Negative Thinking

Following on my last post about my preference for naming reality (as opposed to having to pretend or denying what is), I’ve been thinking about the value of positive vs. negative thinking. I wouldn’t espouse “negative thinking” per se because I believe that our emotions follow our thoughts, and they can go down some pretty ugly pathways if we focus on doomsday scenarios that may or may not bear any resemblance to reality or possibility.

Yet I do believe that uninformed euphoria and “just ignore the facts and concentrate on being happy” modes of being do not work.

I found this article, The Power of Negative Thinking, by Oliver Burkeman in The New York Times interesting. I’d love to hear how others see it. I was particularly struck by the idea that to the degree that we are focusing, focusing, focusing on some future life, we miss the beauty of the present, and that’s sometimes a byproduct of the often-recommended “just visualize it” school of thought.

I like the idea of visualizing (or, more accurately, realizing) the gifts of the present moment (even and perhaps especially when there is also pain in that moment).

Gratitude is an amazing gift and an amazing tool. But it is enhanced when we see beauty in spite of imperfection — not when we adamantly insist that the painful is beautiful. It’s a fine line.

What do you think?

3 thoughts on “Negative Thinking


  1. I think the NYT article is overly simplistic about “positive thinking,” and therefore misses a huge opportunity. I used to have a pervasive negative racing internal monologue going on in my head. It sounded like “OMG, I can’t believe you just said that. You’re so stupid. So you think you’ll be able to do this or that – who do you think you are?” If anyone had asked me to repeat “I’m loveable,” that little voice would have shouted back “but really stupid! or ineffective! or an idiot! not worthy!”

    Contradicting this internal monologue, which sociologist Brene Brown says we all have, requires some positive thinking. And by positive, I absolutely do not mean Pollyanna, cheerful, relentlessly happy. I mean a belief in your own self efficacy, and an optimistic point of view which says “I have a tolerance for adversity, and an ability to figure things out.”

    You’re absolutely right about naming. Name what is. When I go rock climbing, I used to say to myself “that hand hold sucks.” Then I learned how to name what is objectively: “That hand hold is small. It faces in this direction. Which means, in order to use it, I have to….” Now I’m getting somewhere. We can do the same thing with emotions. “I am angry.” This is a personal truth. “I am sad.” This, too, is a personal truth. Once you honor them, you can figure out what to do about it. Anger comes from a feeling that your rights have been violated. “I am angry because…” Name that, and you’re halfway to restoration of peace. Over time, with practice, you build up self-efficacy. And you build up an optimism that you can handle what life throws at you, whether joyful, or dreadful. You can also see the beauty of the present moment, once the fog of self-loathing or self-criticism is lifted. What’s around you is no longer challenging to your self worth, and you can see it more clearly for what it is. That negative voice turns into a neutral voice, turns into a positive voice that can name things in such a way as to enable you to deal with them.

    I think the conversation about positive thinking, negative thinking is an interesting one. I would like to see emphasis not on Pollyanna vs. Sir Crankypants. But and emphasis on supporting feelings of self worth, vs. self loathing and towards building self-efficacy. It’s hard emotional work to get there, which can be anything but cheery. And those conversations have to get a lot more nuanced than our what the NYT author suggests.


  2. It’d be great to talk more about this in person with some cool people — and explore how it plays out in practical situations. Lots to contemplate.

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