I know, I know—positive thinking is a good thing.
I admire and have learned a lot from those who naturally have a positive outlook on life. For better or worse, I did not grow up in an environment that modeled any kind of positive thinking. In fact, quite the opposite.
I grew up with two immigrant parents whose own parents had survived the Holocaust. My parents trusted no one, always expected the worst, and because of their own trauma, they were perceiving a constant threat of annihilation. It was kind of like living in Catastrophic Thinking Central.
Needless to say, my proclivity toward the negative (and my neurotic quirks!) speaks for itself.
In my early 20s, I learned about the power of looking through more hopeful and happier lenses, and I’ve been dutifully working on my own positive thinking ever since. I find it powerful and helpful.
And this is a huge “But”…
Positive thinking is often misused and unwittingly abused by coaches, healers, and other practitioners. And when this happens, positivity hurts clients, stalls clients from true growth and self-acceptance, and creates obstacles to reaching their desired goals.
You might be misusing positivity without even realizing it.
In today’s coaching and transformational industry, positive thinking, obsessively repeating affirmative, and upbeat mantras, “love and light”—ing when someone is in a bad place or we’ve inadvertently hurt someone else, and relying on our being “spiritual” to make all things okay are often being used dangerously and recklessly.
When used incorrectly, positivity turns into what some call “spiritual bypassing.” And here’s what can happen when you spiritual bypass as a practitioner:
>> Clients end up feeling unseen and unheard.
>> Or worse—clients feel temporarily uplifted, but in the long run, self-sabotaging.
>> Or even worse (in my opinion)—clients actually go deeper into loathing themselves and their imperfections.
Now, I know you have the best of intentions for your clients, but intention is different than impact.
As a coach, healer, or practitioner, here’s what you need to know about shifting some of your not-so-aligned positive thinking habits:
1. It is your responsibility as a coach to acknowledge and honor the sh*t that happens in your clients’ lives.
Terrible things happen in our client’s lives all the time. Why? Because they are human. And human beings are subject to pain, just as they are subject to joy and pleasure. Illness, being abused, losing pregnancies, weather disaster (I had a client who lost her entire home in Hurricane Sandy), being cheated on, just to name a few.
Not-so-pleasant things also happen in our client’s lives all the time. Why? Because they are human. Losing a job, failing an important test, having trouble getting a business off the ground, just to name a few.
When something terrible or not-so-pleasant happens to a client, the first thing you do should not be to help them see the positive side of things or wish them “love and light.”
When you turn to positivity first, without honoring the pain, and without a safe and sacred container for your client to be with their pain, you essentially stifle the natural self-expression, emoting, releasing, and validating that is needed at that time. Stifling all this can lead to your client judging her grief or putting grief into Shadow (which then often turns up as depression, exhaustion, procrastination, anger, self-sabotage, or all of the above).
As a culture, we have become disconnected from the important experience of grieving—grieving personally and in community. We also have become disconnected from expressing healthy anger. We need corrective experiences for all of this.
The best practitioners not only know all of this, they also create awareness for their clients around this, repattern old beliefs around meeting the grief or anger face-to-face, help give permission to be with it, and masterfully know how to hold the space for it.
Important: if you have any kind of racial, religious, sexual, gender, income, or able-bodied privilege (or any other kind), don’t use Spirit, your Spiritual nature, or your positivity to soothe a client who does not hold that privilege. This is such an important topic and one in which I highly recommend looking more closely at, and following people of color who have really developed the thought leadership on this. I have made a personal commitment to this. There are many excellent resources, including Layla Saad, Trudi LeBron, Leesa Renee Hall, among others.
2. It is part of your responsibility as a coach to acknowledge, honor, and love that not-so-pretty, not-so-shiny, and not-so-savory parts of your clients’ personalities and psyches.
Here is a fact: all human beings—no matter how incredible they are—have not-so-savory parts to their personality. Jealousy. Proclivity to victimhood. Arrogance. Rage. Poor boundaries. Overly judgmental. (Just to name a few!)
The reason I include Shadow training in my facilitator and coaching trainings is because, as practitioners, we need to understand these parts of our own and our clients’ personalities better. And, instead of ignoring those parts or making excuses for those parts, or simply focusing on the other parts, we must actually be courageous and point a light on the not-so-pretty parts, love those parts like crazy, and help our clients reclaim the gold and life force energy that is at the core of those parts.
But way too often, practitioners are uncomfortable with those not-so-savory parts inside their clients—partially because they are uncomfortable with those parts inside themselves. And so what happens is that they simply go to the “love and light,” to the “positivity.” They create mantras like, “I will no longer be a victim” or, “Jealousy is not in my nature.”
And those positive mantras simply do not work. They just support the client’s own rejection of themselves.
In the long run, those positive mantras actually activate the painful traits and patterns even more.
You cannot heal something by rejecting it, attacking it, or making it wrong or bad.
You cannot “love and light” something unsavory away.
Instead, you must learn how to skillfully help your client love these Shadow parts and reclaim them in more useful ways. This is some of the most profound work you can do with your clients.
3. Don’t fall into the trap of approaching transformation as smooth, linear, or instantaneous.
While it is possible every now and again to have an “instantaneous healing,” there is way too much “spiritual” work out there that has a “once and done” claim; in other words, “We work on it this one time, and you are healed for good.”
These types of thinking hurt our clients greatly. It has them think it’s normal that you’re able to heal fully from one healing experience or one awesome breakthrough, and that results in practitioners not continuing to do the follow-up work, and clients not feeling they need to, and then when the self-sabotage or unhelpful habit or pain pops back up, your clients end up feeling they are unable to really heal.
As a practitioner, it’s so important to remember that breakthroughs are related to but ultimately different from the full transformation. Breakthroughs are amazing and provide incredible new pieces of awareness that are vital to helping our clients change. But most of the time, in order to really change and transform, we must have the skill to persistently and consistently reinforce the breakthroughs with our clients.
For practitioners, this requires commitment and a deep, deep understanding of human nature as well as the skills needed to reinforce the breakthroughs. It also requires deep courage to break from the “marketing pack” and be honest enough with clients about the real process of change.
And of course, to be clear, positivity can be amazing. You just want to use it in effective ways at appropriate times, alongside many other tools to help you dig below the surface to helping clients own, accept, and love all of who they are, and their internal process.