The Dangers of Positive Thinking (and What to Do Instead)

Michelle Wax, Founder of American Happiness Project

September 2021

Michelle Wax mountains2

“Just think positive!”

“It’s not that bad, other people have it way worse!”

“Everything is going great!”

Positive thinking is often used as a ‘sweep it under the rug’ approach to life…and it’s more dangerous than it may appear at first glance.

When we’re dealing with negative thoughts due to a problem or stressful situations in our life, forcing ourselves to think positively can be dangerous because it deteriorates the trust we have with ourselves. If you’re saying one thing, but feeling another, your brain will reject it and it won’t start to trust what you’re telling yourself. Your brain is intelligent, and it knows when your words and beliefs are not aligned.

Self trust builds confidence, adaptability, and resilience — and if we start to lose this self trust, it can lead to self doubt, discontent, lack of confidence, and more.

No matter how many times you repeat something positive, if your core doesn’t believe it’s true, it won’t make a difference. This is why just ‘thinking positive’ does not work long term, and can often lead to frustration and discouragement in our personal development journeys.

If you’re thinking negatively, feeling the stress, or experiencing self doubt — the most important thing you can do is start shifting to neutral thoughts instead of blind positivity. This allows us to establish self trust within ourselves and then we can slowly build up to positive thinking in day to day life.

Here's how to get started:
PART ONE: Awareness of Negative Thoughts

The first step of shifting to neutral thinking is self awareness – what was the last negative thought you had?

Here are a few examples:

“I have so much to do today, and not enough time”

“Everything is horrible right now”

“I’m not good enough”

“I’m such a mess today”

According to research conducted by mental conditioning expert Trevor Moawad, negative thoughts are 4-7x more powerful than positive ones. If you say that negative thought out loud, it becomes 10x more powerful on top of that. Moawad’s research has also found that 83% of illnesses are facilitated, exacerbated, or started from negative thinking (if you’d like to get deeper into this, here’s a great interview with him).

It’s important to start to shift away from negative thoughts as soon as possible. Negative thoughts hold us back — causing stress, worry, and self doubt that weighs us down mentally. This can lead to feeling sluggish, unmotivated, sad, unfocused, stressed and much more.

Shifting to neutral thinking alleviates the heavy weight of negativity, allowing you to focus on what you can change or improve and take a more action-oriented approach. With the shift to neutral thinking, you feel lighter, have more faith in yourself, and are more adaptable to whatever is happening around you.

Take out a piece of paper and pen and write down a few of the negative thoughts you’ve had recently.

PART TWO: The Simple Three

Once you have self awareness around the negative thoughts you’ve had lately, follow this simple three step process to shift to neutral thinking:

1. Physical Motion

Interrupting the negative thought is key to shifting to neutrality. It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of thoughts, where we start to think one stressful or worrisome thought that spirals down to all we have to do or everything that could go wrong.

When you realize you’re thinking a negative thought, interrupt the mind through physical motion and utilize the body to snap your mind out of a potential spiral. I recommend clapping your hands, snapping your fingers or (if you’re on a Zoom meeting and can’t do any of that) take a deep breath intentionally or tap your foot on the ground.

2. Acknowledge + Bring Awareness

Next up, bring the negative thought to the surface. This seems straightforward, but we have up to 60,000 thoughts per day…so it can take some practice.

Say the negative thought out loud, write it down, or for maximum impact… do both.

For example, if you’re feeling stressed, say out loud “I’m feeling stressed”. If you’re feeling nervous, say: “I’m feeling nervous”. Bringing negative thoughts to the surface is paramount in making any type of change. As Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

3. Replace and Reinforce

Instead of going straight to positive thinking, replace your negative thought with a neutral thought. For example, if you’re feeling worried about a recent change in your life, you could replace “I’m feeling worried and stressed” with “I can learn how to adapt to this new situation”.

Some other examples of neutral thoughts are:

“I take setbacks as temporary, I bounce back quickly”

“We’re going to find a way through”

“It takes what it takes”

“I am a human being and I can try again”

“I have plenty of time today to do what is important”

It’s fun to experiment with the neutral thoughts you can start to incorporate into your life – the options are endless! The more you practice incorporating neutral thinking into your life, the easier it becomes. It may feel weird or uncomfortable at first, but it’s important to remain consistent with it just as you would any other habit. After a few days of practicing, it will start to feel more familiar and eventually become second nature.

Michelle Wax is the founder of American Happiness Project, a movement across 50 states focused on creating more joy, energy, and connection in the everyday. Wax works with top companies, organizations, and schools across the USA to help teams thrive in uncertainty, use stress to their advantage, and create positive mindsets through workshops and accountability programs. She produced the American Happiness Documentary in 2019 and hosts events throughout the USA.

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