I think people who ridicule positivity, think positivity is easy. — @jonnysun via Twitter
Think positive! Just be happy! Just stop being anxious!
You know that common saying “just think positive” in response to someone sharing their hardship? Well, I hate that saying. It makes it sound simple, and from my experience, rather unrealistic. If a person who suffers from clinical depression shares with a friend how they are struggling and said friend responds with “just think positive”, a few things tend to happen.
First, that struggling person has a rather large urge to punch their friend in the face. Second, the statement cannot even register with them because their mood threshold is so low that positivity isn’t even on their radar. To them, it’s just an annoying reminder of what they don’t have or can’t experience. Now sure, the aforementioned person probably didn’t know what to say or probably thought they were being helpful (I like to give people the benefit of the doubt). However, I believe that the statement perpetuates the negative stigma of mental illness and just further encourages people to hide behind how they are really feeling.
A more effective way to combat negative thinking than “just think positive” is being realistic with yourself. I can’t expect to tell a clinically depressed person to “think positive” and expect them to change. They are at such a low in their life, that the idea of positivity is a huge mountain. How can someone climb a mountain without tools, some water, and decent boots? How can a depressed person be happy if they don’t know how?
A helpful way to look at this is in terms of your personal explanatory style – the manner in which you habitually explain to yourself why things happen. Basically, the way we interpret information gets manifested into what we believe about both ourselves and the world.
Martin Seligman, a well-respected psychologist and founder of Positive Psychology, breaks down the three components of explanatory styles – Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization (or the Three P’s):
Permanence: How long will this last? Will it last forever or is it a setback I can move past over time?
Example: “I’m never going to be smart enough” vs. “Maybe I just haven’t learned that yet”
We have a tendency to believe that when something bad happens to us, it might last forever – that it is permanent. When we experience something and then interpret it as bad or negative, we tend to believe these things will be long-lasting even if they likely won’t.
Pervasiveness: Is it universal? Is it unavoidable or is it conditional?
Example: “I’m incapable of being organized” vs. “I need to practice being more structured”
We also typically apply one slip-up to all areas of our lives. Meaning, if we’re bad at one thing, it probably means we’re bad at everything.
Personalization: Is the problem a fault with who you are or is it a thing that just happens?
Example: “I’m terrible at my job” vs. “Today sucked but I know I can do better”.
We tend to interpret mistakes or negative events as a reflection of who we are. If we make a mistake it must mean we’re bad at the core of our being.
In the chart below, I use the words optimist and pessimist loosely to indicate the differences in how people interpret life events.
As you can see, to the “optimist” good things that happen are considered a constant, and because we deserve it. While bad things are situational and temporary.
The opposite is true of the “pessimist”. They tend to believe that good things that happen to them are temporary and random, while bad things are predicted and because they feel they do not deserve good things.
The way that we interpret information is self-fulfilling. If we believe and think bad things are always going to happen to us, they most likely will. When we are looking at life through this pessimistic fog, we are not opening our eyes to see the potential for good things to occur.
Like I’ve said before I’m big on being realistic so I know it’s impossible to make this switch overnight. The concept of “fake it ’till you make” it comes to mind. You might not believe that you deserve good things that happen to you, but pretending you do alerts your brain to store that as a positive experience which then increases the likelihood of you doing it again.
As you go about your day, take time to reflect on how you’re interpreting things that happen to you. Use some of the questions stated above when thinking about the three P’s. If you make a mistake, is it because you’re an awful person who can never get anything right? Or is it realistic to say that you made a mistake, or maybe you didn’t prepare enough.
If you believe you’re an awful person who can never get anything right, when something else happens it is just going to reinforce that belief and become self-fulfilling.
Take a break from the self-sabotage by attempting to believe that bad things are temporary and external causes and good things are pervasive and permanent and definitely because you’re a kick-ass person who deserves all the good things.