The Limitations of Positive Thinking & Why we Need to Feel our Feelings.

Self Care • January 25, 2021
limitations of positive thinking
Photo by Amin Moshrefi on Unsplash

There is an interconnection between our thoughts and our feelings. And science fully endorses the healthy effect positive thinking can have on us.

“Positive” thoughts generate “good” feelings. And “negative” thoughts generate “bad” feelings. The positive thinking movement encourages us to reframe our negative thoughts to change how we feel.

And there is a lot of sense to this approach. In fact, studies show that positive thinking can improve immunity, reduce anxiety and encourage healthy habits.

I would argue, though, that positive thinking can be unhelpful if it becomes our habitual go-to practice without first allowing ourselves to feel our uncomfortable emotions.

Our suppressed emotions don’t go anywhere.

They are stored within our bodies, lying in wait to re-emerge at another time. Our issues are in our tissues, and they will be triggered repeatedly until we stop fearing them and take the time to feel them.

And while positive thinking definitely does have a place in shifting our mindsets, maybe this shouldn’t be our first port of call. Maybe we should learn to first take the time to sit with and feel our uncomfortable emotions.

This concept is probably easier for people who cry regularly to grasp than for those who never do. After a good cry, we feel better. The energy of whatever upset us has moved through our bodies and been released. And we feel lighter, although maybe a bit shattered too.

Trying to positively think our way out of upsetting circumstances is like putting a sticky plaster on a festering wound. If we don’t allow the icky feelings to disperse first of all, we’re not cleansing the wound. Suppressing the feelings is a short-term coping mechanism, while over the longer term there is still something hurting us that we’re trying our best to ignore.

If we move to reframe our thoughts too quickly, we’re burying land-mines within our psyche that could potentially explode at a future date. Often with just the mildest of triggers.

But positive thinking has more appeal than sitting with murky feelings for a while. We prefer to avoid discomfort and move to quash those feelings. When we sit with them for a while and allow them to move through us, we honor our true selves.

It’s more appropriate to explore the thoughts that may have contributed to these feelings after they’ve dispersed. When we’re not struggling to suppress our discomfort, it’s easier to get some clarity.

And with that clarity, then we can set about reframing our thoughts. And when we start to think differently, we will feel differently.

It’s a paradox worth exploring: to feel happy, we must also allow ourselves to feel sad.

And frustrated, fearful, or whatever else arises. We need to feel our feelings and make peace with them to understand where they arise from.

There is no happy-ever-after. Life is a series of ups and downs. And overall, we’ll be happier if we develop emotional resilience rather than desperately trying to avoid all negative experiences. We need to learn how to ride the waves while also paying attention to our mindset.

Before rushing to reframe negative thoughts, make it a priority to release the emotion they’ve triggered.

And for old traumas that may be deeply embedded and causing physical, mental or emotional distress, consider exploring somatic experiencing to help release it. Studies to support this approach are in the early stages, but initial results suggest it can help people suffering from PTSD and other issues.

It comes back to the premise that our suppressed emotions are held within us, and to heal the effects on our minds and bodies, we need to find ways to release them gently.

There is no denying that our mental attitude impacts how we experience the world around us. But we cannot positively think our way out of a traumatic experience. If we rely on that technique alone, we live in denial of what is stored within us.

We need to be real with ourselves to facilitate true healing. For best results, consider combining both approaches.

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