When things get tough in life, people’s go-to is to ‘think positively’. In fact, unless you're toxic, this is people’s main go-to always especially when everything is great and in alignment.
Let me be brutally honest with you (and you know you can count on me for that), positivity alone, won’t fix your negative inner talk.
Why? Think about it. You have been through some things in your life and your mindset has taken on a negative spin… you think something’s wrong with you, or that all experiences are going to be bad from now on.
So suddenly trying to force yourself to say “My Life is Wonderful and my [crappy] life is a pure joy” is like trying to be joyous at the funeral of someone you deeply loved and cared about.
In this way, you might be able to fake it for a bit, to try and be ‘strong’, but inevitably that inner grief and turmoil comes back at you… only harder because you’re not dealing with the real core issues that are making you feel negative and heartbroken. You’re simply attempting to ‘mask it’ with positivity and optimism.
I remember I was just like this at my Gran’s funeral. My dad had already died and I was still in shock at his funeral nearly 2 weeks later. I hadn’t cried for that entire time after my father’s death (shock does that to you), but at the funeral the tears finally came. So, when his mother, my lovable, kind-hearted Gran, died a few years later, I tried to take a different approach, given how sad I felt at dad's funeral.
I tried to embrace that whole “positivity and optimism” thing at my Gran's funeral, to mask how I was truly feeling underneath. I mean… it felt like my family was destructing… with family members dropping like flies: Dad had died, and now Gran. And that was just my father’s side.
It wasn’t a fun time, and it was prematurely the end of an era. I felt sad, I felt angry, I felt cheated. I could either feel dreadfully upset and reopen those wounds that hadn’t truly healed after my father’s death, or I could put on an optimistic and positive "show" to fool myself. I chose the latter.
Avoiding grief and avoiding real issues that cause negativity only make things bottle up and get worse. I learned that eventually.
The truth is that positive thinking doesn’t always help – or even work in those darkest times. You need to throw out that strategy and embrace a different one. Positivity and optimism can be a good maintenance strategy for happiness and wellbeing, but not as a sole solution to pulling yourself out of grief or any other difficult or dark place.
Healthy positivity becomes toxic when it denies, minimizes, or invalidates a person’s emotions. You begin to feel bad about feeling bad because society tells us to be positive all the time. It can sometimes trigger a self-defeating spiral given that you feel like you’re supposed to be strong and positive, when you are but a mere mortal and in that moment, are vulnerable and feeling sad. At times like this, people feel everything more deeply.
The problem with positive thinking as a well intended solution is that it operates at the surface level of conscious thoughts. It does nothing to contend with the subconscious mind where negative self-talk and limiting beliefs really live.
If you’ve tried thinking positively, you know that it can be a difficult habit to maintain. You might spend five, ten, or even twenty minutes reciting positive words, but the other 23 hours of the day? Chances are that your mind drifts back to old, repetitive thoughts that have burned deep reference points in your brain without you even realizing until you are feeling down again.
It goes without saying that if you command yourself to think “I am happy and things are truly awesome,” yet your deeply held core belief is that you are feeling unhappy and utterly riddled with sadness and grief, your brain will be quick to incite an inner war. Been there, done that. Doesn’t work.
The truth is that it’s natural and healthy to experience a range of feelings, including less pleasant ones like disappointment, sadness, or guilt.
While there’s no question that getting stuck in negative emotions is unhelpful, the other extreme of whitewashing yourself with positive thinking is merely a temporary fix but more often not even that. It’s simply a façade. And you know you’re not being honest with yourself or anyone else, which only makes you feel worse.
If positive thinking doesn’t work at times like this– or is even detrimental – how can you take control and mentally empower yourself to change your negative self-talk from destructive to constructive? Since wishing and willing yourself into a happy and positive mindset won’t work when you feel like you’re at a low, here are a few strategies to make your self-talk work for you instead of against you.
1. Dig Yourself Out from Negative Thinking.
To do this, grab your metaphoric shovel, and then have the courage to admit that it’s happening, and be understanding with yourself that you are human and it’s only natural to feel like this given the circumstances that have led you there.
Compassion toward yourself in this moment, such as “it’s ok and understandable to be feel like this or be overwhelmed by these feelings…” is quite helpful at times like this (but also honest). More compassionate self-talk might be “it’s understandable that I’m angry” if you’re feeling inner pain and your grief is making you feel anger towards others.
Once that’s out in the open, then you can articulate and acknowledge the thoughts weighing you down – ones that don’t serve any useful purpose beyond keeping you stuck in those zones. Being self-aware and doing this work stops you from beating yourself up while freeing up your emotional resources for more constructive feelings.
When you spend less time beating yourself up for your negative feelings or procrastinating negative thoughts, you can redirect that energy into breaking it all down into a project with manageable tasks and actually tackling what you need to do instead.
Positive thinking will never do that for you. Saying you’re wonderful and that life’s brilliantly sunny makes you more annoyed and doesn’t open up those pathways for healing.
2. Give Self Awareness a Try.
Research shows that asking ourselves questions rather than issuing commands is a much more effective way to create change. However, I have often chosen to use both – such as asking a question, and then making a recommendation (problem-solving). It’s as simple as adapting the way you speak to yourself.
When you catch yourself flinging accusations at yourself, think: how can I turn this statement into a question? Asking questions opens up exploration, possibility and a way to solve things.
Here are some examples:
- Yes, I need to get past this anger… but what things can I do for myself to actually make that a reality?
- How can I process grief and move forward?
- How might I recommend that a good friend deal with this situation?
This type of self-inquiry powers up the brain’s problem-solving areas, helping you tap into your creativity. You’re able to greet negative thoughts with compassion, acceptance, and curiosity instead of annoyance, rejection, and fear.
3. Focus on Progress, Not Perfection.
Using a positive affirmation like “I am wonderful and powerful” will backfire if you don’t truly, deeply believe it at both a cognitive and emotional level. To effectively adapt your thinking, consider who you are becoming, and focus on your encouraging progress – the current track or path you’re on.
You might re-work your self-talk to sound more like “Things have been rough, so I’ve done well to work through my pain to this point… it’s a lot to expect that I’m going to be the same person as I was before and to simply pick up where I left off ... things have changed, I have changed and that’s OK. I am a work in progress, and that’s a good thing.”
It’s pointing you in the direction of positive growth and is both realistic and achievable. Remember, it’s about progress not perfection. Make milestones and goals realistic and achievable always - and make them in context with where you are and how you're feeling in life in that moment, rather than your previous expectations when things were better. Don’t make them out of reach as this will lead to disappointment and other negative emotions.
Another example is reminding yourself that you are making a more conscious effort about how you react to situations. It means you recognize that you are evolving and that you have a choice in creating a better future for yourself.
4. Practice Being with Your Negative Thoughts
Trying to think positively can make you want to suppress your reactions. You might tell yourself to “get over it” or “quit stressing.” You’ve probably noticed this backfires – making negative thoughts and emotions even stronger.
That’s why it’s important to improve your ability to adapt and sit with discomfort. Instead of reacting to feeling down by trying to be positive, simply let your emotions be there.
Yes, uncomfortable sensations will arise. When they do, label them simply as energy in your body. Remind yourself that you’re not in danger. Stop trying to fiercely fight something that’s not supposed to be fought. Accept it and let it be.
Something else that’s pivotal to remember, is that life isn’t always supposed to be rainbows and lollipops! So, reduce your expectations. If you understand that life is a series of seasons – moments when you will have your time in the sun, and your time in the night, then you won’t feel so annoyed, frustrated, and cheated when something goes pear-shaped. You’ll instead think – this is part of life. And things will get better in time.
It also makes you think of it as a temporary setback rather than a permanent problem.
5. Find a [Healthy] Purpose and Distraction
One of my favorite ways to release negative thoughts is through distraction and purpose. In times gone by that I have felt sadness or anger, I’ll force myself to work on a long-term project… whether that be a book, a website, music practice or improving my fitness. If I feel angry, I’ll take some time out by taking a walk, or reading a book or blog.
When something purposeful distracts and occupies you for a bit, you get your head into a bigger and more helpful purpose, and your negative feelings ease up. In a better frame of mind, you can do the inner work and say it’s ok that you were feeling that way, that it’s normal… but you don’t want to unpack and live there. You’ll feel better in time and your purpose and distractions will carry you through until you start feeling better overall.
If you’re experiencing any negative self-talk and are sick of positive thinking that doesn’t work, try one of these mindset adaption techniques. You will see major changes in your mindset and an increase in your productivity and inner peace.