Positive thinking for INFP/Melancholics

Last year in a fit of clarity I decided to finally read some positive-thinking material.

I cringed inwardly, having previously dismissed this material as over-hyped, delusional New Thought motivational rubbish (not too positive, was I?).

But I had a few experiences where it was obvious that my circumstances were reflecting my own inner state back at me, over and over again.

Relationships where the same patterns repeated endlessly no matter what I did; but the moment I changed my perspective, it was as if everything around me changed too.

(I discovered much the same dynamic in my approach to eating and diet: I thought I wanted to lose weight, but on closer examination I had complex motives and desires that were keeping me stuck.)

So I still cringe occasionally, but otherwise I’m enjoying the benefits of studying and applying the material produced by Esther Hicks, on positive thinking and the law of attraction.

Positive feeling for INFP/Melancholics

Although this material is accessible to everyone, it is perfect for INFP/Melancholics, because it focuses first and foremost on how you feel.

I’ve had half a lifetime of being told explicitly and implicitly that how I feel doesn’t matter at all. Feeling bad about objective reality is irrelevant at best and a moral failing at worst.

It seemed that introverted Feeling (Fi) and melancholic idealism were things that just wouldn’t (and couldn’t) fit into the objective world, and I’ve even argued here that we live in a world dominated by Sanguine, Choleric, and Phlegmatic values instead (that’s SP, NT, and SJ, in MBTI).

Feeling is judgement

It really sucks to feel bad all the time, and to believe on top of it that you must do your best to ignore these bad feelings, because…reality.

So how does positive thinking/law of attraction material make a difference?

For starters, it takes the judging function of introverted feeling seriously.

Your feelings are your “inner guidance system” that tells you whether or not the thoughts you are thinking right now are in alignment with your deeper desires and “inner being” (call it soul, true self, higher power, or whatever you like).

Feeling bad is therefore not a personal quirk or moral failing, it’s an indicator that you are thinking in ways that contradict your own genuine desires and your inner being.

And if you don’t heed the signals of how you feel, you will continue to experience circumstances that feel more or less exactly the same.

Turning life around

INFP/Melancholics are prone to depression and anxiety. Yet these are simply emotional indicators that we are, right now, focusing on thoughts that do not match our genuine desires, or our inner being.

Since our circumstances reflect what we are focused on, feeling bad means we are going to continue to feel bad.

It was no coincidence that having felt depressed and anxious for many years, I continued to feel depressed and anxious.

The more I tried to understand depression and anxiety, the more entrenched it became, because I continued to focus on it and look for reasons “out there”, in the world or in my own personality.

Eventually I concluded that depression and anxiety were an unavoidable outcome of someone with my temperament and personality living in “the real world”.

I became an expert at reinforcing my pessimistic view of the world, despite how bad it made me feel.

Nothing is more important than feeling good

My knowledge and experience in philosophy, religion, and all kinds of intellectual analysis were not very useful until I knew what I was looking for.

But now it’s obvious to me that we do in fact create our own reality, shape our own experience, by what we choose to focus on.

If you want to be happy, focus on things that feel genuinely good, or at least better than you currently feel, while trusting that your experience and perception will change as you begin to feel better.

This is a complete inversion of the “worldly” approach, which incidentally matches the inferior extroverted Thinking function (Te) of the INFP.

From a worldly/Te perspective, you can feel good when you accomplish your goals, and you should feel bad if you fail to achieve them.

But notice that as an INFP, this is my negative perception of “how the world works”. In other words, my negative view of the world is that it operates according to my inferior function, that people are only interested in accomplishments, achievements, and utility.

Suspicious!

Question your negative beliefs

Does the world really revolve around utility and accomplishments?

Does every single person on earth value achievement and efficiency above all else?

Is the whole world ruled by ruthless market forces?

No.

But in thinking this way, I sought out experiences that confirmed my thoughts, and I ignored or downplayed evidence to the contrary.

Playing the game of “Yes, but…”

Have you ever noticed what happens when you try to cheer up an unhappy person, or when someone happy tries to cheer you up?

You both play the “Yes, but…” game; only you play it in different ways.

The positive person says “Yes, your situation has some difficulties, but there are positives to it as well…”

I acknowledge how you feel, but there are ways for you to feel better.

The negative person says “Yes, there are some things in life that seem okay, but there are negatives to it that you mustn’t ignore!”

If you’re intent on playing the game negatively, nothing and nobody can stop you. There’s no limit to the negative aspects you can discover in life if you really try. You can find, or create, down-sides to everything!

And for the same reasons, you can find, or create, a positive side to everything too. Even the very worst experiences strengthen your desire for something better.

One step at a time

I have to give full credit to Esther Hicks’ material for helping me change how I feel. It’s not just the basic principles, but also finer points like knowing that we can’t make a sustainable jump in feeling from “horrifically depressed” to “overwhelming joy”.

It can’t be done, and the desire to make these kind of leaps is in fact a form of self-sabotage.

But starting out with the intention to “feel better”, and taking small steps in feeling “less bad” is the way to slow down the negative habits of thought we’ve been practicing for decades, and make lasting improvements in our thoughts, our mood, and our whole experience of life.

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Fixing a melancholic

Harry Potter is an excellent allegory for how a melancholic engages with the world.

The contrast between “normal” life and the melancholic search for meaning is wonderfully depicted in the revelation that a secret world of witches, wizards, and magic exists alongside, but carefully hidden from the muggles.

The quick derogatory explanation that Harry’s aunt, uncle and cousin are muggles – that the whole of Harry’s small world up to that point is a muggle world – immediately validates Harry’s deep dissatisfaction with life.

Breaking a melancholic

Melancholics correspond to the MBTI types ENFP, INFP, INFJ, and ENFJ. The combination of intuition and feeling typifies the melancholic temperament.

For NFJs, feeling is externally oriented, seeking harmony with others. For NFPs, feeling is internally oriented – arguably the most mysterious and introverted of the cognitive functions.

INFPs have introverted Feeling (Fi) as our dominant function. It’s hard to describe, but imagine your feeling state dominating your conscious experience prior to, and seemingly independent of, any other aspect of experience.

Imagine watching a movie with an intense soundtrack that dominates and overwhelms everything else, including dialogue and visuals.

This soundtrack is inescapable.

The health of an INFP might be viewed as a function of the coherence between the soundtrack and the rest of the movie. If the two don’t match, there is dissonance that reverberates through the score, and the INFP is then caught in a feedback loop where the only option is to shut down, retreat, sleep it off.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to live “normally”, while the soundtrack plays heavy, leaden themes that wear me down. The thought of living a “normal” life….the thought that a normal life is all that there is, all that is possible, is deeply destructive.

The soundtrack of introverted feeling informs me constantly that this is not what I want. But through my formative experiences and my subsequent worldview I’ve persisted in this unwanted direction.

Suppressing the dominant function

A dominant function can’t be truly suppressed in the sense of eradicating it. But if a soundtrack continues long enough in monotonous tones of protest, you can learn to ignore it for the most part.

The functional stack of an INFP is introverted Feeling (Fi) , extroverted Intuition (Ne), introverted Sensing (Si), and extroverted Thinking (Te).

Learning to ignore my Fi, I turned to the lesser functions and tried to live through Ne, Si, and Te.

This matches the common experience of neglecting one’s dominant function in favour of the inferior function, a stage of life that IIRC corresponds to the 20s-30s.

My inferior function of extroverted Thinking is all about efficiency and goals. Te-dominant people revel in achievements and outcomes; but Te in the inferior position is a far more modest and limited version.

Ignoring my Fi, I tried to view life through the lens of Te. This translated into a very uneasy, irritable and stressful form of goal-directed motivation, and an intense, acute, but wearying analytical mindset.

I describe this as a “problem-solving” attitude to life. At one stage I even looked to problem-solving as a possible strength or “vocation” in life. But problem-solving didn’t leave me with any lasting solutions. I could critique and analyse and deconstruct, but it wasn’t fulfilling, and it wasn’t creative.

Rehabilitating introverted Feeling

What I’ve been working towards (now that there’s nowhere else to go) is the rehabilitation of Fi.

Positive-thinking has been instrumental and life-changing in this respect; it might be more accurate to call it “positive-feeling” since how I feel is the first indicator and measure of the thoughts I am thinking.

But the goal-oriented mindset has been deeply ingrained in me. I even approached “feeling better” from a goal-oriented, problem-solving perspective.

Yesterday I realised that like everything else, engaging in a problem-solving attitude doesn’t bring me lasting solutions, it just attunes me to further problems. If I really loved solving problems, the good news is that there is no end to the available problems to solve.

But since a problem-solving attitude is wearying and detrimental and ultimately unsatisfying, it’s time for me to find something else.

Enjoying life

You can try to enjoy life as the solution to a problem, or to achieve the goal of “feeling better”. But to really change, I have to stop trying to solve problems or achieve goals and instead start enjoying life for the sake of enjoyment.

The difference is profound. Seeking to enjoy life tunes me in to all the things I can enjoy. It lets me forget about “keeping score” with whatever problems I’ve been trying to solve or goals I’ve been trying to achieve.

I feel physically different, because ignoring Fi introduced unnecessary tension into my mind and body, and employing Te was an additional effort.

I can honestly say that in the past 20 or so years I haven’t “let go” of that problem-solving attitude except for occasional instances of revelry or relaxation.

20+ years of internal conflict, unnecessary effort, and unremitting tension come to an end when I choose to enjoy rather than solve, and appreciate rather than answer.

I feel rejuvenated, because I’m judging by different criteria now. The considerations and concerns of extroverted thinking don’t matter at all to introverted feeling. At most, they’re my fourth priority instead of my first.

Choleric Villains: a Kung Fu Panda case study

Lately I’ve been thinking about and discussing the two basic types of choleric. I’ve also been watching a lot of Kung Fu Panda with my son. So let’s use the villains of Kung Fu Panda to explore the two types of choleric and how they function!

Tai Lung 

Kung Fu Panda 1 and 2 feature well-developed villains with sympathetic origin stories.

The villain of KFP1 is Tai Lung, an orphan snow-leopard adopted and trained by Master Shifu in the Jade Palace, who so excels at martial arts that he and his teacher both assume Tai Lung will become the Dragon Warrior.

But when Grand Master Oogway decides Tai Lung is not Dragon Warrior material, Tai Lung is outraged. He goes on a rampage and is eventually defeated by Oogway and imprisoned.

In simple temperament terms, Tai Lung is clearly choleric.  He is proud, ambitious, confident, angry and vengeful against those who have wronged him.

He pursues his revenge with the determination and focus of a choleric, having already displayed extraordinary patience, biding his time until the opportunity to escape presents itself.

Having escaped, he immediately returns to his goal of obtaining the Dragon Scroll, convinced that he is – or deserves to be – the Dragon Warrior.

Lord Shen

Lord Shen, the villain of KFP2, is the scion of a family of peacocks who ruled Gongmen City and brought joy to the people through their mastery of fireworks.

When Shen begins experimenting with fireworks as a potential weapon, his parents consult a soothsayer who warns that if Shen doesn’t alter his course, he will be defeated by “a warrior of black and white”.

Interpreting the prophecy, Shen takes his army to wipe out all the pandas in China and thereby avoid his fate. On his triumphant return Shen’s parents are horrified and banish him.

Like Tai Lung, Shen is proud, ambitious, confident, angry and vengeful. He bides his time while further developing his explosive new weapons and awaits the opportunity to exact revenge (symbolically) against his now deceased parents, returning to his ancestral home before setting out to conquer all of China.

Using MBTI to unpack temperament

The similarities between Shen and Tai Lung as cholerics are obvious. Of course they are also villains, which makes the comparison very direct.

Disclaimer: Not all villains are choleric and of course not all cholerics are villains. But cholerics have qualities that lend them to being either great heroes or great villains….great anything, potentially.

But there are specific areas of difference between Tai Lung and Shen that can be observed in real-world cholerics too.

Power in oneself vs power over others

One of the most fundamental distinctions between cholerics is the nature of their ambition, which directly relates to their underlying skills or cognitive functions in an MBTI context.

Tai Lung is a skilled warrior. He is very nearly the most skilled warrior in the world of KFP1, which is the foundation of his pride and also the means by which he pursues his ambition to be recognised as the Dragon Warrior.

In MBTI terms, Tai Lung has introverted intuition (Ni). 

Like all the cognitive functions, it’s hard to understand Ni if you don’t have it. As a non-Ni user, the best I can grasp is that Ni-users intuitively know how to do things.

Intuition is simply unconscious mental processing. The difference between Ni and Ne (extroverted intuition) is that Ne unconsciously processes information and patterns about the external world, while Ni unconsciously processes the user’s own actions, skills, and “how to do things”.

Strong Ni users seem to have a knack or talent in at least one area, sometimes many. They know how to dress well and present well. They take to hobbies and skills with instinctive sureness.

They might not be able to explain to others how they know, because the processing is unconscious, but in art, music, sports, or martial arts, their skill is evident.

For an Ni choleric (INTJ or ENTJ) ambition is channeled through this innate facility.

Hence Tai Lung’s pride and ambition are all about his own excellence, being the best. In his own mind he is the Dragon Warrior, and therefore deserves the Scroll that promises to further enhance his already superlative skill.

Non-villainous cholerics with Ni might describe their ambition in terms of being the best they can be, or wanting to compete with themselves (as an INTJ friend put it).

After all, Tai Lung doesn’t want to conquer all of China, he just wants to be the best.

The kind of choleric who does want to conquer all of China

While Tai Lung is the embodiment of kung fu as an individual skill honed to near-perfection, Lord Shen will happily destroy kung fu in the pursuit of his own ambition.

Instead of the power within himself, Lord Shen cultivates power over others, beginning with his intuitive realisation that the fireworks created by his parents could be used for violence.

This detail of Shen’s origin story is a perfect clue to the kind of intuition he wields: extroverted intution (Ne).

Ne is all about patterns and connections in the external world. As an Ne-user I can fully appreciate Shen’s recognition that the explosive power of fireworks could be “repurposed”. NB: but as a melancholic the idea doesn’t appeal to me!

Shen’s power is almost totally externalised, as represented by the cannons he invented and the army of wolves and gorillas he commands. While he has kung fu skills of his own, they are clearly insufficient to achieve his true aims and ambition.

Lacking the innate talent of the Ni choleric, Lord Shen’s ambitions are not grounded in his own personal attributes. This is reflected in his willingness to destroy his own ancestral home in pursuit of something greater.

Instead of being motivated by his own innate skill, what motivates an Ne choleric like Shen is the self-evident truth that bigger is better:

Soothsayer: “Are you certain it is the panda who is a fool? You just destroyed your ancestral home, Shen!
Shen: “A trivial sacrifice, when all of China is my reward.

Yet at the same time, Shen’s Ne is apparent in his respect for the Soothsayer, a fellow Ne user whom he spares in part to prove her wrong, but also in recognition of her own gifts.

As a fellow Ne user, Shen is intrigued by the Soothsayer’s predictions and insights. He sends her away only when he is confident that his own path is certain.

The weakness of cholerics

In temperament terms, an Ni choleric would be choleric with a secondary temperament of sanguine, and an Ne choleric would have a secondary temperament of phlegmatic. But that’s an “all things being equal” scenario.

In practice we can see that different cognitive functions can be exaggerated or diminished through circumstances, formation, and our own choices.

Tai Lung’s excessive ambition was fostered by Shifu, his adoptive father and teacher. Shifu encouraged Tai Lung’s desire to be the Dragon Warrior:

Tai Lung to Shifu: Who filled my head with dreams?! Who drove me to train until my bones cracked?! Who denied me my DESTINY?!?

Things get a bit subtle at this point, but I think the “filled my head with dreams” aspect would relate to Tai Lung’s introverted Feeling function (Fi) in either a tertiary or inferior position; my guess would be inferior.

Fi is all about ideals, meaning, and “dreams”. But in an inferior position, Fi is very rudimentary.

At various stages in life our inferior function is more influential, and it’s common for people to suppress their dominant function and be driven by their inferior.

In Tai Lung’s case, that would mean his dominant extroverted Thinking (Te) was suppressed, and his inferior Fi was engaged and stimulated by Shifu’s excessive encouragement.

So when Tai Lung is denied the long-expected meaning of becoming the Dragon Warrior he is enraged and goes on a pointless and destructive attack on the valley, ending in his defeat by Oogway and imprisonment.

Living under the shadow of rudimentary Fi, he actually weakens his “efficiency”, his Te, and loses everything of value.

A healthier choleric would have had a clearer sense of his own goals to begin with. He would have found a different way to excel, even if that meant spurning the Jade Palace altogether.

Ironically his loss of control showed that he had less confidence in his own abilities, because he had tied them so strongly to the specific “dream” of becoming the Dragon Warrior.

The search for meaning is his downfall not only in this first instance, but in his subsequent effort to obtain the Dragon Scroll.

The weakness of Lord Shen

As an Ne choleric, Lord Shen has extroverted Feeling (Fe) and introverted Sensing (Si) in his tertiary and inferior positions; but in which order?

There’s a case to make for either option: ENTP or INTP. Honestly, I’m not sure which is correct.

But his character flaws certainly relate to extroverted Feeling, which is all about harmony with others. For Lord Shen it was his parents’ horror and rejection following his attempted genocide of pandas that scarred him. Shen thinks his parents hated him, and is unable to reconcile their repudiation of his actions with their parental love.

But even prior to the incident, it is curious that Shen didn’t buy into the foundation of his parents’ power – the colour and joy that their fireworks brought to the lives of ordinary people. If Shen had more well-developed Fe he ought to have been more appreciative of that relationship between his parents and their subjects.

The frightening aspect of Lord Shen’s Fe is that he massacred the pandas without realising the effect this would have on his parents, and without having previously heeded their worries and fears about his attempts to weaponise fireworks.

It’s suggestive of psychopathy – not only that he would massacre the pandas but more importantly that he would fail to understand his parents response!

What went wrong with Shen?

Unlike Tai Lung, there is no indication that Lord Shen was misled, or that his head was “filled with dreams”.

What seems more likely is his parents’ failure to properly educate their son and instill in him more compassion or care for others. By the time he was willing and able to massacre all the pandas in China, it was already too late in his development.

While this indicates a failure to develop Fe, it also suggests (or rather, my brother suggested while discussing this question) an Si-related failure to fill a young Shen with formative memories that would reinforce the virtues of compassion, benevolence, and mercy.

Shen’s attempt to use his intellect (Ti and Ne) to conquer China with gunpowder is a merciless and violent recapitulation of his parents’ “conquering” Gongmen City through the joy and wonder accomplished by their fireworks.

Without an appreciation for the happiness of the people and the virtues that go along with that, Shen would see his own path as a bigger, better, and more glorious version of his own parents’ success.

Cholerics in real life

Learning about the four temperaments helped me understand myself, but it also helped me understand how and why some people act like complete a***holes when it seems like they should (and maybe do) know better.

Cholerics in general are weaker in the “feeling” functions of the MBTI. In Big 5 terms, they are more “disagreeable” than “agreeable”.

Villains with troubled origin stories aside, cholerics tend to be proud, which they might prefer to describe as being objective about their own strengths.

For Ni cholerics, their strength is the innate talent facilitated by introverted intuition, coupled with extroverted thinking (Te) that helps them be very goal-directed and efficient.

For Ne cholerics, their strength is the systematic world-modelling comprehension of introverted thinking (Ti), enabled and given full-flight by extroverted intuition.

Being strong and disagreeable is advantageous if life is a competition. But cholerics struggle when they seek to “win” at non-competitive goals or attributes such as being agreeable.

A common trope for successful cholerics (villainous or not) is to reach the pinnacle of success only to realise that they have neglected or even harmed the things they valued but did not excel at.

That’s why the choleric “solution” is essentially a softening or slowing down where it might otherwise be easier for them to fight, compete, and perhaps win. It’s for cholerics, I think, that we have the spiritual advice to embrace weakness, meekness, humility, and poverty of spirit.

Stages of positive thinking

My journey into positive thinking has gone through a couple of different stages so far.

Decrease negatives, increase positives

In the first stage my focus was mostly on feeling less bad.

I tried to soften the impact of my most negative thoughts on a number of subjects, and at the same time inject more optimism into my life on other subjects.

The biggest positive of all was the thought that this positive-thinking stuff might actually work!

I liken this stage to being a beginner at any skill or hobby: a beginner tries to decrease the number and frequency of their most egregious mistakes, the kinds of mistakes that make them want to give up entirely.

At the same time, a beginner benefits from being inspired, star-struck even, by the greatest examples in their field. These positive examples inspire hope and optimism.

But a beginner really has no idea of the scope of the skill. They can’t even imagine how much time or effort will be required to gain proficiency. Even if they think the task is enormous, they really have no idea how enormous it is.

Watch your thoughts systematically

Eventually I had the feeling that I wasn’t making as much headway as I would like.

I’d seen some genuine improvements, but they were more haphazard than the material suggested they should be.

I mulled on this for a while. It had been perhaps six months since I really started, six months of unsystematic practice.

Finally it dawned on me that I really needed to work at this. When they said “every thought is either making you feel better or feel worse”, they really meant every thought.

I decided to make the effort to focus on every single thought, daunting though this may seem.

This is just like when the beginner realises they must seriously apply themselves in order to gain skill. It’s all very well to dabble in a skill or art and see occasional improvement following occasional inspiration, but eventually you want to see your efforts rewarded. You want to make real progress.

And the effort paid off rapidly.

I very quickly observed that indeed each and every thought either contributed positively or negatively to my emotional state, with a 1:1 relationship between thoughts and feelings.

The greatest byproduct of this close attention to thoughts was to rapidly reduce the severity of my negative thoughts.

Paying such close attention, my mind suddenly made the connection between the negative thought and the negative feeling, and automatically softened the thought accordingly.

Wanting more

It’s been a couple of weeks since I started observing my thoughts like this, and the results were impressive.

But gradually I began to feel as if I’d plateaued.

It’s great to reduce the severity of negative thoughts and feelings, but the absence of negativity is not the same as positivity.

Feeling neutral isn’t the same as feeling good.

Breaking the feedback loop

The explanation for this plateau appears to be a kind of feedback loop.

Reducing negatives is great, but if we are consistently focused on external reality as our point of reference, we will never advance beyond that point.

In learning a skill we would always be exposed to a teacher and peers who are more advanced, pushing us to improve our own performance.

But in positive thinking, your experience always reflects your own thoughts. Therefore, the answer is to let the quality of our thoughts improve without regard to external reality.

Don’t let external reality be the determinant of your thoughts or feeling. In practice this might mean taking the time to “meditate” and allow thoughts and feelings to improve, trusting that external reality will eventually catch up.

Otherwise, we will keep repeating the same quality of thought over and over, and experiencing the same quality of experience over and over.

Breaking the feedback loop is as easy as letting go of that focus on external reality. Why let the momentum of past experience determine how you feel?

 

Mindfulness for people who hate mindfulness

I tried mindfulness in the past. It didn’t work, and I developed reservations about the purpose and direction of mindfulness as a movement or fad.

I’m not alone in being critical. Edwin Ng wrote a great piece from a Buddhist perspective, critiquing aspects of the mindfulness movement:

this initial reception of sensorial and perceptual impressions with non-reactive awareness has to be followed through with the ardent application of what is described in Buddhist teachings as appropriate attention and the clear comprehension of the conditionality of phenomenal reality-selfhood…

In this way, mindfulness is guided by an ethical imperative which requires the practitioner to cultivate a wise and compassionate ethos of care and engagement towards self, others and the world. Mindfulness is, therefore, not exactly non-judgmental but rather entails an ongoing evaluative task of being heedful and discerning about the intentions driving the actions of body, speech and mind.

I think this is the difficulty I encountered in practicing mindfulness. It’s generally promoted as non-judgemental awareness, but I think people are either misunderstanding what non-judgmental means, or merely repeating a principle they don’t literally apply to their own practice.

Non-judgmental could mean “don’t beat yourself up for having bad thoughts”. In other words, don’t judge if judging adds another layer of reaction to your awareness.

But mindfulness can’t be truly non-judgmental in the sense of not preferring some states of mind over others. At the very least, mindfulness practice must prefer being mindful over being unmindful.

Mindfulness and positive thinking

I’ve begun using mindfulness as part of my positive thinking work, because I finally understood that the relationship between thoughts and feelings is immediate.

In other words, if I’m feeling bad it’s because I’ve just had a negative thought.

Today I walked past the mechanic and felt bad, because my mind turned to the thought of when I need to get my car serviced, and from there to a general thought about all the hassles and responsibilities I have in life.

That train of thought is guaranteed to make me feel bad, and produce a greater sense of life’s burdens in me.

But if I’m mindful, I’m paying attention to each and every thought I have, and noticing the immediate emotional reaction to it.

Esther Hicks’ material refers to this as our “emotional guidance system”, which tells us whether our thoughts are in alignment or out of alignment with our desires and the perspective of our “inner being”.

Without getting into the metaphysics of that system, the point is that your emotions are always giving you immediate feedback on the direction your thoughts are taking you.

The self-aware mind

What happens in mindfulness is that the mind itself becomes aware of the connection between thoughts and emotional feedback.

I began paying attention to my thoughts – all of them, one after the other – and to my surprise it was as though my mind began regulating itself, diminishing the intensity of negative thoughts as the correlation between thought and feeling became clear.

If we are not aware, we don’t see the connection, and we persist in focusing on thoughts that make us feel worse and worse.

Hicks explains that if you put your hand on a hot stove you know immediately what is wrong and pull your hand away. That we don’t do the same for negative thoughts is due in part to lack of awareness of cause and effect, and in part to the insistence of others that such thoughts are necessary, realistic, and somehow virtuous to hold.

So practicing mindfulness in the context of positive thinking really is valuable, because it amounts to a highly focused and disciplined application of the basic principles. You wouldn’t consciously put your hand on a hot stove, and you won’t consciously focus on thoughts that make you feel bad either.

How positive thinking works

If you start paying attention to your thoughts while noticing how each thought feels, you’ll soon discover that some thoughts are a bit strange.

What’s strange about them is that they may be focused on a subject that seems “positive”, yet the thought itself feels negative.

The thought “I need to get something done now” feels both good and bad.

That’s because the subject of accomplishing things is a positive one. I want to accomplish things, it would feel good to accomplish things.

But the focus on “need” is negative. The subtext is that if I don’t accomplish things then I will have failed.

There’s a big difference between “I need to get something done” and thinking of a specific thing I want to do.

“I need to get something done” vs “I really want to do this specific thing”.

The former focuses on the absence of what I desire.

There’s self-sabotage built into this kind of thought. It doesn’t aim towards what I really want, nor does it aim away from what I don’t want.

Instead it beats me up for not doing something unspecified right now.

…which isn’t especially helpful.

Imagine saying it to someone else in an anxious voice: “You should be doing something right now!”

Not especially helpful.

How would they react? Probably with a well-deserved “Wtf are you talking about?”

Imagine saying it to them again and again at every opportunity. Maybe say it every time they sit down, every time they appear to be relaxing or enjoying themselves: “Shouldn’t you be doing something???”

If you don’t pay attention to your thoughts, you’ll just feel a kind of acceptance that you should be doing something… followed by the frustration of not knowing what it is you should be doing.

Maybe you’ll throw yourself into any activity just to escape that unpleasant feeling, and you might be productive.

But there’s a big difference between the productivity that comes from escaping unpleasant feelings and the productivity that comes from doing what you feel genuinely inspired to do.

If you accept the thought at face value then your orientation is toward “I need to do something…but I don’t know what”.

By paying attention to how the thought feels, you notice instead “I’m making myself feel bad for no good reason”.

I wouldn’t have noticed this if I hadn’t decided to pay attention to all of my thoughts.

Imagine choosing to no longer activate thoughts of that type…the “feel bad for no good reason” thoughts.

The trajectory of positive thinking is such that removing these kinds of thoughts makes space for new thoughts, since there’s a limit to the number of things you can focus on in a single day.

But it also lifts your overall mood, removing one source of negativity and thereby making more positive thoughts accessible.

And on the subject of “things I want to accomplish”, perhaps we’re now free to consider things that feel good, instead of repeating thoughts that feel needlessly bad?

Or perhaps what would feel best right now is to accept that the whole subject of accomplishments is not about “should” or obligation, and was never something best framed by need or by external pressure.

Are we best served by approaching accomplishments from the direction of avoiding shame and humiliation? Or are we better served by looking at it through the lens of inspiration and appreciation?

In fact, we might begin by completely letting go of any thought of accomplishment for now, and focusing instead on appreciating the many things we have already accomplished, beginning with the mere fact of being alive, of having survived to enjoy this present moment.

A diet for the mind

I was pretty impressed with my approach to weight loss a couple of years ago, so much so that I wrote a book about it.

One aspect of the diet I remember well is the discipline that came naturally, once I understood they underlying problem. It wasn’t easy, and there was a definite progression to it, but at least it wasn’t arbitrary discipline, or discipline for its own sake.

I remember realising that if I wanted to lose weight I couldn’t afford to eat mindlessly anymore. I couldn’t eat and lie to myself about why I was eating.

In every instance I was either eating because I needed sustenance, or eating for some other motive like pleasure or escapism. Being honest with myself about the motive was the essence of discipline.

Positive thinking

I’m beginning to appreciate that the same kind of discipline is required for “positive thinking” work.

In parallel to the simple dichotomy of food that is either for sustenance or in excess of sustenance (and therefore contributing to weight gain), all thoughts can be categorised as either better-feeling or worse-feeling.

The thought of monitoring every single thought seemed excessively burdensome at first, but this sense of burden was, appropriately, indicative of a negative thought…

It turns out that monitoring every thought, paying attention to the thoughts I am thinking and the feelings that derive from them, is not easy but like a physical diet it instills a positive sense of control and direction.

If eating mindlessly perpetuates the status quo of body weight, so thinking mindlessly perpetuates an emotional set-point.

But if you only eat for sustenance, inevitably your body weight will return to normal. And if you only think thoughts that feel good, inevitably your emotional set-point will attain a net positive.

Seriously, anxiety?

Yesterday we had a birthday party for my five year-old boy.

Our baby girl is less than a month old, which made things a little more complicated.

But in all honesty it’s not the complications or the lack of sleep that makes throwing a birthday party difficult: it’s the anxiety.

I was anxious in the lead-up to the party, and of course I tried a number of things to reduce it.

Some of those moves involved “positive thinking”, and the most successful was to view the anxiety itself in a positive light…

You know the great thing about chronic anxiety? It’s really reliable!

You don’t have to worry about it, the anxiety will just be there in the background, doing its own thing.

When I’m busy planning a party, with a list of things to organise, it’s great knowing that anxiety can take care of itself.

It’s automatic. Like “Set and forget”, but it’s self-setting too!

Isn’t it comforting to know that you forget about your anxiety while you focus on everything else that needs doing, and it’ll still be there, plugging away in the background, ready for you whenever you need it?

Hurdles are relative

So that worked. What a surprise!

The party went really well.

And then the next day, I found my anxiety had reappeared, this time over the daunting prospect of…

…buying my son a sandwich on the way to school.

Well, I had to buy a sandwich, a banana, and pick up his drink bottle from his grandparents’ on the way.

That meant leaving home a little earlier.

Yet I was almost as anxious about this task as I was about organising the birthday party.

Or perhaps an alternative view: I was as uncomfortable with this morning’s anxiety as I was with the pre-party anxiety.

Anxiety tips its hand

Occasional situations like these are where anxiety reveals itself as a fraud.

Because it makes no sense that my anxiety should trouble me as much over this minor issue as it did over the relatively major one.

I mean, the party itself was not that big a deal either, but it obviously ranks far higher than running a couple of errands on the way to school.

What this suggests to me (and I’ve seen it a couple of times before) is that anxiety is a major con.

It’s a joke. It’s BS. It’s deeply suspicious.

It’s like a security system that can’t tell the difference between a home invasion and a stray cat crossing the front lawn, but still purports to protect you from danger.

What are you focusing on?

The underlying mechanism is still mysterious.

I think my focus in life is profoundly negative; such that instead of feeling better when stressors are overcome, I just feel temporarily less bad.

The way my anxiety behaves also implies that on some level I’m looking for things to feel anxious about, as if I’m getting some kind of reward from feeling anxious.

It’s even possible that anxiety itself is the reward. As weird as that sounds, it is a kind of excitement physiologically and mentally.

People like scary movies and scary rides; we enjoy thrilling games and stories; it’s plausible that anxiety itself is enjoyable.

It could also be familiar, or it could be a kind of “lesser evil” that promises to help ward off even worse experiences.

  • Being anxious about the party could be seen as a way of avoiding embarrassing oversights or poor planning.
  • Being anxious about running errands before school could be a way of avoiding being late.

It’s likely a combination of factors though, because in the many years of living with anxiety, no single answer has resolved it for long.

A positive alternative

I think what I’m missing is a positive alternative to anxiety – something to focus on and achieve that is more substantial than the mere absence of feeling anxious.

Taking a cue from “positive thinking”, one thing I did for the party was to give myself positive cues like “I wonder how much I’ll enjoy it?” “I wonder how many nice, funny, or enjoyable things will happen?” and “I wonder how much my son and his friends will enjoy the food and the games?”

I suspect there’s a global or baseline equivalent of those positive thoughts that applies to my overall focus in life.

In other words, just as I can shift my focus to positive cues on any given subject, I can probably shift my overall focus toward feeling good as a positive alternative to feeling anxious.

What might that look (and feel) like?

Is it okay to be happy?

In a couple of decades living with anxiety and depression I frequently wondered about the correlation between my mood and my view of the world.

I’ve always valued the search for truth, and part of that search was to understand anxiety and depression themselves. But what if this “search” is itself a symptom of anxiety and depression?

What if looking for answers is just putting a positive spin on endless rumination?

Depressive realism

Sometimes it seems like happy people live in a bubble, unwilling or unable to grapple with the grand humane and existential challenges of life.

The popular notion of “depressive realism” offers a kind of perverse satisfaction in being miserable: the idea that depressed people see the world more clearly, or that happy people are buffered from harsh realities by self-serving delusions of competence and optimism.

If you find it difficult to be happy, you can console yourself with the idea that happiness is just for dumb, superficial, or morally unserious people.

But is this kind of depressive realism any better than a sour grapes attitude toward happiness?

Ironically, this consolation is itself the fostering of a self-serving delusion aimed at making us feel better, as we pride ourselves on being both willing and able to face the harsh realities of life.

When life hands you lemons, sure, you could make lemonade…but a real man will just eat that lemon and grit his teeth against the sourness, because lemons are supposed to be sour!

Intentional optimism

In the past few months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I think about life, in order to improve my mood.

In the process it’s become clear to me that despite all the suffering implicit in decades of anxiety and depression, despite being desperately unhappy, I couldn’t honestly say that I wanted things to be different.

We all want to be happy, but our desire for happiness is typically framed and delineated by very strict conditions.

We want to be happy in certain ways, under specific criteria; we want happiness on our own terms, even if those terms are largely unconscious in daily life.

When I first considered changing my thoughts in order to improve my mood, I immediately worried about becoming “delusional”, like one of those dumb, superficial, happy people who lives in blissful ignorance of life’s deeper meaning and struggles

It was very important to me that I maintain a sense of my own realism, honesty, and clarity about the nature of life; so important that I was more comfortable being deeply unhappy than risking a change to my self-image.

I put limitations on my pursuit of happiness, limitations that turned out to be based on little more than crude stereotypes.

Crude stereotypes of happiness

If I was truly honest with myself, wouldn’t I have to acknowledge that those supposed “dumb, superficial, blissfully ignorant people” were just a fantasy?

In all those years of looking for answers, I hadn’t once gone out of my way to examine people who were actually happy, preferring to think that I understood what superficial, derogatory happiness looked like.

In fact, my own experience belies the notion that happy people are ignorant or deluded. I don’t know anyone who matches the caricature that exists in my own mind.

People who are genuinely happier than me tend not to go around thinking and talking about their depressing problems, but to cast that as a moral failing is misguided.

I’ve met others similar to me: deeply depressed, yet repulsed by the thought of having to “delude” themselves in order to feel better.

Such people would never have the audacity to claim that they are free from “delusion”. They might say that they try not to delude themselves, but it’s more a statement of values and ideals than an objective assessment of their overall knowledge and beliefs.

It’s as if we’ve tried and failed at just “getting along” in life, and instead of admitting the failure, tried to redefine the parameters of life itself until those who get along well are the ones who’ve failed the test of moral seriousness.

Temperament defines happiness

The problem is that we aren’t all the same in what excites us and makes us happy, and therefore we can’t and shouldn’t try to “get along” in the same ways.

Those of us who struggle most with anxiety and depression seem to have an (un)healthy dose of what ancient proto-psychologists called melancholic temperament.

Melancholics are excited by meaning and ideals, and not much else. Yet we inhabit a society full of people who find happiness and fulfilment more easily accessible – in the pursuit of power and prestige, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or in simply being left alone to do their own thing.

Meaning and ideals are hard to reconcile with a world ordered to more tangible and readily accessible pursuits. That alone is enough to explain a depressed and anxious outlook.

But if we can at least recognise that meaning and ideals are what motivate and fulfil us, and that we are not all motivated by the same things, then we can dispense with attempts to universalise happiness and justify our own preoccupations.

In other words, it is not superficiality that makes others happy; they are happier (in general) because they have greater ease in identifying and accomplishing the things that make them happy.

Likewise, we are not less happy because of our bold embrace of harsh truths and discomforting realities; we are less happy (in general) because we have not succeeded in identifying and accomplishing the things that make us happy, and have in fact gone to the other extreme of denying our need for meaning and ideals.

Putting meaning and ideals first

I think the most important thing is to recognise what it is that makes us happy as individuals – whether that be meaning and ideals or something else – and seek to enlarge that aspect of our life.

For melancholics the initial challenge is working out that it is meaning and ideals that excites us, and the subsequent challenge is learning how to approach meaningful things for the sake of the meaning they provide.

I used to study philosophy, but I couldn’t really articulate that it was the search for meaning that drove me to it. So I tended to go along with other people’s perspectives of what philosophy is and why it is meaningful or important.

There came a time when I ceased to find philosophy meaningful. And it turned out that I didn’t really care all that much about the other aspects of philosophy that people find valuable. I didn’t really care very much about critical thinking or rationality or asking big questions or seeking answers generally.

Ironically this makes a melancholic surprisingly pragmatic in a way that can even resemble a choleric. A melancholic is like a choleric whose ambition is finding meaning, and everything else is subordinate to that goal.

I think that’s what drives my interest in mysticism, philosophy, and religious practice and thought. I’m looking for a pure meaning that can encompass and imbue all of life.

How to unlearn conditional happiness

I recently told a friend struggling with feeling appreciated that:

No one can appreciate you more than you appreciate yourself.

But I think there’s probably a better way to explain it, albeit a less pithy one.

What I was trying to say to my friend was that it doesn’t matter how hard he tries to get others to appreciate him. His sense of appreciation is limited by how much he appreciates himself.

If you are unwilling to appreciate yourself, respect yourself, love yourself, value yourself, then no amount of seeking those affirmations from others will succeed.

I know this is a bit of a cliche, but it’s no platitude.

We have the capacity at any time to regard ourselves more positively, but instead we defer this positive self-regard, setting conditions for ourselves to attain it.

Most theories suggest that we have a natural approval for ourselves as children, but are conditioned to lose it as we grow up.

As we attach to our parents or carers, we learn how to relate to ourselves from how they relate to us.

A self-absorbed, unavailable parent who can’t put aside their own frustrations to show love and comfort to their child teaches the child to apply the same conditions within themselves.

“I can’t show you love and affection because you spilled your milk, or because you won’t listen to me, or because I have more important things on my mind”

So the child learns that love and affection are conditional…they are only forthcoming when the conditions are just right.

The parent has the capacity to let go of their concerns and give the child the love and affection he or she needs. But they choose not to, albeit under the influence of their own weighty internal conditions.

Likewise, we ourselves have the capacity to let go of our concerns and conditions and give ourselves the love, affection, respect, appreciation, and other qualities we desire.

Have you ever looked at a happy, well-adjusted person and wondered “How dare they?” How do they let themselves off so easily? How do they treat themselves so well when they haven’t done anything to merit it…at least not by our harsh standards.

Or perhaps you assume they must have done something to earn it. They must be special or different, or perhaps you are the one who is different in some deficient way?

But the truth is that the capacity is there in all of us, to love ourselves, treat ourselves well, with respect and kindness and…whatever is required to feel happiness and joy in our lives.

That’s what we most desire from others. But it’s a paradox: the only way to get what we want from others is to accept it first in ourselves.

Otherwise we will sabotage our own efforts – either by trying too hard and too desperately, or by picking the wrong people, or the wrong timing, or going about things in completely the wrong way.

You may not walk around thinking it consciously, but implicit in your desire for others’ love and approval is the recognition that then you will be able to feel good in yourself.

And that’s what creates the paradox. You refuse to feel good now because you believe you’re not good enough or deserving enough. You haven’t met the conditions you internalised while growing up.

Then you meet someone and you think “if this person loves me, or appreciates me, or approves of me, that will mean I’m good enough now!”

So the other person becomes the condition of your own self-approval. It doesn’t really work though, because self-approval is intrinsically unconditional. External factors are irrelevant.

When your parents or carers mistreated you, their excuses were irrelevant too. It’s because they were irrelevant that they cannot be resolved, and if you’re lucky, you will have observed these never-ending patterns of behaviour in people’s lives.

You can start to witness that people who find excuses for mistreating you go on to find more and more excuses. People who love to complain have a knack for finding things to complain about. People who live in misery carefully avoid things that might draw them out into happiness.

And if you can see it in others you can probably see it in yourself too, the artful way you flirt with calamity or keep yourself in a state of anxiety. It’s immersive and it feels “real”, but every now and then you can see the genuine multiplicity of options that surround you, the unfathomable range of directions your life could go, and how suspicious it is that you nonetheless keep it firmly on a single track.

That doesn’t mean you’re doing it “wrong”, it just means you can change when you’re ready, when you want to.

The best part of that change is to realise you can give yourself, enjoy for yourself, the wonderful positive feelings that you thought had to wait until conditions were met.