Everywhere I read about the power of positive thinking, how thoughts create your reality and the importance of high self-esteem. Believe me, for years I have tried to be like this. The titles of the self-help books I have purchased over the years read like a fairy tale.
It has actually taken me a long time to realize that always trying to be positive is not what it is cracked up to be and, in fact, can cause more harm than good!
The shift in how I perceive myself and the world around me has changed my life. What I have learnt is such common sense when you are attuned to it. You see, the problem with self-esteem is that it is reliant on your thoughts, both negative and positive. For someone like myself who has a tendency to ruminate and be obsessive, trying to reframe my thinking to being positive most of the time just does not work!
Oliver Burkemen, Guardian columnist and author of Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done states, “The problem I see with positive thinking is that it can all too easily become a barrier to action, because it’s based on the premise that you need to get yourself into the right frame of mind — positive or motivated or raring to go, or whatever – before you can start acting. In fact, it can be tremendously liberating to realize you don’t need to feel like doing something in order to do it. You can just notice the negative feelings and act anyway.”
When The Secret came out years ago, it caused a sensation with its premise that your thoughts manifest your reality. This can be quite dangerous and disempowering for those of us having difficulty dismissing our worries and anxieties.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many times in my life that are full of joy and life is effortless. Conversely, there are also many times when negative feelings and thoughts take over. I suppose this is what we call the duality of light and dark. It’s easy to be positive when we feel joyous. We require focus and resilience when we don’t.
A number of years ago I read a book by Dr Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap. He puts forward an alternative approach to focusing on positive thinking. It is called ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) and is based on self-acceptance, compassionate self-talk and meaningful action aligned with your core values.
A simple strategy from Dr Russ Harris based on ACT is The Mindful Stop. It can be done at any time in the day, takes only 30 seconds and over time will rewire your brain to let go of negative thoughts. There are 4 steps.
S– Slow down.
T– Take note, notice your thoughts and what you are feeling with a sense of curiosity and without judgment (You can even name the thought. Call it my monkey mind, the not good enough story, ruminating, a painful memory). What is vital to remember is that this is just a thought. It is not the essence of who you are.
O– Open up, make room for your thoughts and feelings and allow them to defuse through you.
P– Pursue your values, reconnect with them and let them guide your next action.
Mindfulness is an important part of ACT. It is about stepping away from yourself and being the observer of your thoughts without judging yourself. It’s a state of focus and observation. What a relief it is to know these thoughts are not you, no matter how consumed you can be by them!
Self-compassion is another integral component. Being our own best friend is an extremely powerful tool. We are all very good at berating ourselves when we have messed up. Our inner critic can have a field day at times! Isn’t it better to be supportive, encouraging and considerate of ourselves, recognising that suffering and personal inadequacies are part of the shared human experience. No one is exempt!
To sum up, not being ruled by your thoughts is integral to achieving a more satisfying and fulfilling life. It is not about being positive all the time and repressing those negative and unpleasant thoughts. What is important is what you are doing, and not how you are thinking. If you are clear about your values and let them guide your actions, you will feel a deep sense of self-worth, regardless of all that negative self-talk you may have.
Don’t focus on trying to change those negative and unpleasant thoughts, instead focus on being the person you want to be, taking meaningful action aligned with your values and being kind to yourself. The interesting thing is by living your life like this, generally a lot of the negative thoughts and feelings end up changing on their own account anyway!