The foremost psychological challenge I’ve faced in my life is negative thinking. There have been periods where, for months on end, I’ve woken up and my first thought was, “Remember that time you said, <insert huge regret>”
Relatable? Yeah, it’s a twisted state. My mind becomes my own spontaneous lowlight reel.
Part of this is because of my strict military upbringing. My parents were also very hard on themselves. It’s difficult not to absorb such traits. But I’m not alone.
I’ve managed to purge most of my own demons, but it wasn’t through purely positive thinking. Here’s how positivity can turn problematic…
You can be negative because of toxic positivity
My girlfriend has a friend, who we’ll call Amy for now, mainly because I don’t need another one of those phone calls: “Can we talk about that post you wrote earlier?”
My girlfriend constantly complains about Amy. Her inability to keep a job. Her killer’s row of ex-boyfriends. Her inability to manage her own health and weight. Her terrible parenting. Eventually, one night when she was on one of her rants, I said, “Laura, how long has she been like this?” And Laura conceded that we shouldn’t talk about it anymore. You can’t save everyone.
You may have friends like this, who are mostly helpless.
Amy got herself in this situation because of positivity. She always spins every mistake with a positive cliché, “Oh well it could be worse.” Or, “Well, better luck with the next boyfriend!” When it was never an issue of luck. By failing to take accountability at any stage of the process, her veneer of positivity has turned her into a very negative person. She poisoned her own psychological well. The only time she’s positive is when she’s explaining away her mistakes.
So many people would make remarkable strides by simply confessing, “I screwed up. I need to do better next time.”
The truth doesn’t mean putting ourselves down either
A therapist taught me a fantastic tool to use when wrestling with the past (harsh self-talk and bitter feelings).
It’s an exercise in rationalism that simply requires us to ask, “What if?”
For example, I’d gone through a divorce and there’d been a lot of messy stuff that led to the courtroom. I’d actually fought very hard to prevent us from getting divorced.
Per my therapist, I asked myself simple questions: What if we hadn’t broken up? What if we’d stayed together for years? What if we’d gone through with having children?
It was a tough exercise. But by responding to those questions with simple, honest, top-of-mind answers, I came to a huge realization: I wasn’t even that happy in the first place. The relationship had been stagnating for years. We didn’t sleep in the same rooms. We didn’t enjoy spending time together. How was this ever going to end well?
In fact, I couldn’t fathom a single scenario where a good marriage had ended in a divorce. So why was I still hung up on it?
The fact remains that we won’t always get happy endings. But were we meant to have happy endings in the first place? Maybe these twists of pain are fate’s way of pushing us out the door into pastures where we actually belong.
If you take a moment to examine a job that didn’t work out, a relationship that tanked, the friendship that ended, you’ll often find that things weren’t going to get better anyways. There was a lack of alignment somewhere in that equation.
You are usually more fortunate than you realize.
Toxic positivity limits your perspective
It isn’t my goal to have you coming away from this article a negative person. Quite the opposite. Consider this:
As humans, we tend to see good or bad, pretty or ugly, smart or stupid, cool or boring. Positive thinking tries to see the left side of the above statements in all that we do, no matter what. But because the left cannot exist without the right, you can make yourself see everything in black or white. Outside of the fact that most things exist on an endless spectrum of colors, this binary approach presents several problems.
First, name tagging every moment can cause an internal shouting match:
“Why did this go bad?”
“Why didn’t I do this right to fix it!?”
If we train our minds to judge more, how can we ever be easier on ourselves?
One great strategy is to simply accept that you don’t know that a bad outcome is necessarily bad or good. Most moments are subjective and uncertain. Labels are easy to apply but difficult to prove. By accepting that most things aren’t fully one thing or the other, you free yourself from the natural urge for certainty. We aren’t entitled to know every causality.
Try agreeing internally with yourself that you will never have full resolution. Draw a ceasefire to the shouting match. Let the past be and the future play out as it was meant to.
It takes true strength to find comfort in the grey.
Toxic positivity blurs reality
When I watch horse races, or, even races in general—track or swimming—I often take note of the posture of the people behind the blocks. Those who are nervous tend to perform quite well (of which the exception is Usain Bolt, who is too cool for school).
Those jitters are excellent when deployed correctly. You should be leveraging your anxiety to get things done. Be afraid. Visualize consequences, pitfalls, and shortcomings. The terror of mediocrity is fantastic for productivity.
Excess optimism can lead people to think that their daily interactions—dates, interviews, sales pitches— went better than they actually did. There’s no forensic learning. They tumble along to their next blunder under the guise of, “I’ve got this in the bag.”
Complacency is the death of exceptionalism.
Accept that life is hard
Friends will betray you. Loved ones will leave too soon. Justice will go uncarried. You won’t always get closure on failed relationships. You’ll be humiliated and disrespected. If you can accept these brutal truths as inevitabilities, you’ll overcome and thrive.
Start from a basepoint of tragedy, and take gratitude from all that comes above it.
I spent years living in the Philippines in the 1980s as a young child. When we left the military base, I saw what a true third world country looked like. There were children without clothes, people going hungry, people with festering diseases. I visited a kid off base who shared a single bedroom house with multiple siblings. For them, getting a hard labor job in rice fields was a best-case scenario.
And yet they were no less happy than you or me. There was no cursing their fate.
Life is to be cherished.
But not to be glossed over with faulty expectations or wishy-washy positive thoughts. Simple acceptance and gratitude will triumph over excess positivity.
We’ll all get our share of bad and good—that’s just part of being human.
So remember to slow down. Live from a place of gratitude. Love well. At the end of this mad parade, I suspect I won’t care about money and accolades nearly as much as the people around me, and how my time was spent.