The Problem with Thinking Positive:
Accepting Healthy Negative Emotions and Finding Balance
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) proposes that our feelings of depression anxiety, anger and guilt are caused by thought distortions we have about situations and events and that these thoughts cause emotional distress, not the situation or the event. Many of these thoughts are automatic in nature and produce unhealthy negative emotions, such as depression, anxiety, guilt or anger. This theory is well researched and empirically supported.
However, a frequent error many therapists and clients make about CBT is that it’s all about just thinking positive. We often hear people remark, “I tried thinking more positive, but it just didn’t work”. Actually, CBT isn’t about positive thinking at all. As a matter of fact, therapists who specialize in, and have received specialized CBT training, know that positive thinking can be just as problematic and irrational as negative thinking. If an individual who believes that if he only trusts the universe and thinks positive thoughts, everything will all work out, he will be ill prepared to handle a catastrophe or face a difficult life situation. Sometimes things we hope will work out, just don’t work out in our favor. On the other hand, if you continually focus on the worse case scenario, you will likely be immobilized with fear and anxiety and may never find the strength and courage to work toward your goal.
There is a fine line between being hopeful and positive, yet remaining realistic and rational. Albert Ellis, the psychologist who created cognitive behavioral therapy, explained that the “elegant solution” is to strongly hold on to your preference for a desired outcome AND at the same time emotionally prepare yourself to cope if things don’t turn out the way you hope that they will. You may not like the outcome, but in all likelihood, you will be able to stand it. And “standing it” means you will experience healthy negative emotions.
In CBT, there is a great difference between healthy negative emotions and unhealthy negative emotions. Let’s imagine for a minute that your boyfriend just broke up with you. It would be pretty unreasonable if your CBT therapist expected you to feel happy or have no emotion about the breakup at all if you were hoping that this relationship would work out. The healthy negative emotion your CBT therapist would help you to feel is sadness instead of depression. When you are depressed, you find it difficult to move forward and to feel good about yourself. You certainly won’t want to start dating again if you’re depressed. However, if you are healthily sad about the breakup, you may be able to learn from the breakup by assessing what went wrong so you can determine what you want in a future relationship.
Or imagine that you are anxious about loosing your job. Your company has had many cutbacks and you think your head might be on the chopping block next. If you are unhealthily consumed with anxiety, you are more likely to spend your time worrying, blaming and ruminating on the unfairness of it all. You anxiously catastrophize about being unemployed, out on the street, poverty-stricken. However, if you are instead healthily concerned instead of anxious, you will be able to think rationally, prepare your resume and begin looking for job opportunities, if in fact you do loose your job. In a nutshell, unhealthy negative emotions usually paralyze us, whereas healthy negative emotions help us to experience feelings while being able to move forward.
The unrealistic demand to be happy at all times consumes many individuals. CBT teaches us to be practical and realistic. Perfect happiness at all times just isn’t possible, no matter how positively we think or how much trust we place in the universe. CBT teaches us that when life throws us a curveball we can assess our thinking, take a reasonable approach and cope by handling life’s adversities with appropriate healthy negative emotions.
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