On Negative Thinking.
So much talk about positive vs negative thinking. But what is it exactly? What are negative thoughts, and why do we need to stop them?
When I had cancer, here’s something I heard a lot – “You just need to keep thinking positively!” After hearing this for about the thousandth time, I began to realise most people didn’t actually believe thinking and speaking positively was going to help me get better. Asking me to think positively was actually for the most part just something to say when they didn’t know what else to say.
But something else became clear to me also, after many years working in cancer supportive care and mental health support.
People were talking about positive and negative thinking as this big thing with immense power over circumstances and people, over minds and metaphysics and the Universe and even over God, but only as it applied to very sick people or people under extreme duress.
In other words, not themselves.
So they would ask a sick person not to talk about their being sick, and make out like being sick and not talking about it definitely helped sick people get better more quickly. Further, they talked about it in such a way, with such fervour and pragmaticism, that if you were sick and talked about being sick, you could be forgiven for thinking just the talking alone was likely to cause a far more rapid and certain demise.
And somehow all this was considered positive thinking.
Nobody ever seemed to think about the consequences of a very sick person never getting to talk about their experience, their pain or ask for help with that, or their believing talking about it was likely to make them sicker and maybe die. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t see how this is positive.
Further, the person asking the sick or hurting person to stop being negative often seemed to do so because they felt helpless and inadequate to do very much else, even though it would’ve been so much skin off their nose to simply sit with the person and listen for a while. And the feelings of helplessness and inadequacy which caused a person to say something benign like “You just need to keep thinking positively!” was never considered to be a kind of negative thinking or itself.
So, let’s review what we’ve just learned. Having cancer (or some other physical or perhaps mental illness, or having suffered abuse or realising you’re an addict or a perpetrator and need help) and needing to talk about that is considered negativity, but believing you have no power or capacity to help a person with cancer (or any of the other life-impacting issues above) feel better, and telling them that to even utter a word of complaint, or own their problem, or articulate their fear will make them get sicker and maybe die faster.
And I started to believe maybe we needed some help to work out what what kind of thinking can really be classed as negative, if, that is, negative means –
• unhelpful, and not conducive to getting help
• unhealthy, not enriching or life-enhancing
• incapacitating, or speaking to lack of capacity
• not reflecting the reality of the situation, and
• not connecting people in meaningful ways.
Because when it comes to a person in pain telling another person about that pain, and then the person being told about the pain wanting to run away, or deny it’s happening, or not do anything about it or just not hear it in the first place, I tend to think there’s a lot more in the above list applicable to the latter person just described than to the former.
So, I guess there’s negative thinking, and then there’s negative thinking.
Negative thinking – what it ISN’T.
• Telling others you have, or describing, a medical or mental illness is not negativity. This is passing on information. Being informed, and being informative, is positive.
• Telling others you are experiencing pain or describing that pain – mental, emotional or physical – is not negativity. Verbalising and expressing your pain to a person who can help you is essential in getting help with that pain. Getting help with your pain is positive.
• Informing others you are an addict or alcoholic is not negativity. Acknowledging you have an illness or area in which you need help, and accepting help and support, is positive.
• Informing someone you are experiencing or have experienced abuse is not negativity. The first step to moving out of and processing the consequences of abuse is reporting that abuse, and describing the consequences and circumstances surrounding it. Verbalising the conditions and results of abuse is positive.
What negative thinking actually is.
• Believing pain and process are not inevitable in life. Such thoughts will cause you to demand perfection and invulnerability of yourself and others in the face of pain and process, vulnerability and imperfection. Expecting perfection of self and others is negative thinking.
• Believing yourself inadequate to render appropriate and generous support, kindness, gentleness, compassion and understanding to a fellow human being in distress. Withdrawing from hurting people because of your fear of inadequacy, or of their pain, is selling yourself short. You have so much to offer, and even the smallest of kind gestures will help. To be mindfully present is to help. To not believe in your amazing capacity to always be able to be kind and compassionate is negative thinking.
• Denial of your own flaws, and your capacity to hurt others, for vice and avarice, is negative thinking. Believing there is such a thing as the “other” is negative thinking.
• Ignoring, neglecting, denying or providing justification for abuse of any kind. Believing this is ever okay is negative thinking.
There are others we could add to this list.
What you’ve probably believed was negative thinking or negativity are perhaps not quite correct, and even unhelpful. We thought it was plain old bad to talk about our pain, but asking a hurting person not to talk about that hurt is like asking a starving person not to to ask for something to eat.
Behind every complaint, every sad tale, every description of illness or abuse, there is a person with a story. The real story may not be the story they are telling you, but stories of pain are always a request for help in some form. There is a place for affirmations; they can and do work. But the hurting ones’ cry to be heard is not “negativity”; the negative thinking is our belief we are inadequate to offer them more.
(c) Jo Hilder 2015