Yes, we’ve all met them: the person who has some shit hit the fan, like perhaps losing a job, but instead of trying to find a new job, she wants to rub some crystals together, recite some affirmations, and “Think positive.”
Yes, we’ve all seen them: the websites that try to commodify happiness, selling it to you like it’s a “secret formula,” maybe even using words like “the secret formula for happiness.”
Yes, we’ve all heard of them: the people who would take this positive thinking thing so far that they’d look a person of color in the face and tell them not to worry about institutionalized racism; who would tell someone who’s been walking through terrible poverty to “keep their chin up.”
These are all things that happen around the conversation of positive thinking, so it’s no wonder people have gotten a bit salty about it.
But I’m talking to you, the person who reads this with hopefully an ounce of common sense.
From the perspective of common sense, let’s get a few things out of the way: If you lose your job, think positive while you get your ass off of the couch to look for a new one. If you try to swindle people out of money while promising them happiness, karma is gonna come looking for you, and she’s going to be pissed. If you tell people who are suffering around social justice issues that they just need to think positive to see social change, you’re contributing to the problems they face.
Boom. There you go.
Now, I’ll proceed to tell you why positive thinking matters.
The Timing Matters
Something shitty just happened. You feel like shit.
Right now? Not the time to “think positive.” Not the time to ignore the pain as you try to figure out how this will be a life lesson for you to beautifully articulate in a blog post. Not the time to justify or rationalize that anyone who deliberately contributed to the circumstances is just golly-gosh-gee doing their best.
Positive thinking is only powerful when it’s used at the right time. Doing all of the above? That’s called “Spiritual bypass.” You can google the term or the name “Ken Wilber” if you want to read up. You might recognize yourself, pretty quickly.
Your anger has its place.
Your sadness has its place.
Your overwhelm, distraction, frustration, rage, grief, insecurity, fear, isolation, loneliness, or whatever feeling seems to wash over you whenever things are shitty? These feelings all have their place.
If you try not to feel them, you drive them underground, and that is not just some throwback to Freud. Not only does Dr. Brene Brown point out that people who try not to feel their so-called “negative” emotions also cut themselves off from their joy, I can speak from personal experience that trying not to feel the bad stuff, thinking that that’s what it means to be a Certifiable Good Person, just leads to feeling stuck.
When shitty things happen, you find the people who will let you feel the feelings, preferably in real-time and not via a Facebook post.
You pay attention.
Then, at a certain point, you decide that you’re ready to shift. It’s time to think positive, for no other reason than because continually recycling the negative just feels crappy.
It will not do you any good to try to “think positive” until you’ve felt the feelings. You can’t force your way there. You’ll know you’re ready when two things happen.
One, in your body, you’ll feel like the feelings have moved from being a direct experience in your body, to being something you’re carrying around on your back, like baggage. This is hard to explain, but anyone who has gone through a breakup can tell you that there’s a point where all of the sadness and confusion is very “alive” and direct in their body, and then at some imperceptible moment, you’re basically functioning in your life again but the feelings feel like something you’re carrying around, weighing you down.
Two, you’ll have the thought, “Something needs to change,” or some variation on those words. You’ll desire the shift.
Why Positive Thinking Matters
It matters because at a certain point in processing your pain about what has happened to you, choosing to “think positive” becomes a powerful life alternative to wallowing, forever a victim of what happened.
When someone dies, when a job is lost and there are few job options available, when you’re presented with a health crisis and the road to recovery will be long, when a relationship falls apart despite your own best efforts, you need to process your pain.
You also, at some point, need to reach for something positive. Not happy-happy-joy-joy inauthenticity, but something that is more positive than “It’s done, for me.”
Deciding to adopt some positive thinking opens doors. Rejecting it outright, closes them. For as much as people bash “positive thinking,” I can’t imagine that those same people would ever say the following to someone:
Your husband is dead, and you’ll probably never feel happiness, again.
You lost your job and there aren’t many other options out there, so I hope you don’t lose your house.
You’re sick, and it’s going to be really hard and difficult and you might not get better.
Your relationship fell apart, and so be prepared to never love anyone again.
These are statements that lack empathy. They lack just as much empathy as someone getting in your face right after a death, telling you that it’s all going to be okay, just look on the bright side.
Positive Thinking + Empathy
Empathy is the critical factor, whether it’s empathy for your own feelings or having empathy for someone else’s.
Positive thinking without empathy, just doesn’t work.
“There’s a lesson in all of this,” without “It’s really hard right now; how can I help?” doesn’t work.
“I’m sure you’re going to make a full recovery from your illness” without “It’s not fair that this has happened to you, and I’m here if you need me” doesn’t work.
Empathy is what bridges the gap when social justice issues come up. Tell me as a woman, “I believe you when you say that you’ve experienced this; I believe you when you say that there are inequalities. It sucks, and it’s wrong. How can I support you?”
Tell people of color this. Tell the LGBTQ community this. Tell people who are struggling financially, this.
Let them have all of their “Right now, I feel like nothing’s going to get better” feelings.
And when they’re ready, let them know that you’re there to help them forge a new path–a more positive one that leads to change.
I do my best to adopt positive thinking. I resisted it at first, because I thought that it was like a lie, like telling myself to believe that I felt like enough in those moments when I didn’t feel that, at all. But positive thinking doesn’t need to be, “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh-darnit, people like me!”
It can be as simple and true as this: “I’m willing to try, and trust that that’s going to get me somewhere.”
That’s it. No pom-poms. No slapping an affirmation on it to make the pain go away. No putting on a bright smile and “Faking it until you make it.”
More like this reality: “Sometimes, life is hard. And it will feel harder and quite miserable if I repetitively tell myself that I can’t, that it’s not possible, that there are no options. The choice is mine.”
Yes. The choice is yours. You’re thinking your thoughts, either way.
There’s one simple question that, if you embrace it whole-heartedly, could be the most important question of your life.
It’ll be the game-changer that will elevate your marriage or relationships. It’ll be the question that elevates your business. It can inspire more efficient productivity and focus. It’ll be the question that leads you to greater happiness.
It’s this: In this situation, who do I want to be?
I began relentlessly asking myself this question about six years ago. If I was about to pop off a snippy comeback when I was irritated with my husband, I’d stop. Breathe. “Okay, Kate. In this situation, who do you want to be?”
When I was at a crossroads in my business, feeling the pinch of a shrinking bank account and not knowing what to do, or trying to figure out my next marketing approach, or being asked to endorse someone’s offering in a “you-scratch-my-back” kind of a deal that would feel inauthentic and crappy, I’d stop. Breathe. “In this situation, who do I want to be?”
Trying to decide which project to focus my time on? Okay, then–keep it simple, no need to go bust out a new day planner and try to quadrant my time down to the hour–who do I want to be?
The question is powerful because another question is embedded within it. To answer the question of who you want to be means immediately asking another powerful question: “What will I choose?”
The truth is that we’re all already asking these two questions, constantly–but many of us are asking and answering while on auto-pilot. It’s when you’re not stopping to question the capital-S “Stories,” the narratives/beliefs/assumptions behind your answers that you start living life on default.
When you’re not conscious about the process, asking “Who do I want to be, and what will I choose?” looks something like:
I WANT TO BE RIGHT in this argument–so take that!
I want to feel powerful over this other person (by putting her down as fat).
I want to be someone who feels less stress…so I’ll have another drink, thanks.
These little choices, over time, add up. Life will hand you the realization that choosing to be right all of the time can lead to divorce; choosing to feel powerful by putting others down can lead to isolation; choosing to use substances to alleviate stress can create a dependency issue.
There’s another layer to all of this, and it’s gaining presence about how you ended up…right here.
Consider any situation in your life that you’re less-than-thrilled with. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of times that you would have unconsciously asked yourself, “Who do I want to be?” followed by “And what will I choose?”
What do you think your answers were, in those moments?
If it’s tough to figure this out for yourself, consider the other examples I’ve offered up and see what you can extrapolate to your own unique life story.
Someone with a relationship on the brink of collapse has asked herself, dozens of times in any argument, “Who do I want to be?” In the midst of those arguments, how might she have been answering that question? What might she have been choosing, that lead to a relationship that was less connected?
Someone who has been putting others down based on appearance who then feels lonely and isolated has been making decisions about who she wants to be, for awhile. What has she been prioritizing as important? What has she been devaluing?
Someone with a dependency issue has been making choices about how she wants to feel and the easiest way to access that, for some time. How she has answered “Who do I want to be?” potentially fuels the addiction: I want to be relaxed; I want to feel more confident with some liquid courage; I want to be the life of the party; I only feel safe to fully come out as myself when I’m high (what she’s wanting is to be herself).
Yes, there are other factors–life circumstances, biochemical factors, traumatic experiences, the person you were in a relationship wasn’t willing to do the work–but we typically can’t control those.
Try as the human race might, no one escapes life without some bruising, whether it’s from being born into poverty or being discriminated against, having a serious disease, encountering abuse, or getting involved with someone who isn’t willing to help repair a relationship.
Given that you can’t change what has happened, and you can’t correct all of life’s unfairnesses in an instant, and you can’t control other people, what are the powerful options?
The powerful options lie in how you’ll answer this question: “Who do I want to be?”
Get conscious about that question, and every decision gets easier, every hour of your life becomes self-defining, every interaction with another human being filled with kindness. Get conscious about that question, and it won’t be money or success that defines your happiness, it’ll be you being proud of you that creates your joy.