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Sat, May 1, 2010
The Perplexity of Positive Thinking
Sorting Through the Experience of Our Emotions and the Power of Uplifting Thoughts

Positive thinking, we hear about it everywhere. Pick up almost any self help book and we are told somewhere within the contents that our ability to focus on positive outcomes will change our life for the better. Is it true? In my experience the answer is, YES!

I have also discovered that my personal experience is aligned with current studies in neuroscience and psychology. The studies demonstrate how our thoughts affect our feelings. We do have the ability to control what we think. When we practice changing our negative thoughts into positive thoughts we do change how we feel throughout the day and even more exciting, we can improve the condition of our overall health.

So, how does it all work? Are we just supposed to ignore our negative emotions and all the bad things that happen in life? What do you do when you just don’t feel positive? How do we practice the principles without living in denial of the disturbing realities we are confronted with on a daily basis?

Using positive thinking does not mean ignoring our negative experiences. The first important step to take as you learn to uplift your thoughts is to become aware of and acknowledge the feelings you are experiencing. This in itself can be a real challenge in a society that often promotes ignoring feelings. We are encouraged not to be cry babies and told that we need to have our chin up, move forward, and get on with life!

Often the very first place to start is to acknowledge that we have feelings. Take a poll today. Ask individuals you meet how they ‘feel’ about something that occurred and see how often you are told instead what they ‘think’ about the occurrence. As a society we are so out of touch with acknowledging our feelings that we don’t even hear the word ‘feel’ in the sentence.

Feelings are actually very important tools that we need to honor. Ignoring the reality of your negative feelings for too long is a sure recipe for disaster. When you perceive a negative emotion the key is to realize that your body is communicating something to you about your experience. Ask yourself to label what you are feeling; is it anger, embarrassment, resentfulness, guilt? You may at first want to push the feeling away but don’t. It is there to tell you something.

Sometimes you will not be able to give your feeling a label. In this case just allow the feeling to be there. Emotions are fluid, they will move and change as you observe them. At times situations are too intense to name the emotion in that moment, but do take note of them. As yo sort through your emotions when things are calmer, you will learn a lot about yourself and how you are responding to your environment. This will lead to healthier choices as you respond to situations in the future.

Once you are able to name your negative emotions you can begin to ask yourself what caused the feeling. Look for emotional triggers from your previous life experiences that may have intensified what you were feeling. For example, during a heated discussion with my husband he told me that I was over analyzing a situation. In that moment my anger skyrocketed and I am sorry to say my communication throughout the rest of the discussion became very combative. So, what happened?

As I grumbled around the house I noted that I was most angered when I remembered his comment that I may have been over analyzing the situation. I asked myself why that was triggering such an emotional  response and began to remember other times I had been told I was over analyzing. The times were associated with someone using the comment in derogatory and judgmental fashions. I was now associating my husband’s question with those prior events. So, I apologized to my husband and took a look at what was angering me.

Do I over analyze? Was that a bad thing? I discovered that I do analyze a lot and that it actually has served me very well in my chosen profession. I decided to watch for tendencies in which my analytical nature could spiral into dwelling on negative situations. As a result three things have changed.
  • I more easily catch myself when my analyzing spirals downward. In that moment I choose to change my thoughts to ones that feel better regarding the situation.
  • I have learned to appreciate the gift of my analytical nature.
  • Though I still feel my blood pressure spike if someone suggests I am over analyzing, I recognize that it is an old defensive response and use my knowledge to create a better outcome in the discussion.
What about situations that don’t involve old triggers? Let’s face it; bad times come up in the life of every person. We grieve the death of loved ones and pets. We lose jobs, careers, and homes. We get sick. We encounter abusive people. Sometimes it all seems to happen at once and our hopes can be dashed again and again. It can be very hard to keep a positive focus when everything around you is falling apart. During these times it is especially important to let your feelings be what they are.

We need to allow ourselves our tears and grief. Unfortunately there is no magic formula  for how long we will experience the stages of grief. Each experience of grief is as unique as the relationship or situation you are grieving. So, we need to allow for our own timing. What we can do as we move through the experience is choose thoughts that feel better regarding the situation. If you catch yourself saying, ‘(x) is never going to happen’, change it into, ‘show me how to (x).’ You can also look for small things to be grateful for.

You may not notice a better feeling in the  beginning. However, your thoughts will eventually build into a feeling that is better than the feeling of staying focused on what you have lost. Remember to choose thoughts that have validity for you. If you lost something or someone in your life today, using a mantra like, “Only goodness and love overflow in my life” can feel ridiculous. Choosing something like, “Divine activity is now operating in my mind, body, and affairs, whether I see it or not” may lift the despair without feeling inauthentic.

It is also essential to note that our feelings are connected to the physiology of the body. In some situations there are individuals who have the experience of really wanting to choose better feeling thoughts and try for a long time without results. In such cases it is important to tell your doctor. Today we know many problems that have long been associated with psychological problems, such as depression and panic disorders, are actually medical problems that can be treated using a medical model.

If you are just beginning the process of transforming your life experience though positive thinking, see it as a step by step process. In his very helpful book, Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, Daniel Amen, M.D., a clinical neuroscientist, child and adolescent psychiatrist and medical director for the Amen Clinic for Behavioral Medicine, recommends several step by step processes that help change the patterns of negative thinking and bring healing in our lives. In his book he tells us;

“Most people do not understand how important thoughts are and leave the development of thought patterns to chance… every thought we have sends electrical signals throughout the brain. Thoughts have actual physical properties. They are real! They have significant influence on every cell in your body. When your mind is burdened with many negative thoughts, it affects your deep limbic system and causes deep limbic problems (irritability, moodiness, depression, etc.) Teaching yourself to control and direct thoughts in a positive way is one of the most effective ways to feel better.”

As with any other healing process, the progress made when you begin can seem slow. Positive thinking is not a quick fix. However, you will find that frequent positive thoughts will change things more quickly into experiences that are more life-giving. In many cases it will not change the circumstances, but it will change your ability to function in the circumstance. There isn’t one set formula that is sure to work always. Our ability to move forward by changing our thoughts is tied up in the complexity of our lives.

We often need help sorting it all out. It is helpful to work with a counselor, spiritual director, life coach, or friend you trust. They will be able to help you through the stuck places and monitor progress that is difficult to see by yourself. Positive thinking is a transformational power that comes easier with practice. It builds upon itself and over time you will find yourself more naturally responding to negative events with a positive perspective and that feels great! 

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