The Potential Pitfalls of Positive Thinking

Allow me to begin by saying I firmly believe in the power of positivity. Completely. That said, the concept of positive thinking has always been a challenge for me… which is interesting— given the idea behind this blog.

The truth is, I’m an optimist by nature. But I’ve been through enough trials and tribulations to realize that always trying to see the best in every situation— or hoping that your positive thoughts will result in an avalanche of good tidings—- often feels like trying to fit the Pacific Ocean into a thimble.

In fact, I’ve wrestled with the concept of positive thinking for several years. To the point where if I heard someone talking about it, I would practically run screaming in the other direction.

(Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. It was more like “run crying” than “run screaming.”)

Name any positive thinking/affirmation method out there and chances are I’ve tried it at some point over the past twenty years.  My attempts especially picked up during The-Enlightened-But-Still-Dark-Ages (I’m big into acronyms, so I call it TEBSDA for short). That era started about two years into my unemployment (I was laid off from my job right as the recession started in 2009).

I checked out dozens of books from the library. I attended free seminars. I perused websites and blogs. I followed the protocols and steps and kept a gratitude journal while taking part in affirmation programs. I started and ended my days with prayers of thanks and gratitude. I did my best to avoid negative people and negative news. I did what I could to bring light and happiness and joy to others through random and not-so-random acts of kindness.

During this time, I noticed two things… #1) there is no shortage of SHuGs out there (again with the acronyms! This stands for “Self-Help Guru”— and I pronounce it like “sug” in “sugar”).

And #2)…. positive thinking is damn near impossible when you have a lot of craziness hitting your life at once. And I’ve had plenty. Near the top of the list: no job and no prospects for a job. After sending out literally hundreds of resumes, I’ve found I can’t even get a job as a barista at Starbucks— much less something in communications (my chosen profession for almost two decades). It seems no one wants to hire a former news anchor… apparently because they think I’m not going to take the job seriously, or stick around long. As someone who firmly believes that EVERY job deserves the best performance you can give (in my lifetime I’ve done everything from fast food to retail to news) and also someone who just would be grateful to have a purpose in life, this is especially frustrating.

I feel the need to say here that I have nothing but complete respect and gratitude and awe for many SHuGs out there. I will acknowledge that— as is the case in every business— some are only out for a quick buck, but there are many others who have changed lives and helped millions of people.

That said, when it comes to trying to apply their principles to my personal experience, I’ve struggled. Specifically, it’s difficult for me to put positive thinking into practice for extended lengths of time. After every book, every seminar, every blog post— I start out very hopeful that I can keep my positive outlook. However, the Dark Side of the Force proves to be too powerful. They have cookies after all (if you haven’t seen the meme, google “Dark Side cookies”).

As is my way, I completely over-analyzed the situation. I’ve since changed my outlook concerning these particular points (admittedly with mixed results). Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1) I confused “positive thinking” with “positive attitude.” This was at the core of my issues with positive thinking. For a long time, I thought of it as something that I should be able to simply turn on like a switch— a trait that could prove especially helpful when I was going through something horrible.

Case in point: when I was laid off, I was in a bit of a daze even though I knew it was coming. I told myself repeatedly before/during/and after the actual layoff that I should think of this as a “course correction” in my life— that it shouldn’t be viewed as a “setback,” but rather should be considered an “opportunity.”

In other words, I pretty much filled my head with every cliché in the book.

Here’s the thing: I wasn’t wrong. It was an opportunity. But trying to keep a positive mindset with platitudes didn’t diminish the reality of the situation. The reality is, getting laid off really sucks.

It was especially difficult because I was considered a valuable employee— but the recession meant that our particular department was considered more of a luxury than a necessity. Since I was doing my best to think “positive thoughts,” I’m not sure I completely understood the gravity of the situation at the time. Losing a paycheck, affordable health insurance, and—- as it turned out later when I couldn’t find another job— my self-confidence, turned out to be devastating. And the fact that I peered into the void with a smile on my face didn’t change that fact.

2) I expected… something. Unfortunately, I unconsciously created my own despair spiral as a result of trying to think more positively… because I expected different benefits than the ones I received. And what made things worse was the fact that I couldn’t even enjoy the benefits I was receiving from thinking positively, because I didn’t recognize them as benefits. I had blinders on, waiting for a totally different outcome.

It was never my intention, but I almost thought of positive thinking as a means to an end. I held a not-so-subconscious belief that once I started thinking more positively— that is, if I did it “properly”— it was going to yield some pretty fantastic results. Near the top of the expectation list: peace, happiness and abundance— not necessarily in that order.

Yes, positive thinking can definitely lead to those things. In fact, I’m now happier than I’ve been in a very long time (even though I still don’t have the abundance part— by a LONG shot). But for many years, I automatically set myself up for disappointment by expecting those things.

3) Every time I “slipped,” I blamed myself. This was the most damaging effect I encountered during my quest to bring more positivity into my life. I had watched several SHuG’s give their own accounts of personal discovery and transformation, and followed their advice to the best of my ability. Still, for whatever reason, I was unable to actually make my life better.

I’m expecting to get the award for Most Obvious Statement with this next sentence: many SHuG’s focus on the importance of shifting your way of thinking when it comes to positive thinking (I can hear the collective “well, DUH” even as I type this). And once again, that philosophy is not wrong. But it’s at the center of one of the bigger potential downsides of the current positive thinking movement, because it’s all too easy to blame yourself when you don’t feel the results.

I can’t tell you how many times I walked down the following path:

Step #1: I think to myself, “all I have to do in order to bring more [love/light/abundance] into my life is to change my thinking so that I’m more positive.”

Step #2: I think to myself, “I am taking the advice of the [book/blog/seminar] and doing [insert suggested action here] in order to change my way of thinking. And once I’ve taken these steps, results should follow.”

Step #3: I think to myself, “I’ve done [insert suggested action here], but I’m still not able to think positively.”

-or-

“I’ve done [insert suggested action here], my thinking has indeed changed, but I’m not feeling any changes in my life.”

-or-

“I’ve done [insert suggested action here], my thinking has indeed changed, but I’m not feeling any movement in my life, and since this has worked for millions of other people I’m obviously doing it wrong. I am a failure in all of my attempts at Life and don’t know why I even try. I give up.”

When it comes to self-punishment, I’m the queen of my own little personal fiefdom, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I jumped to that final thought many, many times. Thankfully (or maddeningly, depending on how you look at it) I’m also an optimist by nature, so once I got finished yelling at the Universe and huddling in a ball in the corner of the room, I would slowly pick myself up and try again. But each time I started over again, I felt like I was less of a person because I hadn’t figured “It” out yet.

This happened countless times over several years.

Please know that I make light of this only because humor helped me survive the TEBSDA years (even though it didn’t really do a damn thing for me in terms of paying the electricity bill). So please know that if the above situations are familiar to you, I am not mocking you. I feel your pain only too well. Positive thinking isn’t something that comes naturally. Which, if you think about it, is really unfortunate. I’m still working on that.

As a matter of fact, I’m still working on all of this. But being able to break down why the SHuG’s theories didn’t work for me has helped me avoid falling back into old habits like the ones I list above.

It’s a daily process.

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