Is 'positive thinking' always the answer?

By Gabs Brown



Are you worrying like crazy about something right now?

Are you feeling angry, frustrated or confused?

Perhaps you’re going through something really difficult and just feel all-round awful?


Problem solved?

Hmmmm, I’m thinking probably not…

If your Facebook and Instagram feeds are anything like mine, then you’ve probably seen a fair few of these ‘positive thinking’ quotes, which while I appreciate the sentiment behind them (to make you feel better), I wonder if they might not be very helpful at all - perhaps even harmful.

So long as we’re alive, we’re going to have preferences for how we want things to be. We’re not going to want our loved ones to die. We’re not going to want our marriage to break down. We’re not going to want to be made redundant. We’re not going to want it to rain for two weeks on that holiday we just spent £2k on. We’re not going to want to get cancer. We’re not going to want our children to be bullied. We’re not going to want to get overweight and unfit.

But sometimes these things will happen, and when they do, we’re probably going to experience a whole host of difficult, uncomfortable, painful, powerful emotions, and, crucially, these emotions are meant to be there.

Having a negative emotion doesn’t make you a negative person. It doesn’t make you weak, it doesn’t make you incapable, it doesn’t make your life any less good.

It makes you human.

Well, that’s not very positive.

Well, that’s not very positive.

Nobody is immune to suffering, and we each have our own particular problems. For example, it’s all too tempting to scoff at the rich and famous as they complain about their struggles, and perhaps even their depression (“But they have everything they could ever want!” we proclaim), but we can’t measure another person’s feelings of security, safety, and love. If someone tells you they feel alone, or sad, or scared, then that’s what they’re feeling, regardless of whether or not you think their circumstances justify their feelings.

Sometimes, the strangest things can bring a sense of relief and that magic feeling of life being on our side – of being ‘at one’ with the universe. The strangest things can take it away too.

Sometimes, we feel desperately low for seemingly no reason at all, and whereas the temptation might be to do as we’re so often told and, “man up,” “cheer up,” “dry our eyes,” or, “focus on the positive,” – i.e. turn away from our true feelings – the problem is, our ‘negativity’ is there because it wants our attention. It wants to tell us something (even if it’s not something we can capture into words).

Turning our attention away from something we don’t like - a fear, an unpleasant thought or memory - very rarely makes it go away. Often, having been ignored, it finds a new way to present itself to us (perhaps even as pain or stress in the body).

If we reject our feelings, then we’re rejecting ourselves. We’re declaring our feelings to somehow be defective, or wrong, and we’re not giving ourselves the opportunity to understand where we’re at or what we might need.

So many of us live our lives with the belief that we are a substandard version of who we are supposed to be. We might become ashamed of not only how we behave or what we look like, but also how we feel about ourselves and our lives. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to add layers of suffering to our suffering

If you are suffering, you are no less whole. You are still a viable, contributing component of life – not just your life, but all life.

The happening of your life is a happening amidst all life. Sometimes you will like what’s happening and sometimes you won’t. You might become worried, upset, or frustrated, but this doesn’t make you in any way defective or lacking, or in need of ‘improvement’. You can be negative at times, and you can lead a rich, fulfilling life too.

If you never allowed yourself to acknowledge any negative emotions, then you might become numb. You might start living your life through a lens, or as a retelling of a story for the benefit of…no one, ultimately.

However (and this is an ENORMOUS however), many of us ‘shun’ our dark sides out of fear - fear of being overwhelmed by our negative emotions, fear of not seeing beyond them, or fear of getting so caught up in them that we become them.

So, what’s the alternative to ‘ignoring’ unpleasant experiences and feelings, or popping a ‘positive veneer’ on them as a means to not be overwhelmed?

The best way to deal with worry, is to ‘kill’ it…? How about showing yourself and your feelings some compassion?

The best way to deal with worry, is to ‘kill’ it…? How about showing yourself and your feelings some compassion?

Meditation can help, in that as we sit and be, and as our thoughts quieten, we experience ourselves as something beyond our thoughts and feelings – we see that our feelings are not who we are. This makes us less likely to be knocked for six when something big and scary pops into our ‘waking’ life and less inclined to want to shut it down. But not all of us meditate, so how can we remind ourselves that we are more than our feelings - that we can have a really bad feeling while at the same time remain steady?

Sometimes, a simple acknowledgement and question can help us regain a sense of ‘being OK with things not being OK’. For example, “I am afraid, but will I be afraid forever?” Or introducing a time frame so that you can sense the impermanence of your experience, “I am so angry with her right now.” Or, you can imagine your emotion as a visitor, one who is not necessarily ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but someone who wishes to spend a little time with you - perhaps to share something with you. You can imagine yourself as that friend of yours who’s the ‘good listener’ – the one who doesn’t feel compelled to jump in and offer wisdom or advice. Just listen. If your visitor doesn’t appear to want to ‘talk’, you can try leaning into that feeling of you being the host and experiencing yourself as separate and possibly even impartial to your visiting emotion (or memory, or whatever it is).

There are all sorts of approaches to ‘allowing’ – or ‘welcoming’ (which I sometimes find a little too positive a term…) but all are processes that lead you to ‘being’ with your emotions and recognising that all your emotions are a valid and useful component of your experience.

Diversity is one of the most significant political, cultural and sociological issues today. Slowly but surely our society is finding ways to foster acceptance, allowance, recognition and inclusion for those people we previously rejected or boxed up into something more palatable – those who we didn’t understand, or were afraid of, or who somehow disturbed our beliefs about what it is to be human.

I think it’s time we did the same for our emotions.

I’m totally late to the party here, but having just watched the movie The Greatest Showman, there’s a scene where the newspaper critic who had notoriously slated Barnum’s circus of ‘freaks and misfits’ for being low-brow and fraudulent confesses that the performance might in fact be a ‘celebration of humanity’. By putting those people who had been considered the epitome of suffering and darkness onto the stage - by allowing them to be seen - the audience now sees how, rather than being something best ignored, they are vibrant beacons of vitality.

Perhaps your emotions, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, are a celebration of your humanity.

Give yourself permission to witness what you might think is your ugly, uncomfortable, negative side, and something beautiful might happen…

At the very least, you will have been yourself.

And that is a beautiful thing to be.