and the 3:00 AM worrying. So, you can be grounded, and have a rational response. It's that inner pendulum that we talked about, when we talk about my natural resilience method. Meaning that we don't get knocked for six as easily.
Another reason why positive thinking sucks, we end up going to war with our inner critic. Carl Jung famously said that, "What we resist persists." So, rejecting, or pushing negative thoughts away actually gives them our focus, our attention and our power. They are going to ramp themselves up to say, "No, actually I'm right, you're wrong." And we end up having this dialogue, judging ourselves, beating ourselves up for having had those negative thoughts. And for plastering, a few positive thoughts over the top, and wondering why it doesn't turn things around. Instead, in the processes I teach in my Inner Critic Bootcamp program, we look at how can you press pause on those thoughts, so that you can choose to feed one that feels better for you? You have to go through neutral.
And this brings me onto problem number three with positive thinking, we treat it as a mindset thing. "Oh, it's my emotional quotient," or whatever the latest thing is that we're meant to be calling this stuff is. "I've got a positive mental attitude." This is all great. But your thoughts don't just happen in your body. Your body feels every thought you think. So, you think a negative thought, it fires off those stress related biochemical reactions. The body gets addicted to that adrenaline and cortisol. If we're exhausted and careering towards burnout because maybe, hey, there's been a two year pandemic. Then, the body will actually create a need for adrenaline, and cortisol to trigger negative thoughts to give it that hit, if we try and stop them.
So, the body is primed for negative thinking, if that's the pattern that you've run for years. It is used to the biochemical reactions that come from your habitual thoughts. So, when you just try and plaster some positive thoughts over the top, but the body is primed to think the negative thoughts you create a conflict between the mind and the body. So, any work we do on turning that inner dialogue into a genuine cheerleader needs to include the body, as well as the neural pathways.
This is not just a neuroscience thing. It's not just a mindset thing. If you want something like a positive affirmation to really work for you, you need to get the body into neutral first. You need to reset the stress response so that it's open to receiving the biochemical reactions from the happy thoughts. That's what we do in the Inner Critic Bootcamp is teaching you how to do this. If you're stuck there in full blown, "I'm a drama queen, I'm a drama king," and try and throw in an affirmation, what's it going to do? We all know what it does. It tells us that we're wrong and we end up believing. We're in this cascade of biochemical reactions that we experience as emotions.
I'm going to give you a fourth one here, a bonus. Is expecting instant results. The number of people that I've taught, the methods that I use to help you turn your inner critic into a genuine cheerleader, who have sat there on day one going, "But I thought a negative thought this morning." It takes practice. We've spent decades training the neural pathways of filters in the brain to look for threats, and to criticise, and to judge, and to beat ourselves up.
Although, strategies can really help you to turn this around quickly, it takes practice. You wouldn't show up for a jog one Sunday morning and suddenly apply to run the London marathon. Now, we know it takes practice. After those decades training the mind to think the thoughts it currently thinks it might take more than one or two positive thoughts, like going for one job to turn it around. Little and often, four or five times a day only takes a minute at a time. It takes commitment. And then, within a week, two weeks, you are really feeling the results.
Now, I'm a massive fan of positive thinking. It is the absolute core of everything I teach, but it needs to come with positive feeling. Our thoughts are the surface level symptom of the hidden beliefs, fears, values, identity level stuff, and blocks that is running the show. If all we do is, at that mindset level, trying to change our thoughts without changing that below the surface stuff, then we're just going to create new thoughts to support the below the surface ick. Just like weeds coming up through cracks in a pavement. So, we need to deal with the stuff that was driving the thoughts, which is so much easier than most of us think. You don't have to get into five years of really painful therapy. And we need to rewire the brain, and the body. Just rewiring the brain is not enough. So, anything working just at the surface level is a sticky plaster, a bandaid. We need to clear the stuff that was driving the negative self-talk.
One of the reasons why positive affirmations work is the way they make us feel. So, a lot of positive affirmations are too general, they're too esoteric. "I'm a wonderful, creative being." Well, how's my unconscious mind meant to process that as an instruction? So one of the things I teach in Ditching Imposter Syndrome, it's on page 210, if you've got the book, is how to make positive affirmations actually work for you? There are some keys that you can use. If you've got the ebook version, search for how to get positive affirmations to work. When we get really specific with affirmations, and they're lined up with clearing out those hidden blocks below the surface, and we allow our body to feel them, they can create transformation. But when they're nebulous, and esoteric, and too general, and given to us by somebody else, and we're trying to plaster them on top of the neural pathways, and the body addictions that mean we wanted the negative self-talk, they're not going to have as much power. And then, we end up beating ourselves up, going, "Gosh, I can't even make affirmations work."
And when it comes to positive thinking, the one thing I encourage you to avoid is toxic positivity. I've actually seen a huge amount of it recently. I'm recording this episode on week three of the crisis in Ukraine. And I've seen so many people on social media, who've been reaching out for help. They're struggling with their mental health. We have a crisis coming in mental health in the UK. They've been asking for help. They've been brave souls with other people then kind of batting them down saying, "Hey, well, at least you're not living in a war zone. Come on, let's raise positive vibes. Look how good we've got it." This toxic positivity, denying, asking people to deny how they're feeling. Shouting them down when they're putting out requests for help, making them feel somehow wrong, bad for putting their hand up and saying, "I'm not feeling great," is really not appropriate.
And we do it to ourselves as well. That whitewashing the spiritual bypass, pretending everything is, rather than having the courage, either on our own or with support, to really look at what was driving the emotions, and the thoughts that were causing us pain and clear that out, to let it go, to release it, to resolve it, to allow it to come to completion, so we're free from it. Toxic positivity doesn't help. So, if you found yourself on the receiving end of it, either from others or from yourself, please let it go.
And a final aspect today of positive thinking that I encourage you just to think about might not be serving you, is the phrase that there's no such thing as can't. So, I actually add a clause on the end of this. There's no such thing as can't, but that doesn't mean you can.
I'm 5' 2" so I think that's 158 centimetres in new money. And I cannot win the Olympic gold high jumping. I just can't do it. It's just not going to happen. Now, classic positivity would tell me, "Oh yes, I can, I can. I just need to want it enough. I just need to try harder enough." No, there might be no such thing as can't, but realistically that's not going to happen. One, my build. Two, I don't actually want to. So, one of the things that happens with toxic positivity, and with positive thinking is we tell ourselves we can do things that actually we can't. We might not have the skillset yet. We might not have the knowledge. We might not have the experience. We might only be doing it because somebody else has told us it would be a great idea. "Hey, Clare, that meant would look great on the mantle piece." And that's actually going to be the topic for next week's podcast. So, I'm going to leave that one there.
And in summary on everything that I've said today, if we're using positivity to pretend that everything is great, when secretly we're hurting inside, then we're faking it. And that makes negative self-talk and imposter syndrome worse. So, my resources for you today, if you feel called to deep dive on this, is the whole of Ditching Imposter Syndrome is kind of the whole point of the book. Or if you want to work with me on this, my Inner Critic Bootcamp program, which you can find out more about at clarejosa.com/innercriticbootcamp.
And what can you do right here, right now? Learn to press pause on those thoughts. There are so many strategies I can teach you for this. But right here, right now, learn to press pause. If negative thinking is coming up, instead of trying to pretend, and just plaster some positive thoughts over the top, allow your body to go back into neutral. Like changing gear in a car here in the UK, where we've got gear stick, stick shifts, you have to go through neutral to be able to change gear. You, certainly, have to go through neutral to be able to go from reverse to driving forwards.
Getting the body and the mind to go through neutral allows you to start choosing which thoughts to feed. Press pause on the mind story fear, and the mind story drama. And the more you do that the more you're rewiring the neural pathways, you're reprogramming the body, you're shifting your emotional set point. And then, positive thinking becomes your natural aligned, happy way of being. Simplest way to press pause is some belly breathing. Some sign breaths. You hear the negative thought in your head, or you see it, or you feel it. Oh, just get grounded. Allow the body 60 seconds of gentle, mindful breathing. There are all sorts of techniques we can use on this, whatever works for you. And then choose to feel of thought that makes you feel better. And it is the fastest, and simplest way to make positive thinking truly work for you.