From the perennial bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking (first published in 1952) to Oprah’s popular advice, positivity is heralded as the answer to many of life’s most perplexing questions and has been for the past few decades. We need look no further than self-help gurus like Tony Robbins.
Touting books with titles like, “Personal Power!”, “Power Talk!”, and “Awaken The Giant Within” it is easy to see how seductive it can be to imagine all I need is myself to create positive motion in my life. As one modern-day prophet said, after accurately reading the living situation of a waitress and speaking into her life, to the amazement of his lunch companion, “Yeah, it’s great when it works.”
The fact is, there is some truth to this approach. We are what we repeatedly do, eat, think, say. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy works because we can rewire our brains by persistently changing the internal and external narrative.
Most of us, however, lack that level of persistence over the months and sometimes years it takes to achieve actual change, and even if we are successful we have to be careful of arriving at our destination with a changed mind but no meaningful relationships.
You may have heard references to “positivity culture,” but it’s also known as toxic positivity or forced positivity. Psychology professor Barbara Held, speaking to Newsweek, calls it “the tyranny of the positive attitude,” or TPA. Trendy approaches to self-help include practicing the “law of attraction” and manifesting positive energy through affirmations.
What do these strategies lack? Is it possible (or desirable) to always achieve positivity? Some time ago, there was a Christian show for kids that used skits to convey simple concepts. In one of the sillier offerings, the characters were all dressed up in cowboy costumes. The good guy stood at the bar and ordered a drink, then the bad guy – in a black hat of course – walks up to him.
They exchanged a few words, then the bad guy broke a bottle over the good guy’s head. The good guy said, “That hurt!” then after a pause, “But, by faith, it didn’t!” This is what we do when we try to ignore or minimize the impact of negative things that happen in our lives. We get to be sad and angry, we just don’t have to live there.
It’s not healthy to be negative all the time, or even the majority of the time. Negative thinking can have detrimental effects on your physical and mental health, decreasing your ability to manage stress and even lowering your immunity. Developing an optimistic perspective can help you be physically and emotionally healthier.
But, when does positivity go too far? Is it possible to be 100% positive when you’re taking chemotherapy treatments to try to save your life? Or when you lose a loved one in a car accident? Or when you’re a refugee in a war-torn nation, struggling to keep your children fed and warm? Is positivity really the answer to those problems? Will positive affirmations help you thrive in every situation?
Let’s discuss the role of positive thinking in mental health, how to overcome negative thoughts, and how to find a balance between negative thoughts and toxic positivity.
Negative vs. Positive Thinking
If you tend to ruminate – that is, to continually rehash a problem in your mind – you know that it’s rarely helpful. Those automatic thoughts can become a negative fixation, preventing you from moving on or solving a problem. Moreover, a habit of ruminating can lead to anxiety, learned helplessness, and other mental health problems.
Types of Negative Self-Talk
Negative self-talk reinforces negative thinking. Here are a few varieties of negative self-talk (Mayo Clinic):
- Filtering: When you focus on the bad aspects of a given situation, not recognizing the good. You get to chose what plays in the theater of your mind. There’s a saying, “you can’t keep bats out of your bell tower, but you can prevent them from building nests.”
If our idling brain naturally drifts toward negative thought patterns, it will take actual awareness and effort to begin to reverse that pattern. These ways of thinking usually form over decades, and often are rooted in early trauma, so you may not achieve much progress until you begin to process your traumatic narratives with a therapist.
- Polarizing: Viewing a situation with a black-and-white perspective, without identifying the nuances. It’s rarely all bad or all good, but negative self-talk will lead you to immediately label something as bad, without being open to a multifaceted experience. See the description of “splitting” under Catastrophizing, below.
- Catastrophizing: When you constantly expect the worst rather than being open to good experiences. It’s expecting everything to go wrong. Watch for “splitting” words like “always” and “never” as those are a good indicator you are in a regressed state, which means capable adult decisions are impossible.
Splitting is something children do – you took my toy so you are the worst person in the world. If you notice “always” and “never” creeping in, take a moment to breathe and “grow yourself back up” by finding a bright spot and reminding yourself you can get through this as a capable adult.
- Personalizing: Making a situation about yourself, when it may not relate to you at all. For example, you might assume two people whispering together are gossiping about you when in reality they’re discussing plans for the office’s Secret Santa exchange. It is natural to want to protect ourselves, but we need to be able to return to reality when these kinds of protective reactions try to drag us off-center.
Other kinds of automatic negative thought patterns include self-hatred and self-doubt, or any kind of self-destructive attitude. Once you begin thinking this way regularly, it can be difficult to break the habit, yet this kind of thinking can harm your mental health.
How to Implement Positive Self-Talk
What about positive self-talk? Mayo Clinic has some suggestions for how to implement it in your daily life.
The first suggestion is to name the areas you want to change. Are there specific times or topics when your negative self-talk tends to crop up? Figure out what your triggers are and what areas you’re struggling in.
Next, check-in with yourself. Throughout the day, work on noticing when you begin to think in these negative ways. At first, you might be shocked by how often your mind goes there. Observe without judging yourself.
Then, cultivate a sense of humor. This may be an unexpected recommendation, but learning to laugh at yourself and your circumstances can help you develop a new mentality.
Next, Mayo recommends that you commit to a healthy lifestyle. Try to exercise around half an hour a day. Eat well. And work on finding ways to manage your stress. Seek Christian counseling for anxiety or stress if you need help.
Finally, when these factors are in place, you can work more specifically on how to develop positive self-talk. This will require being gentle with yourself and encouraging yourself the way you would a friend. Practicing gratitude for your life can help as well.
Although we are going to address toxic positivity in a moment, it’s important to pause here and mention the myriad of health benefits that can come from having a positive outlook on life, including a longer life span, a strengthened immune system, better mental health, better physical health, and greater resilience. If you are prone to negative thinking, it might be helpful to identify some of those thought patterns and work on gently correcting them.
Now, let’s discuss how it’s possible to take “positivity culture” too far.
Toxic Positivity and What to Do Instead
So, having a more optimistic outlook on life is generally a good thing. It protects you from self-sabotage, expecting the worst, and being unkind to yourself. But sometimes, you can feel a pressure to be positive when you’re not ready. In our world of positive affirmations, is there space for pain, tragedy, and trauma, the real struggles of life?
The problem with taking positivity too far is that it doesn’t leave room for the whole spectrum of human emotions. You’ll end up repressing any negative feelings, and this can make them more intense in the long run.
Positive vs. negative is a very black-and-white approach to life. Very few situations are all good or all bad. Focusing solely on optimism doesn’t allow you to learn from the hard times, to accept the full gamut of emotions you experience, and to follow their lead toward growth.
It’s important to validate your feelings instead of pushing them down. Encourage yourself to take steps forward, without denying the hardship you’re experiencing.
So, if more positivity isn’t the answer, how can you develop a healthier mindset no matter what comes your way? Developing a set of positive self-affirmations is not a bad place to start. You can do it right now. All it takes is speaking something as though it were true about you.
One of my favorites is, “I am an amazing, unique reflection of the image of God on the Earth.” No matter what I say or do or think, I believe this is true. I may lose sight of it if I am regressed, but that does not make it any less true.
An alcoholic passed out in a ditch is an amazing, unique reflection of the image of God on the Earth. Broken, yes. Wounded, yes. Damaged, as we all are, and yet miraculously intruding on the vacuum of space in three (or more!) magnificent dimensions by the miracle of existence.
If you can find a self-affirmation that speaks to your astonishing value and you calmly repeat it, if necessary despite any negative thoughts in your head or events in your life, you may actually begin to believe it, and genuine belief in your value can change your life.
The concept of self-compassion is assumed in the Christian worldview when we read that we are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Self-love is not a command of Scripture for the simple reason that it recognizes that we already do care for ourselves and consider our personal needs.
Failing to care for ourselves makes it impossible to care well (in an emotionally healthy way) for others. As a pastor once said, “If we don’t love ourselves, our neighbors are in trouble.”
Proper self-compassion in the Biblical worldview means acknowledging the compassion that God has for us. He is a compassionate Father who loves us and acts for our good. When we remember that, we can accept that we are not perfect and know that he loves us even in our failures. We can recognize the kindness he extends to us, and choose to accept and live in that kindness.
This is truly holistic positivity – not ignoring our flaws and failures, not disregarding suffering, but acknowledging our worth in Christ, developing compassion for ourselves and empathy for others, and encouraging ourselves to do better next time. Living in the joy and freedom God has for you doesn’t mean life will be easy, but when you live knowing that God loves you, you can battle against negative self-talk knowing that it is all lies.
If you struggle with rumination, self-destructive thinking, or a pessimistic outlook on life, Christian counseling can help you identify the areas where you are struggling, and grow in healthier habits.
So whether you’re struggling with one of the traumatic or life-altering issues we discussed in the intro, or you’re simply wanting to manage stress better in your day-to-day life, don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
You can achieve a balance by engaging with the pain in your life and at the same time holding onto hope. Holding the good and bad in tension is one of the ways we avoid splitting and retain (or regain) our capable adult position, which enables us to make capable adult decisions that will move us toward growth and health.
“Good Vibes Only”, Courtesy of Allie Smith, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Think Positive”, Courtesy of Viktor Forgacs, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Positive Thinking”, Courtesy of Cata, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Positive Attitude”, Courtesy of Evan Dvorkin, Unsplash.com, CC0 License