Depressed? Beware The Positive Thinking Trap!
That’s pricey for a pair of shoes! Her next door’s not bringing her kids up right. What does she think she looks like? That bloke on the news is definitely guilty. Does Mohair go with suede?
Well, we are human after all and as result we naturally judge and evaluate everything in our lives. We see things as good or bad, right or wrong and positive or negative. Our ability and desire to judge and evaluate everything is hard-wired into the human brain, without it our species would not be here today it’s literally what’s kept us alive. But sometimes as we’ll see it can also keep us trapped and cause us a whole range of other problems too.
And as is if we didn’t have enough in our life to judge, some clever soul way back in the 1940’s discovered a whole new domain that we ‘need’ to keep judging – our thoughts! Originating from the USA, early self-help books, started talking about the necessity for us to all think positively too.
This is a message that has been drip fed to us for so many years it is now been ingrained in our psyche. There appears to be no caveats, no exceptions, thinking positively is the right way to think, for everyone and in every situation in life.
When we are depressed though, this “positive thinking” mantra can easily backfire on us. Firstly, as any depressed person will tell you, just like doing the Hoovering, “Positive Thinking” is so much easier to do when you are not suffering with depression. Trying to constantly think positively when depressed is exhausting and we often end up depleting our already limited energy reserves. Secondly the idea that we must “think positively” when we clearly aren’t or we feel unable to do it, can make our depression worse as oops, now there’s another thing we’ve failed at.
Of course positive thinking can be highly beneficial when our psychological health is already in great shape. But what do we do when our psychological well-being has taken a real nose-dive?
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT for short, we like to think differently. We ask our depressed and anxious patients to try to suspend the positive or negative judgement on what they are thinking and to ask themselves a different question– “Is my thinking helpful or unhelpful”. And when we say ‘helpful’ we mean:
- Does that thought or idea make you feel the way you want to feel?
- Does that thought get you to become the person you wish to become?
- Does that thought or way of thinking aid you in achieving your goals and where you want to be in life?
You see this way it’s up to you. You say whether that thought, idea or belief is helpful or unhelpful to you and your life. You evaluate the thought through your own criteria and not through someone else’s.
If we decide that the thought, idea or belief is unhelpful then the impetus to change it to a more helpful one (again you decide what is a more helpful thought) can come from deep within us. As a result we can often get a extra burst of self -generated motivation or energy to aid us in making the change. Also hopefully, like millions of other people around the world, you may find that the harshness and the intensity of the emotion you are feeling is also reduced.
Like everything in CBT we never ask you to blindly accept anything without trying it out first and experiencing it for yourself. So here’s a little assignment:
Select a week when you are going to try it out. Then on the Monday keep a diary of your thoughts. Look at them as you are writing them down and ask yourself are they helpful or helpful? Notice and record how you feel emotionally on that day *. On the Tuesday go back to harshly judging your thoughts as right or wrong, good or bad, positive or negative. Notice how you feel that day. Keep switching between the two different ways of thinking every alternate day until the week is up.
By the end of the week you’ll be in an excellent position to judge for yourself which way of evaluating your thinking works best for you.
*For a bonus to the assignment also write down a more helpful thought to substitute for the unhelpful ones and again record how you’re feeling.