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.

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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.