Positive Thinking: Helpful or Hindering?

Author: Matthew Boone, LCSW

Having a mind is hard. You may have noticed that no matter what you do, your mind never stops working. It spits out predictions, observations, commentary, plans, judgments and other stuff all day long. This can be quite useful, but a lot of what your mind offers can be quite negative.

Your mind can effectively plan for the future, but it can also get wrapped up in worries about all the bad stuff that might happen. It can compare one thing to another, like Coke or Pepsi, so that you can decide what to drink. But it can also compare you to some imagined ideal and find you seriously wanting.

So what are we to do about this dark side of our minds? 

Many of us are drawn to positive thinking as a solution. But it turns out that positive thinking can sometimes do just the opposite of what we want it to do. 

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), said as one word, offers an alternative, which we will get to a minute. But first, let’s take a look at positive thinking.

Positive Self Statements: Power for Some, Peril for Others

In one research study, people with high and low self-esteem were asked to repeat the positive affirmation “I am a lovable person.”  Those with high self-esteem felt a little bit better. But those with low self-esteem felt worse. As the researchers observed, “Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ‘need’ them the most.” 

It may be that when you make statements that contradict what you already think about yourself, you reflexively reject those statements. This makes intuitive sense. If you are having negative thoughts about yourself, simply telling yourself why you are great doesn’t always make a difference. Sometimes it just starts a war of thoughts.

Think about a time you reached out to a friend when you were feeling bad about yourself, and the friend immediately jumped in to tell you how great you were. Chances are, you felt a little bit invalidated, despite their best intentions. You may have even dug your heels in and doubled down on asserting what was wrong about you. I know that I have.

On its face, replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts makes sense. If you’ve got too much of one thing, it seems right to add something opposite to counteract it. But it turns the mind doesn’t necessarily work like this. Studies indicate that trying hard to make a thought go away is likely to just make it stronger. If I asked you to try not to think of white bear, you’d probably think more about white bears. 

Defusion: An Alternative To Positive Thinking

ACT offers a different approach to thoughts. ACT encourages you to simply observe the process of thinking as it unfolds. Rather than engaging with the content your mind generates  – the words, stories, and images – you learn to notice the act of thinking itself without getting entangled in the content. This is called defusion.

Defusion means allowing the products of your mind to be just that, the products of your mind. There’s no pushing thoughts away or trying to change them, and there’s no excessive focus on whether thoughts are true or not. It’s a counterintuitive way of approaching your mind. But from this perspective, where you just observe, you can get out of the war with your thoughts and open up the possibility of new ways of acting. 

For example, you might notice, like me, that when a thought like “People will judge me if I speak up” occupies your mind, you tend to go quiet. You don’t speak up, and you don’t share your whole self. You might then decide that getting quiet like this is not useful for building relationships with people. You could then choose to do something else when the thought shows up, like step back, observe it, and choose different actions, like getting curious and asking questions.

ACT offers a plethora of techniques for facilitating defusion. Some simple strategies include: 

  • observing your thoughts like leaves on a passing stream
  • prefacing your thoughts with the statement “My mind is saying…” 
  • making an object of a thought by writing it on a 3 x 5 card 

You can also get silly by saying your thoughts in funny voices, repeating them extra slowly, or singing them to the tune of your favorite song. 

There are a ton of other techniques to be found in ACT books, and you can make your own as well. Anything that helps you effectively get distance from your thinking is defusion. The point is to undermine the power of thoughts from unnecessarily dictating your behavior and cultivate the freedom to choose new ways of interacting with the world, ways that are more flexible and attuned to what you deeply care about.

See also: Defusion: How to Overcome the Five Common Pitfalls

A Small Defusion Practice

It helps to get some practice. The next time a troubling thought arises in your mind, take these four steps:

1. Identify the thought and distill it into simple statements, such as “This is too stressful,” “I’m a failure,” “I can’t stand this,” or “Life is too hard.”

2. Notice that the thought is just a thought – a pattern of thinking that you’ve probably engaged in, in one way or another, for a long time. Don’t fight it. And don’t try to push it away.

3. Ask yourself, “Is this thought useful for me? If I follow where it leads, will I move toward building the kind of life I want to have?” Don’t worry about if the thought is true or not. 

4. Choose a direction you want to move in. Is it engaging more deeply with someone you love? Diving into a project you’ve been ignoring? Getting off the couch and getting more active? Or settling down to allow yourself to rest for a change? Whatever it is, bring your mind with you as you move forward, but don’t let it be in charge. 

Remember, you’re the boss, not your mind.

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