When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Change How I Feel
You have probably heard it said many times; “just think positively, and that you’ll feel better”. But is that really true? Can you control how you feel, by just forcing yourself to think positively? What if your situation is so bad, so painful and so stressful that “just thinking positively” gives you no hope or relief to your situation? If you have ever questioned this, let me shed some light on it.
According to the some of the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) experts, alternative or balanced thinking is not just thinking in a more positive way. “Positive thinking tends to ignore negative information and can be as damaging as negative thinking. Alternative or balanced thinking takes into account both negative and positive information. It is an attempt to understand the meaning of all available information. (Greenberger and Padesky, 1995, p. 94-94).
For instance, say a co-worker yells at you in front of others, after you asked her to help you with a project. By just thinking positively, you are ignoring the fact that her comment actually hurt you, and that you felt disrespected that she yelled at you in front of others. By acknowledging your feelings, you can evaluate what it was that triggered your hurt and disrespected feelings.
In CBT, a technique called a ‘thought record’ exists. In a thought record, one would jot down the following: the situation that caused the distress, rate one’s moods, write down the automatic thoughts, provide evidence that supports one’s hot thought (which is the thought that gives one the most emotional charge from your list of automatic thoughts), and that does not support one’s hot thought. Lastly, one would come up with alternative/balanced thoughts, and would then re-rate one’s new mood.
For example, using the situation above, rate your mood (i.e. 80% hurt, or 75% angry), then jot down your automatic thoughts that came to your mind after your co-worker yelled at you (i.e. she is so mean, how dare she take out her anger on me, I wonder if she’s mad at me, I was so embarrassed that she yelled at me in front of my co-workers). The next step is to write down evidence that supports your hot thought (“I was so embarrassed that she yelled at me in front of my co-workers”) which would include: “she is always in a bad mood, she has yelled at others before”. Then write down evidence that does not support your hot thought. For example “she has never yelled at me before, she is usually really kind and considerate to me”. The next step is to write down your Alternative and/or Balanced Thoughts. For example “I hope she is okay, she must be really stressed out, maybe I should asked her if everything is okay?”, and lastly you re-rate your mood. For example Anger 35%, Hurst 30%.
The experts also say that two advantages exist in completing thought records. First, a thought record can help broaden his or her perspective on troubling situations so that he/she reacts in ways that are consistent with the big picture rather than a narrow and possibly distorted view. Second, thought records actually help one learn to think automatically in more flexible ways.” (Greenberger and Padesky, 1995, p. 108). These authors go on to say that after one has completed approximately 20 to 50 thought records, a person will learn how to automatically think in more flexible ways (p. 108).
So the next time you experience great distress after a situation, try doing a thought record by taking into account, both the negative and positive information of your situation, following the steps above, and see how your mood changes.
Kim Ott MSW RSW