It is hard to believe that just a few decades ago, the ideas of positive psychology were flashy, new and different. Now, you don’t even really hear about the movement anymore because ‘positive psychology’ is, essentially, so integrated into the mainstream that you read about it in magazines everywhere. It is cheerfully promoting wellbeing with catchy phrases like, “Beat the Blah’s!” and “Change your thinking – change your mood!”
I don’t want to slam positive psychology – there is a lot about it that is very helpful. But in my practice as a psychotherapist, I have actually found many of its ideas to be unsupportive of long-term growth and change, and sometimes, even sabotaging. Many people suffering from severe depression and anxiety disorders are the same ones desperately trying to use some of these principles. At a glance, it seems like the idea of changing your negative thoughts to positive ones is a wonderful thing. And it would be – if it actually worked! But it seems like culturally we have swallowed this idea on a superficial level and have not given it proper scientific validation – meaning we have not really tested in the place that it counts – in ourselves.
Unfortunately, this means that every day I talk to people who, instead of feeling better, come in feeling ashamed that they can’t “just get rid of their negative thoughts” and they feel like failures because they continue to be sad or angry. Most of the time they have done CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) with a novice therapist who has simply given them worksheets and passed on generalized, positive pop-psychology tips. It is great that pop culture encourages us to have a cheerful outlook and to enjoy life, but far too often it does so at a very great cost – it makes moods an illness, and anything other than happiness a problem. It cuts us off from the reality of our very complicated inner selves, and so it is not sincere, and not real. It can be quite insane.
Even well intentioned therapists tend to misinterpret and misuse ideas from cognitive therapy and positive psychology. I know this for a fact because I have regularly had clients come to me after having had experiences with previous therapists and they tell me their frustrations. The biggest problem that I want to address in this article is something that I call “whitewashing”. It comes out of the frustration that I hear from so many people that they are doing everything they can, everything they have learned about mental affirmations and positive thinking but they continue to be plagued by unwanted, negative thoughts.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say a person has this idea, “I hate my body”. Maybe this idea has been with them a long time. They struggle with it and maybe recently they are finally recognizing that it is an unhelpful idea. So what does popular opinion say? Well, just get rid of that idea. So every time she notices the idea (well, every time she notices and has the time to bother, which is nowhere near every time the thought occurs), she tells herself, “No, I don’t hate my body. That’s not a good thought. I love my body. I love my body.” And she may repeat this a few times. In fact, she (or he) may make that a mantra, may sit cross-legged, burn some sage and slowly insist within themselves that they love their body. They might do this in many ways, for a long time. I have met people who have been trying to convince themselves of particular ‘good’ ideas for years.
But then, one day they see themselves in the mirror and boom! There it is again – “I hate my body!”
We all have persistent unhelpful ideas such as this – though it may be about yourself, the world, or another person. If you have experienced something like this, it is not because you are ‘not good enough’ at your affirmations. It is because it is simply not possible to change deeply held, old and underlying ideas by simply painting over them with preferred ones. The way I see it, it is like you have an idea that is a rotten piece of wood, and you just keep painting it white again and again. But it never changes the rotten wood. That is why I call this “whitewashing”. You can paint that fence a million times but it will never keep the pests out.
So what do we do about this? Give up? Well, in a sense, yes – let’s give up trying to do the impossible (get rid of that rotten thought) and instead take a new approach. Let’s try to understand the idea. Let’s take that rotten wood and sand it down, inspect it with a microscope, and see what it is really made of. We do this with simple, intelligent, honest investigation. We look directly at the idea instead of pretending it isn’t there. As Byron Katie points out,
“I don’t let go of my thoughts—I meet them with understanding. Then they let go of me.”
I use the questions of The Work, Defusion methods from ACT – and even EMDR tools as a way to approach persistent, negative ideas. I do this within myself, and I help others as well. I experience and see that at the core, there is something of use – some tiny bit – even if it is a single molecule, that is not rotten, and is totally useful. That wood was built out of love and caring – even if it was misguided and way past its due. And if my friends or clients are honest and courageous enough, they always find something useful in their inquiry. A single useful toothpick is better than a whole load of infested logs that you’ve been carrying around. And if you don’t need a toothpick, maybe even that is too much.
If you need to affirm something to yourself, you don’t really believe it.
And if you can understand something differently, then you don’t need to do affirmations anymore – the idea itself has shifted. I often say it is like a person 1000 years ago, who is trying to convince someone that the world is not flat. You can tell them a hundred ways, show them complicated math that they won’t comprehend, threaten them and yell it at them, force them to tell you they believe, but it doesn’t change their inner world. But, if you somehow took them on a flight up out of the atmosphere and actually observed the spherical nature of the planet, you would no longer need to try to convince them. They would just know.
And that is a metaphor for the greater problems of the world – we need to decipher between mere beliefs and fact. We need to do this collectively, which may seem obvious. But the way to do that is to start with ourselves.
I have worked with people with thoughts like, “I hate my body” or, “It was my fault”. And when we dig into it, we see that it is much more than originally thought. It is full of ambivalence, frustration and confusion. And the person can always find ways that they love their body – like the way it allows them to experience the taste of ice cream and the pleasure of sex, or the way that they have used it’s shape as a protection against other harm. When we look at the ideas that limit us – with intelligence, non-resistance and patience – we start to see what the rotten wood is really made of, and it doesn’t need to be painted another way.
Our negative thoughts don’t need to be scary, and they don’t need to be pushed away. It is only our fierce resistance of them that gives them power. No thought has power unless we believe it, and the truth, it turns out, is far more generous than we originally thought.
If you want to find out more about how exactly we can do this effective and powerful work of sanding away at your unhelpful thinking – feel free to comment here or get in touch via email.