December 11, 2014

F@#! Positive Thinking!


I’m a very optimistic person and I don’t swear a lot, but you know what makes me swear? When people dismiss the feelings and experiences of others.

Now let me back up a little. I do feel there is a lot of value in the positive psychology movement. I believe that what we focus on we tend to attract more of and gratitude goes a long way. I also believe that how we react to things has a greater impact on our happiness than the circumstances themselves.

That said, I also believe that bad things happen to good people and those people have the right to feel their own feelings about it.

The danger to me with focusing only on positive thinking is that it can send the message that if we just stay positive enough, good things will happen. This then leads to the risk of implying that if bad things happen, the person wasn’t thinking positively enough, or they needed this event to learn something.

Not to say that we can’t learn from all of our life experiences, but there are certainly some things that happen that no one deserves. When a person experiences the natural grief, anger or depression that accompanies such an event, they need to go through those feelings in order to move on.

I hear people say things like, “She’s so strong, she handled that so well,” and I wonder what exactly they mean by that. So often they mean that she hardly showed any emotion at all. Now everyone has their own way of processing grief, and some are very private about it. If that is your approach and it works for you, there is nothing wrong with that.

Others, like myself, have to process it out loud to as many close people as possible. That is OK too. The problem comes when you don’t process it at all and just push it aside in favor of more “positive thinking.” It may work for a while, but it is bound to come back.

My other concern is the idea that if we just focus on positive things, positive things will happen. This takes action out of the equation. Positive change requires both thought and action.

So if you are stuck in a negativity loop, what are some things you can do? One process I’ve taught for dealing with difficult feelings is the STAR process, which stands for Stop, Think, Act, Review.

Stop—First of all, give yourself a break! Accept the feelings and allow them to stick around a while. If you are grumpy, let yourself be grumpy for a while as long as you aren’t hurting anyone (including yourself). Take time for yourself to work things through.

Think—Once you’ve accepted your feelings, you can see and work through them more clearly. I find Nonviolent Communication (NVC) to be a great tool to use for this because it helps get to the root of negative feelings. There are four parts to NVC:

Observations—Take an objective look at the situation. Make sure that what you are observing is the existing reality without judgement.
Feelings—How are you feeling about it? Do not confuse your feelings (i.e., emotions or sensations) with your thoughts (which might involve judging or placing blame).
Needs—There is a reason you’re feeling the way you are feeling. What needs of yours haven’t been met? Without going back and changing the past, what can be done now or in the future to better meet those needs? Needs should not be confused with strategies, which are the possible ways to meet your needs.
Requests—Requests can be made of other people, or you can make requests of yourself. If you don’t take the time to understand your needs and express them, no one can help you.

Act—Take Action! Without action, nothing will change. Find something small and manageable to start.

Review—Once you’ve made a choice, go back and see how it worked. You can always go back and try a new strategy.

If you are concerned for a friend, the same steps can apply. Express empathy but don’t tell them how they should think or feel, or offer unsolicited advice. Accept them where they are at and offer your support in whatever form they request.

By all means, focus on the positive, just give yourself and others room to feel all the feelings.

The next time you are feeling blue, instead of pushing those feelings aside in favor of “positive thinking,” try using the STAR steps: Stop, Think, Act, Review, and see if it helps you to use your feelings as guides to better meet your own needs.



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Author: Aurora Baxter

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Guy Holtzman

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