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I’m a psychologist, but I don’t always think positively, and I don’t think you need to either!

The difference between positive thinking and helpful thinking

I’m a psychologist, but I don’t always think positively. I know how this sounds, “how could someone be a psychologist and not always think positively?” 

When faced with a really challenging or negative situation, I never found it helpful when people told me, “Think about how much worse things could be!” Or, “Other parts of your life are going well, try to focus on those!” In the era of social media, we are inundated with pictures of smiling people and inspirational quotes; but, when I’m dealing with challenges, I often find myself frustrated with this content. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with positive or optimistic thinking, because it does work for many people! However, I have always struggled to understand why the solution to coping with a negative situation is thinking and feeling positively?

Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)

When I was introduced to REBT, I not only found the model logical, but also refreshing! REBT is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that was founded by Dr. Albert Ellis in the 1950s. REBT is a research-based treatment that focuses on the relationship between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors [https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/jclp.22514]. The premise of REBT is that we feel how think, so by changing the way we think about situations, we can change the way we feel and react.

One of the hallmarks of REBT is the distinction between positive and helpful thinking. In other words, rather than encouraging people to think positively about negative or challenging events, REBT therapists work with patients to think in more helpful ways. Helpful ways of thinking give way to more helpful, but not necessarily positive, emotional and behavioral reactions. Let me explain.

1. Get Logical

Does it logically make sense that we try and feel happy or joyful about a negative situation? No, because we have negative emotions for a reason. We feel anxiety in the face of danger to signal to us that something is wrong, and we need to take action. However, sometimes our mind produces false alarms. We may feel anxious about losing a big client at work, but losing a client isn’t an actual threat to our safety. That’s where the distinction between unhelpful and helpful emotions comes into play. It wouldn’t be helpful to feel happy at the prospect of losing a client, especially if your goal is to build your client base. Feeling anxious also isn’t very effective, because anxiety often leads to the avoidance of situations that we are anxious about! In REBT, we don’t expect people to eliminate negative emotions, but instead try to experience helpful negative emotions. So in the case of losing a client, we’d suggest trying to experience emotions such as concern or worry. These emotions are negative, but are actually motivating rather than paralyzing!

2. Think Helpfully Rather Than Positively

In REBT, unhelpful thoughts (aka Irrational Beliefs) are beliefs that lead to emotional distress and unhelpful negative emotions because they are rigid, illogical, and not based in reality. On the other hand, helpful thoughts (aka Rational Beliefs) lead to helpful emotional responses because these types of thoughts are flexible, logical, and consistent with reality- however, they aren’t always positive.

3. Prefer Don’t Demand

Let’s take a closer look at the difference between unhelpful and helpful beliefs. If you miss a deadline at work, you may think, “I shouldn’t have missed that deadline!” This thought isn’t super helpful, because you did miss the deadline, and no matter how much you demand the situation be different, you can’t change what happened. The more we demand that reality be different (and it doesn’t change) the more upset we become. I don’t know about you, but when I’m anxious or upset, I find it challenging to do anything productive. If you tried to change this thought to something more positive, you might say to yourself, “I’ll look at the glass half-full…at least I have a job!” However, if you keep missing deadlines, you may no longer have that job! Positive thinking may help you to feel better, but it may not encourage you to take action.

In REBT, we suggest aligning our thinking with the reality of the situation. In this case, that means recognizing that no matter how much we wish or want the situation to be different (that we didn’t miss the deadline), we can’t change what happened. Just because we want situations to be a certain way, there is no reason life has to do what we want. In this example, a more helpful and realistic way of thinking may be, “I really wish I didn’t miss that deadline, but just because I wish I didn’t mess-up this deadline, there is no way to change what happened.” This type of thinking acknowledges the reality of the situation, while also refraining from forcing yourself to feel positively about a work mistake, or trying to sugar coat what happened. When thinking this way, you may not feel happy or content with the outcome of the situation, but you also aren’t likely going to be debilitated by anxiety or panic.

4. Build-Up Frustration Tolerance

Another type of thinking I hear a lot is, “I just can’t stand that I made such a huge mistake on my presentation!” In response, I’ve heard this positive alternative, “Look on the bright side, it’s a beautiful day outside! I’m sure everything will work itself out.” You know what, everything might not work itself out, especially if you don’t do anything to try and initiate change. Thinking about how beautiful it is outside may calm your nerves for a moment or two, but this positive thinking isn’t addressing the main issue… that you believe it’s impossible to tolerate the fact that you made a mistake. Of course you can tolerate making a mistake, but the more you tell yourself that you can’t, the more you will believe this unhelpful thought! Instead, I’d suggest trying a more helpful (but not necessarily optimistic) way of thinking, such as: “Even though it’s really bad that I made the mistake, and there may be consequences, I’ve figured out how to fix mistakes in the past, and I will figure out how to fix this one the best that I can.” This way of thinking is much more in line with reality (i.e., that you can tolerate making a mistake), because we have all made mistakes (big and small) and came out on the other end. This realistic way of thinking will motivate you to take action to fix what is within your control.

Not everything in life is rainbows and roses, and sometimes situations are bad. When faced with a negatives situation, I can’t trick myself into thinking positively. Sometimes the cup may be half-empty, but trying to tell myself that it’s half-full could lead to resignation or avoidance. Why fix something that I convince myself doesn’t need fixing? Instead, I work to think in more realistic, flexible, and helpful ways so that I stop making negative situations more challenging, and I’m better equipped to tackle the problems and challenges at-hand.  

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