A Negative Take on Positive Thinking

I’ve been reading a fantastic book about depression called Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton. It is a memoir / biography of someone depression and subsequent recovery, including some good psychological insights and coping strategies.

Shoot the Damn Dog

One of my favourite parts of the book so far, I am currently halfway through, is a superb analogy on positive thinking. Sally gives the analogy of a car, whose accelerator pedal has stuck on full power and whose brakes have failed, speeding towards a brick wall.

She gives three scenarios:

1. Apathy or Delusional Thinking

You do nothing, and the car crashes in to the wall. Not good.

2. Positive Thinking

You imagine a door opening up in the wall, and you visualise passing straight through the wall. The car crashes in to the wall… obviously.

3. Realistic Thinking (Acceptance)

You accept the problem is happening. You make a plan, and decide to steer the car around the wall. You don’t crash the car in to the wall.

Can it get any worse?

I believe that positive thinking is worse than this though. Positive thinking is a form of delusional thinking, but it also suppresses your so called negative emotions.

Imagine the emotions you are having when you are driving at high speed towards the wall? Maybe emotions like:

  • fear
  • dread

If you ignore these emotions, then they will get suppressed. This will mean that:

  1. The useful information you are getting from your emotions (that something is wrong) is ignored, so the problem remains. The problem may even get worse with no action
  2. You suppress your emotions, and you blow a fuse later at someone else because you haven’t intelligently focused these emotions

Imagine instead that you use these emotions as a form of communication from you mind. Instead we get:

  1. You notice your fear, you feel a huge amount of energy surface. You feel hyper-focused, and you can’t think of anything else about the wall and your possible demise. Instead of ignoring the situation, you act! You utilise the energy and information from these emotions, and you live to tell the tale
  2. Because you didn’t suppress the emotions, you realise you are really stressed after the event and you decide you need to talk with a friend or run it off and have an early night
  3. You wake up with a little bit of relief a small amount of anxiety the next day, but you feel much better

All Emotions Are Positive

I believe that all emotions are (almost always) useful if listened to at the time. I give the analogy of stepping on a thorn. You feel physical pain, which alerts you to the thorn. You then remove the thorn and deal with it medically if required. If you couldn’t feel physical pain, like some diabetics, then you would stand on the thorn, not know it was there, and it would become very infected and you wouldn’t know. This could lead to blood poisoning or worse. I believe that emotions are the same. Fear or anxiety tells us something is wrong, and that there is something that possibly needs changing, or maybe we need to accept something that we are ignoring.

For example if you are scared of losing your job because redundancies are happening, then embrace the fear. Focus the energy you get from the fear to come up with a Plan B in case you lose your job. For example you might:

  • Speak to your boss or manager about the redundancies and try and get a straight answer
  • Write your CV and start going for interviews
  • Brush up on your skills in order to improve your chances of keeping your current job or getting a new job
  • Emotionally prepare yourself for the change

If you lose your job, it will still probably hurt in some way, but definitely not as much without any preparation or Plan B.

It is normal to want to hide from any type of pain, including painful emotions. I wonder instead what will happen if we start listening to all our emotions, and using them as sources of information about our environment or current state. Maybe these emotions will give us clues to what needs to change in our life?

So next time you feel in emotional pain, consider whether this is telling you something.

Copyright MEN HEAL 2014

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