Why negative thinking is vital
While it may sound odd, thinking negatively can be an extraordinarily powerful skill. Thinking positively has its benefits, and it’s definitely more popular, yet it has its drawbacks. While the most obvious one is that people try again and again to think positively yet get more and more frustrated and disappointed as they fail, there are studies that show the effects go deeper than this.
The idea of a positive thinking, upbeat person is nice, but it can be untrustworthy and sometimes unnerving in reality. This is partly because you don’t get the truth, you don’t get the authenticity, the realness, the humanness. There’s always something that’s hidden. It’s that humanness that is so vital when we’re in any kind of relationship with people: whether that’s the relationship you have with people at work, with your family and friends, with your partner or with yourself. The inability to express your “negative” emotions can not only deprive you and others of that human authenticity, it can also create isolation because no-one truly sees you when all you express are “positive” emotions.
But this has effects that go deeper than trustworthiness and human relationships. Positive thinking can actually negatively affect your health. Dr Gabor Maté points out that if we use positive thinking to tune out our discomfort (such as feelings of anxiety), we are lowering our resistance to illness. This is because the longer we tune it out, the longer that distress will be unattended, and thus the more damage it will do. This can then cascade into poor focus, lower energy levels etc.
It’s like breaking your arm and then taking pain killers to not feel the discomfort, but never going to a doctor to get your arm fixed. Instead, you keep taking pain killers.
If we can not feel heat, we are more likely to get burned. If we can not tell when something is genuinely wrong, we can’t do anything about it. This sounds obvious, but we’ve all ignored problems hoping they would go away if we just didn’t look at them and stayed optimistic. Sometimes this is because dealing with the problem seems too painful. It’s often easier to push it aside. But this is a case for ignorance not being blissful (at least not in the long run). Ignoring the problem can feel better now, just like eating that piece of chocolate cake can make you feel better now, but if repeated, the effects will take their toll.
Many studies have found that compulsive positive thinkers are more likely to develop disease and less likely to survive. (Keep in mind that this is different from genuinely being in a positive state). In fact the repression of emotion is strongly linked to cancer. There was a study that was conducted over a 10 year period which found the repression of anger to be the single greatest risk factor for death (especially cancer deaths). Cancer was 40 times higher for those that were on the high end of the spectrum for repressed anger. Needless to say this is quite a different story from what is generally talked about as the most important aspects to focus on for health.
When we’re in pain (physical or emotional), it’s natural to want to numb things out. But if we do this habitually, consistently, (perhaps through the use of positive thinking), we end up being in a state of chronic stress. According to Dr Maté, the lack of essential information about ourselves and the situation that we’re in (which can happen by trying to think positively), is one of the major causes of stress. While we may not be consciously aware of this stress, the result is a decline in health.
While we live in a society that glorifies the strong individual who can handle anything, not asking for help is actually a form of repression. This means that the very thing that we tend to see as making us strong (not bothering others but instead bearing the burden ourselves) may actually make us weaker.
We often want to be strong enough. Being called “weak” is a form of ridicule. Yet in reality, there are loads that are legitimately too heavy to carry. If you tried to lift a truck and failed, would you really be weak? We can sometimes put demands on ourselves that are just as insane as trying to lift a truck, but we think we need to be able to bear the load due to a “need” to be positive with a “can do” or “tough” attitude. When you develop the skill of negative thinking, you’re better able to see these pitfalls and thus avoid some of the unnecessary suffering.
How positive thinking came to be
For a child, there is some sense to not looking at the negative. If you are 5 years old and are in an abusive household, there isn’t much you can do about it. It’s an unsolvable problem. You don’t have the resources and thinking capabilities that are available to adults. You can’t call the police or organise to stay at a friends house. Therefore, a child in that situation will often push that information out of conscious awareness so that it doesn’t have to deal with the impossible problem. However, you don’t have to have grown up in an abusive household to have used this same tactic to get by.
Although this tactic may have helped us cope in childhood, this same tendency can become harmful if we keep it as we move into adulthood. If we ignore “negative” information at work, that’s a potential risk. That will often make things worse, not better.
The thought of letting go of positive thinking can bring up uncertainty and apprehension, especially if we’ve been trying (consciously or unconsciously) to think positively for a long time. The belief that we are supposed to think positively can be very deeply ingrained. Yet if we take a step back, we might see that we often treat ourselves and put demands on ourselves that we wouldn’t put onto others - including the need to think positively. A good question to ask yourself to see if this is the case is: “If someone else had the life I’ve had and was going through what I’m going through, would I put the pressure on them to think positively?"
It can also be useful to consider this in others. Are there people on your team who are always “nice” and do “good”? If so, is it genuine or are they being “nice” on the surface while holding resentment, anger or sadness beneath the surface? You may not discover the truth until something particularly stressful happens, then you might see a chink in their armour. Being aware of this can help you develop better connection and communication with them.
The benefits of negative thinking
“In order to heal, it is essential to gather the strength to think negatively.”
Dr Gabor Maté
Dr Gabor Maté explains that positive thinking is based upon an unconscious belief that we are not strong enough to deal with reality. So what if instead of ignoring reality we began to trust ourselves to be able to handle it?
This is where having a few tools at your disposal for handling stress and negativity is so valuable. It allows you to face reality and not just deal with it, but better yourself from it. When I work with clients, rather than moving away from the stress, pressure and negativity in their lives, we move through it. This is done by fully acknowledging the stress while simultaneously using methods that allow that distress to be processed out of the body. It can be cathartic whereby the initial full acceptance of the problem brings more stress to the surface, but as it’s released, it’s like being set free.
In fact very often I’ll ask clients “can you try to bring up that distress? Can you actively attempt to make yourself feel bad by focusing on the problem?” We’ll even search for where there might be hidden stress. Because the more you find, the more you can release from your system and the better off you’ll be in the long run.
Perhaps we can see this as a balance between positive and negative thinking, rather than placing one on an unattainable pedestal (to think positively all the time) and demonising the other (seeing negative thinking as a character flaw or slip up in our attitude). Positive thinking can work (and has worked), but also give space for negativity, work with it compassionately, with wisdom and with tools at your side.
In the animal world, emotions like anger are not negative emotions. Anger is there when there is a threat to some essential need. In this way, anger isn’t a bad thing, it gives animals a better chance of survival. Similarly, our negativity can help us when we learn to listen to it and work with it rather than deeming some thoughts or feelings as “good” and others as “bad”.
When you know you can handle the intensity that comes up from looking at the negative, it’s no longer so scary. The obsessive need to think positively sometimes fades away. Being thrown in the deep end of a pool is only fatal if you don’t know how to swim.
This is not to say that it’s easy. Thinking negatively often requires courage. It may lead to seeing that we are not as strong as we would like to be, that something is indeed wrong and there’s no clear path to fixing it, that some fundamental belief we have about how the world works is inaccurate. Yet in doing so we begin to acknowledge our true strength in being able to deal with reality, in figuring out messing things, in becoming better and wiser. Perhaps in truly acknowledging our humanness through negative thinking, we’ll realise it’s not such a terrible crime to have faults and flaws, to have weaknesses and need help.
Experiment with thinking negatively, with pondering the worst case scenario, with going into rather than away from uncomfortable things. Try using Tapping to help you through things in a more structured and helpful way, change your beliefs about negative thinking and watch what happens.
When the body says no by Dr Gabor Maté
Photo by Nicholas Kwok on Unsplash