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Pitfalls of positive thinking

I decided to take up this topic because I have (again) recently heard a lot of discussion on positive thinking. It seems to be present almost everywhere, looking at any self-development book or coaching program.

It seems that there are two assumptions behind the concept of positive thinking: 1) There is something wrong with our thinking as it needs to be more positive and 2) We can turn our thinking into a more positive one. But is either of these true? Let’s consider.

Let’s start with the latter. Can you really influence and change what thoughts come to your mind? You can’t. Thoughts come and go, we do not consciously “produce” them. We often assume that we can control our thinking. If you try to focus your thinking for a moment, you can probably do that for a short while. But it does not take long when your head already picks up something else. So even if you would like to keep your thoughts in a certain thing, you will very quickly find yourself thinking something completely different. And trying to control your thinking is so pretty hard!

Positive thinking is also based on the assumption that negative thinking is somehow wrong or should be avoided (as it needs to be changed). What if there is nothing wrong with it? All thinking comes from the same source, from the same intelligence behind all life. So why do we judge it? Our mind is filled with all kinds of thoughts, so negative thoughts must also be accepted and understood as a natural part of life.

All thoughts are in fact completely neutral; they just “run” through us until we give them a meaning. We often judge them, and then we have a hurry to change them. And this in fact only gives more energy to the original thought, this is the classic “Do not think of a pink elephant”. So, in fact, thoughts cannot, in themselves, lead us to trouble, but our thinking about our own thinking is doing it: “Oh no, there’s something wrong with me as I think negatively, I have to stop this and think positively.” But once the thought has arrived, why would you try to change it, you cannot even do that anymore!

All the feelings are ok, as well as all the thoughts. When the thought changes, the feeling changes. If there is a bad day or a moment, let it be. We are designed so that when we do not intervene in the thinking process, new, more positive thoughts and emotions will surface again. So I do not have to force myself to think positive, it comes by itself when I give it space to come. I do not have to do anything about the emergence of a new thought. It’s just like the next breath. Problems will come when we block the flow of thoughts, start to dwell on certain thoughts and build a dam.

What then to replace positive thinking? You just need to know the nature of thinking, learn to observe your own thinking and understand that you are so much more than your thinking. There is no reason to take your own thinking so seriously. When you understand that the content of your thinking can be anything and the thoughts come and go, it starts to feel unnecessary to pay so much attention to individual thoughts. Of course, we are still doing it (because we are humans), but it is much easier to get out of thought circles. The key here is that you do not think that thinking is telling the truth about life. As Sydney Banks said, all mental suffering is due to thinking that has been taken too seriously.

Positive thinking backfires on this same issue: it assumes that the content of the thoughts are wrong, though the content of thinking is not a problem. The problems stem from our belief in the content of thinking. And therefore, focusing on the content only reinforces the idea that content is relevant when the real secret lies in understanding the process of thinking.

Lastly: I’m not saying that thinking about positive things, such as writing a gratitude journal, would be a bad thing. On the contrary, changing your own viewership is a good thing, especially if your own world feels very dark and negative and it feels difficult to get up. But this is different because then we will not try to change our thinking (which is not possible). In that case, we focus on thinking things that are good in our lives and do not judge the thinking that already came. Do you notice the difference?

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