What Is Positive Thinking?

People often misunderstand positive thinking, which makes them feel badly if they want to think positively but have a negative thought, or believe that they are mentally unhealthy when they just need to know more about what positive thinking is and isn’t. Let’s dispell false beliefs about positive thinking.

Positive thinking isn’t thinking or believing:
- only good thoughts
     You don’t have to believe that everything is wonderful to be a positive thinker. The world is a complicated, often-distressing place where many events and people  are undeniably hurtful and appalling, and nothing becomes better by refusing to acknowledge unsavory, sad, or scary aspects. Thinking a situation or person is good when it is not is not being positive – just deluded.

- that everything always turns out all right and good always triumphs over evil
     We wish, but many events and actions have extremely adverse outcomes, some of which can never be remedied. Truth matters more than delusion in most cases, and speculating about the future is not helpful because no one knows what will happen.

- that the future will always be better without doing anything to make it better
     The future being better depends upon intelligently working for it today. Good outcomes usually require daily efforts to make them possible, but being too focused on the future is no more positive than focusing on the past.

- that you can accomplish anything without preparation, training, skills, or hard work
     It's not negative thinking to acknowledge that training and preparation are important for most activities.

- that positive thinking is possible without controlling your thoughts or emotions
     Our thoughts and emotions usually gravitate towards negativity unless we learn to control them. Stopping the flow of these thoughts will be discussed below.

- that questioning your or others behavior, thoughts or emotions, or holding yourself or others accountable means you are not a positive person
      Identifying negative thoughts and emotions takes courage, but what could be more positive than courage in the quest for self-improvement?

- that you must do whatever others want or you are being negative, stubborn, resistant, uncooperative, or selfish no matter how their wishes affect you
      Setting limits on others' demands, and on the compromises made to maintain relationships, is another milestone on the road to becoming a positive person. As long as you are taken advantage of or abused, you cannot be truly positive. Setting limits is not being negative – it is a sign of self-respect, essential for positive thinking.

- that you can’t criticize yourself, others, organizations, or systems
     All criticism should be constructive, that is, stated with the change that would improve functioning, interaction, or service, and based on objective standards rather than personal pique. Criticisms of others should generally be avoided unless requested. Purely negative criticism of yourself or others is worthless. Criticism that aids growth is a gift. On the other hand, telling yourself that a person, organization, or interaction is fine regardless of how it feels is not being positive, but ignoring an important source of information. Rejecting or ignoring insights undermines receiving further insights, blocking potentially important information, and weakening your ability to protect yourself, your interests, or others.

- that worry, catastrophizing, or horribilizing are not negative thinking
     Worry is letting the imagination run amok over possible bad situations when there is no indication that these imaginings are actually likely or show would be as bad as you fear. Unchecked worry often leads to panicked or pointless action(s) rather than calmly waiting for events to unfold or for the needed action to become apparent.
     Catastrophizing is imagining that situations will have the worst possible outcomes. Catastrophizing is different than contingency planning in which as many potential outcomes as are likely are visualized to identify preventive steps, coping strategies, or remediation for if the first two steps fail. Catastrophizing leads to being paralyzed by fear and thus less capable of preventing or coping with a bad outcome than if it had not been anticipated at all.
     Horribilizing is imagining that every situation will be the worst possible experience and that whatever happens will be unpleasant. This is a great example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we horribilize, it is hard for any experience to be anything other than awful.

So, having seen what positive thinking is not, what is it? Positive thinking is:

- Rational
     Positive thinkers assess situations based on reality rather than low probability, hypothetical, or worst-case scenario outcomes. Making the effort to assess the probability of an event helps being positive; identifying hypotheticals aids not being blindsided by unexpected events; and identifying worst-case scenarios can be useful for seeing how to cope with adverse events. The trick is to use these mental activities for limited, controlled periods and to not allow them to take over or dominate your mental state.

- Calm
     Positive thinking limits most emotions, especially negative ones (such as fear, anger, worry, etc.). No emotion should be allowed to diminish or push aside positive thoughts or to make decisions. Even happy emotions can cause big emotional crashes if the source of joy is lost, or cause us to assess situations wrongly if allowed to dominate over our good sense.

- Compassionate
    Positive thinking neither ignores nor inflates our inevitable human shortcomings. We are all flawed – we need to learn from our mistakes and move on.

- Realistic
     Positive thinkers neither expect the worst nor the best but try to determine the most likely outcomes and create alternative coping strategies for whatever happens. Expecting the best when there is no realistic chance for that to happen is not being positive, nor is being downcast when things don't work as wished. Life always has more and less desirable events and our task is to learn to cope effectively with both.

- Constructive
     Positive thinkers look for opportunities to grow, improve, and learn, to amplify strengths in themselves and others, and to minimize dependence.

- Optimistic
     Positive thinking rejects pessimism and despair, which greatly harm body, mind, spirit, and quality of life every minute that they are allowed to occupy the mind.

- Purposeful
      Goals, plans, or a direction in life are not essential for positive thinking but they make possibility-opening, drive-building, creativity-unlocking opportunities more likely. Positive thinking means directing your thoughts, emotions, and actions along paths that move your life in the direction you choose. That direction could be towards simplicity and calm or towards fulfilling large ambitions and high aspirations.

- Validating
     Positive thinking should support feeling that you are working from your strengths rather than weaknesses, accomplishing worthwhile tasks, and moving towards a more satisfying, comfortable, safer, more creative, and more personally rewarding life. Entertaining (i.e., not immediately debunking or rejecting) negative thoughts increases the power of negativity in your life.

- Accepting
     Positive thinking recognizes that we can change some situations and what we must do for change to happen, and other situations we cannot change and therefore must accept with as much grace as possible.

How to Become a Positive Thinker
Here are the steps of becoming a positive thinker, at least as I see them:
- Identifying your thoughts, emotions, and actions, especially those that are negative. Most people pay little attention to what goes on in their heads. Knowing whether any given thought or emotion has positive benefits makes choices possible.
    Start by paying attention to your thoughts: what thoughts or emotions flash through your mind, as much as possible in every moment? Do you, like most people, have some thought that repeats over and over? Where did these repeating thoughts come from? Are they beneficial or harmful? Are these thoughts TRUE? If your thoughts are something like “I am a failure,” or “I don’t deserve to have good things happen to or for me,” they are FALSE because they are non-beneficial, too general (we are all failures in some areas and successes in others, and we are all incomplete stories), and harmful to further development. Do you want them in your mind? Use the tool on my website, Peeling the Onion, to explore your thoughts and feelings.

- Learn to debunk negative thoughts, i.e., all thoughts that have no benefit, to control negative thoughts and emotions. Debunking (identifying all the ways that the thought is not true) negative thoughts is better than just rejecting them because otherwise they can linger in the back of your mind and re-appear whenever you are vulnerable (whenever you are tired, hungry, have been put down, hurt, or upset). The best way to debunk any negative thought is to find a way to laugh at it; all such thoughts are ridiculous at their core, and if you find how or why it is ridiculous, you will defeat the thought and it won’t recur. Some mental states may make you too distressed to laugh at them and this technique may need to wait until you come out of whatever state you were in.

- Avoid judging people and give them the benefit of the doubt (when doing so poses no risk or they do not violate your trust in them) and focus on the most constructive attitudes possible toward others. Judging people with whom you are not in contact or who are not part of your life is a waste of mental energy.

- Being positive about the past means remembering the lessons it taught, applying them to the NOW, and using those insights to support the good habits and activities needed to make this day and the coming ones as good as possible.

- Avoid comparing yourself to others, the present to the past, or any situation that does not specifically require you to make them. Never speculate on the future without engaging in contingency planning.

- Use contingency planning (if this happens, I will do  X ) and scenarios (the most likely outcomes of  X action or event are A, B, or C etc.) to find ways to respond productively to adverse events and opportunities.

- Gratitude and laughter are the fastest routes to positive thinking

- Believe that you have a right to be happy, to respect yourself and be respected and treated respectfully (because everyone does), to subject everything that you are told to analysis for whether it is true or not, to reject values, beliefs, or actions that do not seem beneficial to you, to follow pursuits and activities that interest you

- Channel your imagination into areas where it will do some good: making art, excavating unhealthy thoughts and emotions lurking in your mind (this also leads to a lot of art), sharing experiences and insights, knowing the dreams you secretly harbor in your heart and finding ways to build them, inventing clever techniques to make life easier, and finding ways to make the world a better place.

Making the world a better place is ultimately what life is all about. We do this best by becoming the most positive, constructive, and compassionate person we can be. Mastering positive thinking will help us with all of these goals.


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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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