Have you ever been told to just “think positive” and your problems will go away?
Or that to achieve your goals, all you have to visualize them with positive intent?
It’s a philosophy that’s grown incredibly popular thanks to books like The Secret and Law of Attraction.
In fact, celebrities such as Will Smith, Jim Carey, and Oprah Winfrey have publicly said that their success is mostly the result of implementing positive thinking and the Law of Attraction.
But what about the rest of us? Does it really help us live better lives?
Why positive thinking might be bad advice
In an interview with the Verge, psychologist Tasha Eurich says that one of the most common causes of unhappiness is deluding ourselves by avoiding reality.
Specifically, she says that just embracing the brighter side of life causes us to lose self-awareness, which is the real cause of unhappiness:
“When we delude ourselves from seeing true reality, we tend to be less happy, less successful and equally importantly, the people around them tend to view them pretty negatively.”
What’s the problem?
Eurich says that deluding yourself can lead to repercussions down the line. She uses an example of someone who is super deluded about their singing ability:
“They’re a pre-med student and going to quit their pre-med program to audition for The Voice, but they don’t make it past the first round. They feel horrible. They’ve changed the course of their life for this and it wasn’t a good choice. It’s a silly example, but when we don’t have a clear understanding of who we are, we tend to make choices that aren’t in our best interest.”
Eurich says that the key to feeling happier and more fulfilled is through better self-awareness:
“People who see themselves clearly are more forgiving and they’re gentle and compassionate toward both themselves and others. People who are self-aware are higher in empathy and perspective-taking. It kind of does make sense because part of truly being self-aware is understanding how you come across to other people and the impact you have on them. And to be able to do that you kind of have to put yourself in their shoes.”
So the question is, how do you become more self-aware?
Despite what you may think, Eurich says it has nothing to do with self-reflection.
In fact, people who think more about themselves are less likely to be happy, and more anxious with their lives and relationships.
It’s not explicitly that self-reflection isn’t effective, it’s just that many of us fall into these pitfalls of overthinking which causes us to be anxious and depressed.
Sigmund Freud described it best.
He said there was an “unconscious mind”, with certain thoughts and feelings and emotions we don’t have access to consciously.
When thinking of the unconscious mind, it can use to compare the mind to an iceberg.
Everything above the water is conscious awareness while everything below is unconscious.
Consider how the iceberg would look. Only a small portion of the iceberg is actually visible above water. What you cannot see from the surface is a large amount of ice that makes up the majority of the iceberg, deep below in the water.
Our conscious awareness is simply the “tip of the iceberg”. The rest is simply below the surface.
This may not be able to be accessed consciously, but it can still influence our behavior. A primary assumption of the Freudian theory is that the unconscious mind influencers behavior to a greater degree than people suspect.
So the problem is that when people try to a lot of self-reflecting, we ask ourselves why we keep destroying our relationships…but we can’t look into the unconscious awareness to analyze why we keep performing these behaviors.
Then we’re often wrong when we assume we’ve found the answer.
Eurich says this tends to happen to a lot to people who blame childhood experiences for why they act a certain way.
Eurich says we should still definitely self-reflect, but we need to question how we’re doing it.
Eurich says that what we can start doing is asking ourselves “what” questions instead of “why” questions.
Instead of “why am I like this”, you can say “What am I going to do about it…Why do I want out of this relationship.”
This enables you to focus more on the action.
According to Eurich, one thing we need to be wary of is falling into the trap of overthinking.
“When we do that, there are certain parts of our brains that are activated that prevent us from being cool and detached and curious and instead they rile us up and get us upset.”
(To learn how to stop overthinking, check out my guide to stop overthinking here)
So how can we become more self-aware?
Eurich says one of the best ways to increase self-awareness is to ask your friends:”Why are you with me?” “What do you like about me?”
And also ask them, “What do you find most annoying about me?”
Often, you’ll be completely taken aback by their answers.
However, Eurich says it’s important to remember that you’ll never be completely self-aware:
“And to be perfectly honest, no one will ever become completely self-aware. One of the really self-aware people explained it by saying that the process of self-exploration is like exploring space: there’s so much we don’t know, and that’s what makes it so exciting.”
(If you’re looking for specific actions you can take to stay in the moment and live a happier life, check out our best-selling eBook on how to use Buddhist teachings for a mindful and happy life here.)
Spiritual master agrees: Focusing exclusively on positive thinking has its limitations
Psychologist Eurich isn’t the only one to reveal the limitations of the positive thinking movement.
Controversial spiritual teacher Osho had long been a critic of books like How to Win Friends and Influence People and Think and Grow Rich.
“You ask me: Am I against positive philosophy? Yes, because I am also against negative philosophy.
I have to be against both because both choose only half the fact, and both try to ignore the other half.
And remember: a half-truth is far more dangerous than a whole lie, because the whole lie will be discovered by you sooner or later. How long can it remain undiscovered by you? A lie, of course, is a lie; it is just a palace made of playing cards – a little breeze and the whole palace disappears.
But the half-truth is dangerous. You may never discover it, you may continue to think it is the whole truth. So the real problem is not the whole lie, the real problem is the half-truth pretending to be the whole truth; and that is what these people are doing.”
According to Osho, the negative ideas of your mind have to be released, not repressed
He goes onto say that it’s harmful to repress negative emotions:
“The negative ideas of your mind have to be released, not repressed by positive ideas. You have to create a consciousness which is neither positive nor negative. That will be the pure consciousness.
In that pure consciousness, you will live the most natural and blissful life…
You don’t like a person, you don’t like many things; you don’t like yourself, you don’t like the situation you are in. All this garbage goes on collecting in the unconscious, and on the surface a hypocrite is born, who says, “I love everybody, love is the key to blissfulness.” But you don’t see any bliss in that person’s life. He is holding the whole of hell within himself.
He can deceive others, and if he goes on deceiving long enough, he can deceive himself too. But it won’t be a change. It is simply wasting life – which is immensely valuable because you cannot get it back.
Positive thinking is simply the philosophy of hypocrisy – to give it the right name. When you are feeling like crying, it teaches you to sing. You can manage if you try, but those repressed tears will come out at some point, in some situation. There is a limitation to repression. And the song that you were singing was absolutely meaningless; you were not feeling it, it was not born out of your heart.”
The question then becomes: How can we learn to accept our emotions?
It’s not an easy question to answer, but something that really helped me was coming across Acceptance and Commitment therapy.
Here’s an exercise adapted from a workbook developed by Dr. Steven Hayes at the University of Nevada.
Step one: Identify the emotion
If you have more than one emotion, just pick one. If you don’t know what the emotion is, sit for a moment and pay attention to your physical sensations and thoughts. Give it a name and write it down on a piece of paper.
Step two: Give it some space
Close your eyes and imagine putting that emotion five feet in front of you. You’re going to put it outside of yourself and observe it.
Step three: Now that the emotion is outside of you, close your eyes and answer the following questions:
If your emotion had a size, what size would it be? If your emotion had a shape, what shape would it be? If your emotion had a color, what color would it be?
Once you’ve answered these questions, imagine putting the emotion out in front of you with the size, shape, and color. Just observe it and acknowledge it for what it is. When you’re ready, you can let the emotion return to its original place inside you.
Step four: Reflection
Once you’ve completed the exercise, you can take a moment to reflect on what you’ve noticed. Did you notice a change in your emotion when you got a little distance from it? Did the emotion feel different in some way once the exercise was finished?
This exercise may seem weird, but it has helped many people understand their emotions and learn to be more accepting of them.
Acceptance and understanding your emotions will help you make your life better.
(To learn about more techniques about how to accept yourself, check out my guide to loving yourself here)
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