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Optimism is Dead, Long Live Optimism!

“Positive thinking,” “affirmations,” and “optimism” have developed bad names for themselves. As we commonly understand them, these approaches aren’t very useful and can be downright dangerous. I suggest a change that will let us get more of what we want in life and business.

Before you get too alarmed, I am not, of course, crossing the aisle. I am not becoming a card-carrying member of the Pessimists United club.

Instead, I advocate for refreshing our understanding of all things positive so we can all benefit.

The Problem

Why do we choose to use optimism, positive thinking, and affirmations? There are several reasons. First, we think that optimism will get us more of what we want than pessimism. Second, it feels better (at least at first) to think positively about something than it does to wallow in negativity.  Third, we value optimism. We want to encourage others to be optimistic; we want to be seen by others as optimistic.

And there’s nothing wrong with any of that.

The problem comes in the application. Too often we try to use optimism, positive thinking, or affirmations as a salve to soothe negative, painful situations. Without intending too, we cover or “paper over” the negativity. We seal it in, so to speak. And under the protective seal of a positive thought, the negativity keeps it’s prime position in our psyches. There it influences our mood and outcomes; it pushes us away from what we really want. (See the table below for some examples.)

The Non-Solution

Pessimists have know this for a long time. They accuse us of looking at the world through rose-colored glasses. They tell us to “face reality!” And to the extent we are pasting over our negative thinking with positive thinking, they are right.

When we paste over the negative with the positive, it can be disheartening when the positive things we want don’t happen. Pasting over can be dangerous, too. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, asked Vietnam POW and torture survivor Jim Stockdale which people didn’t survive the camps. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists. … [T]hey died of a broken heart.”

The answer, of course, is not to be pessimistic. Nor is it to be “realistic” when “realistic” is just another word for pessimistic.

The Solution

The way to fix this problem is simple: first uproot the negative thinking or beliefs then adopt the positive ones.

Easier said than done, right? Negative thinking can be hard to uproot for two related reasons.

  1. Addressing negativity feels bad and we avoid it. We’d much rather not think about it or deal with it. Even if you’re pessimistic, you use negative thoughts to avoid even worse feeling thoughts.
  2. Because it feels bad, we build up habits of avoiding or ignoring negativity. Many of our negative thinking habits have been with us for a long time. As with any habit, we first build them because we think they’ll be helpful to us. Habits are hard to change.

Despite how difficult is seems (am I being too optimistic here? 🙂 ), we can use the bright light of our attention to fix this.

Here are the steps:

  1. Address the negativity. When you are in any situation you want to change, pause for enough time to address the negative thought or feeling you have about the situation.  (See examples below.) Feel it in your body. There may be tightness or a weight. And it may trigger a desire to fight or flee. It feels bad, doesn’t it? And feeling it didn’t kill you either, did it? (I sometimes find it helpful to thank the negative thought for helping me clarify what I want and don’t want.)
  2. Name the negativity. What is this thought? Putting a name on it increases our access to and control over it. Don’t believe me? Ask a taxonomist.
  3. Find a slightly better thought. Generate a thought that is even a tiny bit more positive than your negative thought about the situation. You’ll know you’ve found one because it will feel better. This works better than a typical positive affirmation; it will be a thought that is particular to you and your situation, that you believe, and that won’t be too big a leap from the negative thought. Tip: if you can’t find such a thought, try “I’m sure others have been in a similar situation and worked it out.”
  4. Hold both thoughts for moment. Use the phrase “Even though” to start uprooting the negative thought. Say, “Even though I have believed <<insert negative thought here>>, I know <<insert positive thought here>>.”
  5. Repeat. If you want, continue to uproot the negative thought by finding more and more slightly more positive thoughts until you reach a big, positive, optimistic thought that feels good and will support you getting what you want.

Examples

Here are some examples. Though they may or may not match your situations, they’re useful to see how this fix works.

Situation Possible “Pasted-Over” Positive Thoughts Possible Underlying Negative Thoughts Possible Initial “Even though” Positive Thoughts
The state of the economy threatens my company’s revenue and and my job It’ll be okay. The most successful people thrive regardless of the economy. I can’t afford to lose my job. Even though I fear losing my job, I know I can handle it if it comes.
My boss (or peer) gets rewarded for bad behavior (e.g. politics). I’ll just take the higher ground. Karmic justice will prevail. You have to be nasty to get ahead. Even though I now think you need to be nasty to get ahead, I know plenty of people who are nice and succeeding.
Too much to do; deadlines galore; boss keeps asking for more. It’ll get done. We have plenty of time. We may have to work a little longer some days. If I don’t do everything my boss tells me to do, I’ll get criticized, called out, demoted, passed over for promotion, or fired. Even though I fear what would happen if I don’t get it all done, I know that getting it all done is actually impossible. And it’s not necessarily desirable.
I want more money. Money will come if I stick to what I love and am good at. The Universe is abundant. There’s something wrong with me; I don’t deserve to have money. I can only work hard. Money only comes with struggle. Even though I think I’m not worthy enough and money can only come after much struggle, I know these are just thoughts and that in time I can shift these thoughts to something that supports me better.

 

What about you? Have you noticed positive thinking backfiring on you? Post a comment to contribute your example to the list above.

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