Could Thinking Positively Be Dangerous Right Now?
Interview with Russ Harris
If, like me, you’ve started opening the newspapers each day with a sense of dread and disbelief about that latest actions of President Trump and his administration, it can be hard to figure out exactly what you’re meant to do with these feelings. Should you be protesting loudly? Trying to trust the checks and balances of government? Or hoping someone braver than you will step in and rescue us?
The truth is that when you’re feeling fearful it’s natural for your mind to get caught up in lots of thoughts about worse case scenarios for what might happen in the future. And these can fuel your anxieties and cause you to spiral downwards towards feelings of overwhelm, despair and even depression.
One way psychologists suggest dealing with these thoughts is to reframe them by recognizing these worse case scenarios as the stories that they are, gently challenging yourself to find other equally plausible and more optimistic explanations and then investing your attention and energy into the stories that serve you best until you have more information. This optimistic explanatory style has been found to help improve your resilience, your performance and your wellbeing.
For example, it could be true that President Trump’s efforts to restrict Muslims from entering the United States will create more pain and hatred in the world from which we’ll never really recover. It could also be true that his efforts will result in more connection and love in the world as people choose to take a stand against religious intolerance and racism.
It’s easy to imagine how each of these stories would leave you thinking, feeling and acting in quite different ways. But is trying to reframe negative emotions into more optimistic explanations the best way to deal with our discomfort?
Is thinking positively actually dangerous for us?
“You can’t expect to stop difficult emotions such as anxiety, fear, or self-doubt arising in challenging or difficult situations,” explained Russ Harris psychotherapist, world-renowned trainer of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), coach and best-selling author of The Happiness Trap when I interviewed him recently. “But instead of trying to control these thoughts and feelings, by just accepting them as a normal part of reality, you can then choose to act in a way that reflects your heart’s deepest desires about how you want to treat yourself and others in the world around you.”
Russ suggests that despite all your efforts at positive thinking, it’s not going to stop your difficult thoughts or feelings from showing up again and again during challenging times. In fact, research has found that trying to suppress your negative thoughts can actually backfire on you, and leads to an increase of negativity.
“You need to give all your emotions the space to come and go” says Russ. “But rather than passively abandoning yourself to them, or responding in an automatic pilot mode that can lead to self-defeating behaviors — such as procrastinating, losing your temper, or gossiping — be guided by your values to choose what actions you can take in the face of challenges.”
How can ACT help you live your values in the face of challenges?
Russ provides three strategies to living your life according to your deepest heart-felt values:
· Be present — anchor yourself in the moment by bringing your awareness to either the physical world around you or the psychological world within you, or to both, rather than running on “automatic pilot.” Get back into your body by taking a couple of deep breaths, pushing your feet into the floor, or having a stretch, and notice where you are, what you can see, touch, taste, and smell around you. Be truly present to what’s unfolding and how it’s making you feel.
For example, try anchoring your feet to the floor next time you read about President Trump, take some deep slow breaths and notice how his actions are making you feel.
· Open up — unhook yourself from negative or self-critical thoughts and feelings, by taking a step back and seeing them as just words and images passing through your mind. Instead of fighting them, resisting them, running from them, or getting overwhelmed by them, make room for painful feelings by recognizing they are completely normal and allowing them to be as they are. Practicing self-compassion — talking to yourself like a wise and kind friend might — can be helpful to acknowledge the pain you’re feeling and offer yourself comfort. Of course, this doesn’t mean liking them or wanting them, just that you’re willing to make room for them.
For example, if you’re feeling afraid, dismayed or overwhelmed by President Trump’s choices, recognize that these feelings are completely natural and allow them to be felt. Let the feelings and thoughts pass through you, so you can put your energy into living your values and doing the things that make life meaningful.
· Do what matters — Deep in your heart, you know what you stand for and want your life to be about. Tap into these values and use them as a compass to guide you towards taking the kind of committed actions that make your life rich, full, and meaningful. Values-guided actions may not always be pleasant or pain-free, but they are the things worth doing.
For example, if love and connection are important values you hold, then start taking committed actions to bring more of this into the world right now. It might be practicing loving kindness meditation each morning, reaching out to people of other religions or races and offering words of support, or joining peace marches to make your voice heard.
What can you do to accept your negative emotions and commit to taking value-driven action in these challenging times?