The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

The advice “Focus on the positive and you will be happy” does not do it for me. It might be well-intentioned advice, but it comes with an obvious shadow side which says, “You are unhappy because you want to be unhappy.”

For years, I felt blamed for expressing unhappiness for conditions that were, objectively, conditions no one would be happy about. My unhappiness was answered with statements about all that is going right for me. In the guise of being helpful, I was being told:

  1. If anything is going right, that is all you deserve. Other people have less.
  2. If anything is going right for you, that is more than you deserve.
  3. I don’t want to hear that you are unhappy about things that aren’t going to change.
  4. I don’t want to hear that you are unhappy about things that might change.
  5. Instead, I prefer to blame you for not taking my advice to think about the positive things. All you have to do is change your personality the way I am telling you. Then you will stop being unhappy.
  6. You deserve the way things are because you are not taking my advice. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

During the fifteen or so years that I was in pain every single day, the “be positive” crowd showered me with compliments about how well my job was going and how much I was able to do, despite the chronic pain. This is gaslighting.

If I wanted to be worthy, I had to make pain irrelevant. Chronic pain is relevant. It informed everything I did, for years. If I only focused on what I accomplished in the world, I would dishonor my extra efforts.

If my worth equals what I can accomplish, that says I am not valuable if I don’t force myself through pain. It devalues the time I spent in recharging, the time I spent in personal healthcare, and the times I just went to bed after dinner and got up in pain the next morning. It makes the times I could not be with friends irrelevant. It makes the hobbies and activities I gave up unimportant. I am admirable only because I kept a job and did it well. I was admirable because I bullied myself into public activities that were hard and painful.

When “focus on something else” can help

There is a difference between advice that blames someone for getting stuck on negative events and the practice of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). In simple terms, CBT is the practice of questioning the negative belief about the situation. It is not the practice of not paying attention to a negative situation. CBT is positive thinking that does not require that a person not face what is happening. It asks that people focus on what is happening, rather than anticipating that something even worse is going to come of it.

What CBT is not:

CBT is not one person telling another to pay attention to what is working in their lives and then diminish their attention to the situations that are not working.

“It is too bad that you are in pain all the time, but look at you!, you have your own business!”

What CBT is:

  1. It is an internal conversation–not advice from another person.
  2. It questions the fear that the current situation will end in something intolerable.

I wrote about problems I had waking up, fretful, in the middle of the night. Here are examples from the post:

Positive statements: Tell yourself something that is true and settling. Repeat it in the face of what is making you fretful.

To-do lists: “I have to pack my bags! What should I bring?” versus “I scheduled to pack between 8-10 tomorrow night.”  The trick to letting go of to-do lists is to remind yourself that you set time aside the next day to make the decisions. If you start packing in your head, you can spend hours deciding what shirt to wear, so don’t start packing in your head!

Anxiety about making a mistake can turn into many unpleasant beliefs. In this case, “I will ruin my trip by bringing the wrong things.” “I will fail at the conference because I don’t have the things I need.” “I am about to be embarrassed, shamed… because I am terrible at packing.”

Conflicts:  “I have to deal with that !%@#%@#! I should have said ____! If she says ____ I’ll say %&*(%&!” versus “This relationship will go on (or not). My goal is to establish that I will do X, but not Y, in the future.”

The positive thought is to commit to your goals. Repeat them to yourself, so that you are prepared to get your needs met. If you start having hypothetical conversations, you can spend hours creating an argument that probably has no similarity to the argument you will have, when you actually talk to the person.

The Growth in Positive Acting

Just a month ago, I posted about behavioral activation. It is a practice of making small behavioral changes in order to break out of feeling that one is languishing. During the pandemic, that sense of ennui was everywhere.  The process goes like this:

  • What activities gave you joy in the past? 
  • Do small steps. 
  • If the activity is wrong for you, move on. 
  • Habits form when people do an activity for about thirty days. 

Behavioral activation and pain management

My biggest success strategy for pain management was to make small changes, one at a time. That way, I could figure out whether something was working or not.

Second. I focused on one life area at a time. What I mean by this is that I paid attention to impediments to good sleep, seeking a balance between activity and injury, or improving my nutrition. One change in one area at a time.

It took a lot of patience to stick with small changes. Some showed instant results and were worth keeping. Some showed no positive results in the first month, but seemed worth keeping because they were intrinsically good for me (like drinking more water). Some added a lot of positive result, but only in combination with other activities. It was years of trial and error. But, it eventually paid off.




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