The How of Positive Thinking
September 6, 2011 11:13 AM   Subscribe

How do I put positive thinking philosophies into action?

I've Googled around a ton about positive thinking, and over the years, I've had a handful of attempts at it. However, a pattern happens each time:
  • Day 1: I sit down and channel positive thoughts for 10 minutes. Throughout the day, every 30 minutes or so, I think about positive things for about a minute. That whole day is insanely great, and I feel better.
  • Day 2: I sit down and try to channel positive thoughts, but my mind can't find the words, and so it lasts only 2 minutes. Throughout the day, I try again to channel positive thoughts, but I feel mute inside
  • Day 3: I give up
There is an internal well of intentional positive thinking that gets tapped. I really don't think the answer is to think positively about positive thinking and just try harder. It feels like a physical limit.

I've tried cognitive therapy, and that never seems to run out, because it renews its fuel from a emotional turmoil, and whenever there are distortions, the counter-distortions seem ready to flow out of me naturally. I love cognitive therapy, and it works for when I have distortion-caused neuroses. But there are times when I am negative not because I have distortions. I have negative thoughts in my head, and I know they're false. So I feel like I should be applying proactive positive thinking.

So could someone tell me a specific regiment or routine on how to get started with positive thinking. I already know WHAT positive thoughts to have, but I don't know HOW to make it a regular recurring habit. If possible, can you give me an hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute break-down of what I should be doing to get into positive thinking.

For example, a positive thinking mantra is "every time you have a self-doubting negative thought, replace it with a positive one" If taken literally, that sounds insane. I interpret that to mean I should add a trigger to every negative thought that applies a rebuttal thought afterwards. I've tried doing that anyway, and my mind just gets tired of jumping in at every automatic thought. Maybe I just need to do it for 30 minutes a day, or only every fifth negative thought.

Books on positive thinking read more like they're trying to pump up the benefits of positive thinking. I already agree with those benefits, but I'm looking for a manual, more than a marketing pitch.
posted by philosophistry to Human Relations (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Sorry this is just a quickie, but I use similar techniques and one thing I've found helpful as a.. "kickstart", if you will, is to write down something I can read to get the ball rolling when there's a mental dry spell. Write down statements you can read and, perhaps, even say out loud, that are difficult to argue with - things that are obviously positive or good in your life. While forcing yourself to read things out loud when you're feeling negative will be tough, it's at least a simple manual process and you can force your way through it to, hopefully, a better outcome.
posted by wackybrit at 11:24 AM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

I made my passwords be some randomized form of a positive thought or reminder. Any time I log in, I think "Oh yeah! X is totally awesome!"
posted by bookdragoness at 12:06 PM on September 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not sure this is the kind of idea you're thinking of, but I've always thought it would be a nice thing to try to write a thank you card to someone every day. Maybe not even a thank you card but something saying I miss you or I just think you're great or I'm thinking of you. It would help you channel the positivity into something real and if you wanted to, you could even send the card and make someone happy.
posted by kat518 at 12:47 PM on September 6, 2011

Continue your practice. Taking control over our thoughts takes time and commitment. You might want to look into meditation, which runs in parallel to what you are doing but has specific techniques you can try. (Osho's "Book of Secrets" lists over a hundred different techniques with the goal of finding one that fits the reader.)

Don't give up. The journey is worth it. When space in your mind is freed up from negativity, you have a huge space for creative energy to play.

So my suggestion would be: find a local meditation meetup and find out the different tools available for cooling mind chatter
posted by bprater at 1:36 PM on September 6, 2011

Response by poster: @bprater thanks for mentioning that. I actually do meditation every day, and it helps tremendously. It has stopped me from becoming an over-thinker. However, at times, I'm beset with negative feelings that don't just dissipate with mindfulness. Mindfulness helps me ride the negativity out better, rather than being dragged around in miserably, but I want the negativity to go away.
posted by philosophistry at 2:31 PM on September 6, 2011

Zen teacher Cheri Huber, who is very much not a fan of "positive thinking", would say that this is because you know, deep down, that the "affirmations" you're saying aren't really true. As I wrote before in an answer to a different AskMe:
Cheri doesn't think positive self-talk or affirmations are helpful. She draws a distinction between an "affirmation" and a "reassurance". Repeating an affirmation means repeating something that isn't true. Maybe you want it to be true, but it's not true now. Someone who never moves from the sofa can repeat the affirmation "I am physically active and fit" all they want, but deep down they know it's not true. Someone involved in an unhealthy relationship can repeat "My partner loves, respects, and supports me as an equal" until they turn blue in the face without it having any effect on the partner. Deep down, it's not true.

A reassurance is something you tell yourself that is true. "No matter what, I'm here with you and we'll get through this together." "When I hold myself in compassionate awareness, I am equal to the challenges of my life." "I love you exactly as you are and I will help you work to become whatever you want to be."
Mindfulness helps me ride the negativity out better, rather than being dragged around in miserably, but I want the negativity to go away.

Oh, do I know that feeling. Unfortunately, that's one of the things you can't control. And the more you focus on pushing it away, the more it will dog you. "What we resist, persists."

Cheri's books have been extremely helpful for me — literally life-saving (I would have attempted suicide by now if I hadn't found her books, I feel certain). You might see if your local library has any of them. Some that might be most helpful to you, if you want to explore letting go rather than pushing away, are The Key (And the Name of the Key Is Willingness), (Regardless of What You Were Taught to Believe) There Is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate, How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be and The Depression Book: Depression as an Opportunity for Spiritual Growth.

Best wishes.
posted by Lexica at 2:40 PM on September 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

Try this:
In your bed, last thing at night, just before you go to sleep, think of at least 3 things that were good during the day. Sometimes that will be easy, sometimes it will be hard to find 3 things but keep searching. It maybe something as simple as a flower you saw that made you smile, or the way you let the other driver into your lane.

Doing this trains your brain to have calmer thoughts during the night and sets you up for a positive wake-up.
posted by the fish at 3:55 PM on September 6, 2011

I've found positive affirmations to be ineffective and mind-numbingly dull. In contrast, positive thinking* has a significant and lasting impact for me, and I don't have to be at it all day long or in uninterrupted sit-down sessions. This is very like CBT; in fact, I'm not sure how you're separating "cognitive distortions" from "negative thoughts that aren't true."

How I do it: I don't have to jump on everything, just on the particularly loud or negatively biased thoughts. When I notice one, I take a moment to refute it in whatever ways are appropriate, and I go on my merry way. It becomes more automatic in time, and my baseline is raised so that my first response to things tends to be more positive/forgiving and doesn't need correcting.

Additionally, every once in a while I decide to go around and just enjoy the hell out of everything for the afternoon/evening/date/trip/whatever. "God the air smells great! What a gorgeous sky tonight! What a nice landscape! Happy couple holding hands! I'm feeling comfortable right now! The sun is filtering through that fabric in a lovely way! That woman is enjoying herself! I am lucky to be doing what I am doing right now! This person sitting next to me is hilarious!" Etc. Mainly, I'm being happily mindful.

As a supplement or alternative, you might also like to list a few things you're grateful for each night. I feel it helps me to appreciate more things in general. Again with the lifted baseline.

*This book has lots of here-let-me-convince-you in it, but also includes specific techniques and angles for refutation.

Enjoy the journey!
posted by moira at 4:55 PM on September 6, 2011

The manual on positive thinking is Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.

(He is ex president American Psychology Association)
posted by bukvich at 5:38 PM on September 6, 2011

Response by poster: The thing with Learned Optimism is that it still just tells me what positive thoughts to have. It tells me to make sure my thoughts are like this:
  • problems are temporary, not permanent
  • problems are specific, not general
  • problems are not personal
But it doesn't tell me when, and for how long, to invoke positive thinking. Do I do it for 5 minutes, every morning? Do I do it at each instance that I feel down (with some sort of cap in the day, so you don't over do it?) Do I do it when I'm talking to someone (that can be very distracting)?
posted by philosophistry at 6:05 PM on September 6, 2011

For talking to people: first, I try to assume the best about their intentions. When I catch myself saying something negative, whatever the subject, I'll frequently correct myself in the conversation.

I would not try to use general affirmations during a conversation. If I'm having negative thoughts, I might do an ultra-quick, silent refute, reorient myself in a more positive place, and focus back on the conversation. I might choose to address negative thoughts more thoroughly later.
posted by moira at 7:15 PM on September 6, 2011

I hate affirmations for the same reason: it feels like a big fat lie.

I was reading Conversations with God, Book 1 lately (yeah, I know), and it covered this topic:

God: In this case, instead of thinking “I want success,” think “I have success.”

Walsch: That feels like a lie to me. I’d be kidding myself if I said that. My mind would shout, “The hell you say!”

God: Then think a thought you can accept. “My success is coming to me now,” or “all things lead to my success.”

Walsch: So this is the trick behind the New Age practice of affirmations.

God: Affirmations do not work if they are merely state­ments of what you want to be true. Affirmations work only when they are statements of something you already know to be true.
The best so-called affirmation is a statement of gratitude and appreciation. “Thank you, God, for bring­ing me success in my life.” Now, that idea, thought, spoken, and acted upon, produces wonderful re­sults—when it comes from true knowing; not from an attempt to produce results, but from an awareness that results have already been produced.
Jesus had such clarity. Before every miracle, He thanked Me in advance for its deliverance. It never occurred to Him not to be grateful, because it never occurred to Him that what He declared would not happen. The thought never entered His mind.
So sure was He of Who He Was and of His relation­ship to Me that His every thought, word, and deed reflected his awareness—just as your thoughts, words, and deeds reflect yours.
If, now, there is something you choose to experience in your life, do not “want” it—choose it.

Does that help any? I don't know, but it's an idea.
posted by jenfullmoon at 7:38 PM on September 6, 2011

I'm not sure I understand your question but what I think you are saying is that you know how to substitute positive thoughts for negative ones but if you set aside time for positive thoughts you quickly run out of steam and if you challenge every negative thought then you spending too much energy thinking about your own thinking.

My advice is do it however works for you. But since you asking for ideas of what might work, my suggestions would be
1. Don't worry about spending time just thinking positive thoughts - I think once you learn how (and it sounds like you already have), it is more useful to use it in response to negative thougts.

2. When you notice you are thinking negative thoughts, just take note ('hmm, negative thought there.) When you realize that you having lots of negative thoughts in a row or you feel a negative emotional effect from your thoughts, stop and take time to challenge them. For me, the questions I ask are "is that true? is that helpful? is there another way of thinking about it that is equally (or more) true and more helpful

3. You can't do this wrong!!! - even doing this occasionally will make a difference in the long run. (I read Learned Optimism carefully, thought about it off and on and a few years later realized how much more optimistic I had become.) If you would feel better making up a rule for a minimum amount of positive thinking (challenge all negative thoughts between 10 and 10:15 or challenge every fifth thought) you can, but personally if I did that it would just be a setup for failure so I could beat myself up for not thinking positively the right way or at the right time. So take any of suggestions here and play them - treat it like an experiment - what happens if you do that? if it helps do more. if it doesn't, drop it (and the experiment was successful because it taught you what didn't work for you!)
posted by metahawk at 10:50 PM on September 6, 2011

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