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When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Help

By Ria Elizabeth

It’s common for those who suffer emotionally to receive guidance to think positively. While this guidance is well-intended and might help in the short-term, some find themselves frustrated when they are still dealing with the same emotional state months or even years later. This makes them feel like they must not be thinking positively enough. Eventually, the recommendation to focus on positive thinking becomes another thing tried and failed. 

It’s said that emotions are created by our thoughts, and so if we think positively, we will feel better; however, this is an oversimplified and ineffective way of addressing emotional health. While it may seem ironic, feeling emotional states like joy, bliss and deep gratitude on a regular basis actually requires an inclusion and a willingness to feel negative emotions like grief, fear, anxiety and depression. Put simply in the words of my own personal life coach, “If we want to feel better, we have to be better feelers.”

Overall, Western culture has deemed painful and negative emotions as “bad” or “unwanted.” It’s been normalized for us to do anything to escape, numb, or avoid these emotions, and some of this normalized behavior may, at surface level, seem healthy, like positive thinking. The problem with this notion is that judging our negative emotions as “bad” keeps them stuck in our bodies, which eventually wreaks havoc and manifests as disease, illness and prolonged emotional suffering.

 Instead, we have the opportunity to develop “emotional courage,” as Susan David, a Harvard Medical School psychologist, identified in her 2017 TED Talk.1 She shares, “Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification. Like that delicious chocolate cake in the refrigerator; the more you try to ignore it…the greater its hold on you. You might think you’re in control of unwanted emotions when you ignore them, but in fact they control you. Internal pain always comes out. Always.”

There is nothing wrong with looking on the bright side of life, but when that mindset becomes dismissive or even suppressive of our real emotional experience, it will rob us from accessing true joy. The consequences of suppressing our negative emotions are innumerable. Brene Brown, author and research professor at the University of Houston, put it beautifully when she said, “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”2 Consequently, we must entertain the possibility that we are using positivity to suppress our emotions, and instead we get to choose emotional courage and inclusion.

This is an invitation to allow ourselves to feel our pain. Let’s be aware of the urges we have in order to temporarily escape uncomfortable emotions. Let’s not judge negative emotions as “bad.” Instead, let’s compassionately allow our negative emotions to run their natural course in our bodies, as it yields much greater results in the long term. Doing this allows for more space to become available for authentic (versus forced) positive emotions that feel like a surprising gift from the universe, and we gain greater access to our true, natural state of light and love.

Ria Elizabeth is an emotional health and life coach who specializes in working with women struggling with depression and anxiety. She can be reached at (760) 623.5585 or www.wildaircoaching.com.

References:
1) TedWomen2017, Susan David, “The gift and power of emotional courage”;
2) TedXHouston, Brene Brown, “The power of vulnerability”

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