Cultivate optimism? The positive power of negative thinking
It is generally accepted that positive thinking will help people perform better. So what can you do when you have negative thoughts?
One approach is to try to counteract the negative thoughts with so-called positive affirmations. For instance, you feel “There’s no way I can do this” and you force yourself to repeat “I can do it. I can do it…”.
I have serious doubts about the value of this practice. It’s not that I object to repeating positive statements—if you actually believe in them. What I have a problem with is repeating something you don’t really believe in as a way to convince yourself that you do.
Let me put it this way: If you were trying to convince another person of something they don’t believe in, would you rely on just stating and restating your point? Wouldn’t it be more effective to create a dialogue with the other person?
Of course, sometimes, you can win an argument through sheer force of will, or intimidation. But it only works with people you can browbeat into submission. And it breeds resentment. Is this the kind of relationship you want to have with yourself?
The process I am going to outline is similar to how you’d handle communication with another person. You listen to what the other person is saying, you do your best to understand where this person is coming from, and you tailor your arguments to address this person’s concerns. Needless to say, you don’t just pay attention to the words themselves, you also pay attention to the emotional undertones of the discussion.
So, how do you apply this when you have negative thoughts?
Normally, you would tense up and tell yourself “Don’t go there. This is dangerous territory. Think positive!”. Instead, I’m inviting you to acknowledge the negative thought: “I believe I cannot do it”.
Does this mean I’m inviting you to give up? No. It’s a fact that you believe you can’t do it… But it is not a fact that you actually cannot do it. Think about it. Ask yourself: What is behind your belief? Is there concrete, foolproof evidence that you can’t do it? Or is this the voice of fear?
Chances are what you’re hearing is the voice of fear: “I want to do this, but I’m so afraid I’ll fail that I’m convinced I won’t be able do it”.
Let’s see what’s happening now that we’ve recast the negative thought as fear. Maybe you feel bad about being afraid? So let me reframe this. You would not be afraid if you were sticking to what feels safe to you. Being afraid is a sign that you’re daring to venture out of your comfort zone. You are taking a risk. It is normal to feel fear when taking a risk.
Notice how things are subtly changing. I’m inviting you to see the negative thought as a sign of fear, which is a symptom that you are taking a risk. Hopefully, this makes you feel more positive about yourself (a risk-taker) as well as more understanding of the fear that is behind the negative thought.
“But”, you say “this is ridiculous. I shouldn’t be afraid of something like this”. Whether or not you should be afraid, the fact is you are. You’re better off facing reality: You’ll be better able to deal with it.
Dealing with fear does not mean being cowed by it. You can acknowledge the fear, respect it… and still decide to go ahead! “I want to do this, I’m afraid, but I still decide to do it anyway”.
If you’re able to accomplish what you wanted despite the fear, it will be a great victory. You will have experienced how misleading your fear can be, and how it can distort your perceptions of what you can do.
But what if you go ahead despite the fear, and are not able to accomplish
what you wanted? In a sense, you will have failed. But you will also
have accomplished something positive. Having acknowledged your fear,
you consciously decided to confront it. This, in itself, is a victory—and
a good practice for future challenges.
I hope this article inspires you to see your negative thoughts in a different light—not as stumbling blocks, but as a springboard for consciously stretching your comfort zone.