BY JIM VILLAMOR 05/10/2020
Positive thinking promises great things. If we just improve our attitude, we’ll be happier, healthier, and more successful. However, there’s a lot to that promise. Positive thinking is a a powerful tool. But it frightens me to hear people speak of positive thinking as a magical tool which can overcome anything and everything in life.
I have found if we put too much faith in positive thinking, we often create unrealistic expectations. And then, when positive thinking doesn’t fix our problemS, we blame ourselves during our suffering because we begin to believe we haven’t tried hard enough or failed to adjust her feelings and attitude.
In this way, too much faith in the power of positive thinking prevents us from treating ourselves and others with kindness and compassion. It feeds into the perfectionism that so many of us struggle with by providing yet another example in which we feel we are not good enough. And so, when our attempts to fix our problems and attitude fail, we tend to beat ourselves up, stress ourselves out, which only makes us feel more miserable about ourselves. We truly believe we shouldn’t be unhappy and feel better but we don’t.
I am especially worried about how an exaggerated faith in positive thinking colours our approach to problems like mental illness in particular which doesn’t have an obvious physical cause.
We generally understand that pneumonia requires antibiotics, but too many of us still think of depression and other mental illness as something that can be cured with more effort and a better attitude. We offer the depressed person well-meaning advice, telling then to be positive, to count their blessings, to snap out of it, read a self help book, learn to meditate, do yoga, and hundreds of other suggestions that trivialise the problem in an extreme effort for them to feel better.
Some of my clients with depression internalise this optimistic advice and then apologise for being depressed. They explain that they are working really hard at improving their mood and attitude, and say they know they have a good life and shouldn’t be depressed, but they are. They look surprised and relieved when I say that I don’t think depression can be fixed with simply a better attitude.
Why is it so tempting to exaggerate the power of positive thinking? I think it is because it lets us think we are in control. If attitude is everything, then we can gain some control of even the most terrifying aspects in our lives.
Instead of recognising that we can’t control everything, we figure that if we think positively we enough, we can avoid the bad things in life — or at least make it hurt less. The belief that happiness is up to us and suffering can be avoided if we work hard to improve our attitude is a strategy that unfortunately sets up a lot of people for failure.
I agree that our attitude matters. But we need to temper our belief in the power of attitude with compassion and realism. Attitude can’t control everything and we can’t always control our attitude. Recognizing these limits will make it easier to be compassionate to ourselves and others. Paradoxically, it will probably also make us happier.
I am writing about this from my own personal experience. For years I’ve had health issues that I initially treated for many months using only positive thinking. However the more unwell I became the more I realised I was beginning to lose faith in myself and recognised my self esteem began to plummet.
I truly began believing I was lacking the strength, endurance and the ability to create enough positivity that would miraculously heal my illnesses and my depression so I could return back to my “old” self. I shortly began to realise that by focusing so much time and effort on positive thinking I was actually overlooking the many other options that were much more effective, supportive and nurturing to both my body, mind and spirit.
By asking for help I was gifted with numerous perspectives, options, opportunities and choices which I didn’t have before. In addition, I met other people who were either experiencing the same conditions as I was or even better, people who had successfully healed themselves who I looked up to for guidance, and help which eventually lead me to feel some “Hope”.
When life delivers many lessons on our health, grief, loneliness and unexpected change, which is all apart of life, I am now an active participant who believes in introducing and cultivating many modalities and options in my life to choose from. I believe each and everyone of us, at some point on our journey, will experiences our own unique form of pain, hurt, sorrow and challenges.
Throughout my experiences I have learned there are no real short cuts in life. Most of our greatest struggles actually help shape us into the unique, resilient and powerful person we are today,
Please don’t get me wrong, I still practice positive thinking, yet I’m aware that most serious issues or problems require actual skills, support, planning, professional help and much much more before we are able to come to terms with what we are going through and eventually find the peace and happiness we so desperately miss and deserve.
I am sending each and every one of you my support to all you wonderful and courageous warriors,
In truth and love,