A Survival Guide for Uncertain Times #3: Positive Thinking?
It is the end of week three of Donald Trump’s presidential term, and this week my Survival Guide will address the pitfalls of positive thinking. I have spoken to many people who didn’t vote for Trump and are now struggling with his daily tweets, executive orders and Cabinet appointments. I find that many of these people are either completely negative about Trump’s presidency or are trying to stay positive but failing miserably.
When you are completely comfortable with uncertainty, a positive outlook comes naturally. You are not rattled by new events or tweets and can sustain faith that life will work out one way or another. It doesn’t mean you are not concerned or active in your community, you just tend not to worry so much about the future. Most people, though, have some degree of fear of the unknown, and turn either to negative or to positive thinking to help themselves feel certain, while deep down they are really afraid. The problem is that the certainty we seek doesn’t exist. The more we try to lock into any perspective, the more pain and chaos we feel.
A person feeling negativity towards the Trump administration will feel pain most of the time because they are always projecting that whatever is occurring today cannot get better or that bad things are sure to happen in the future. The person trying to maintain a positive outlook will experience a roller coaster of emotions whenever uncertainty arises. How many times since Trump has taken office have you said, “I am going to try to be more positive about this presidency” only to fall apart when you come home and read some of his tweets about “3 million illegal votes” or CNN’s “fake news”? How many times have you woken up in the morning saying, “Today I am going to try to be more positive. I believe I can make a difference. I will win the fight against the nomination of Betsy DeVos or save the EPA and advocate for the environment”? Then, as the day or week goes on, you find out that Betsy DeVos is confirmed by the Senate and then read the news about legislation being introduced to get rid of the EPA. If you fear the unknown, these turns of fate will most likely propel you into a worried, anxiety-ridden, negative state. Our fear of what these events might mean for the future overtakes our ability to stay positive.
I rode this type of emotional roller coaster for most of my life. After decades of struggling with the pain and pressure of trying to shape my perceptions positively, one day I heard a simple Taoist story that introduced me to the idea of Maybe. The instant I heard this story, my life immediately changed. I was struck with the realization that every situation has multiple possible outcomes. Maybe something else could happen other than the thing I feared most. It totally transformed my relationship with uncertainty.
With the mindset of Maybe, we can stay positive and open because we hold onto the realization that we are not “stuck” when life throws us a curve ball. The minute we hear someone we oppose is confirmed by the Senate or there is another executive order banning immigration, we realize that we are not automatically doomed. Maybe we can manage the situation. Maybe we can file a lawsuit. Maybe the judicial branch will provide checks and balances. Maybe the Cabinet member that was confirmed by Congress will do some good things. Maybe we need to act. Maybe things will be tough for a while. Or Maybe everything in this moment is still okay. And yes, this also includes (as much as some people might want to resist) the idea that Maybe Donald Trump will pass some good legislation down the road.
With Maybe we realize that uncertainty guarantees us only one thing — that life will change again, offering us new possibilities. Maybe is not a passive approach to life or a naive view of what is happening in the world today. Instead, it allows you to give up the projection of fear and worry about what this moment means for the future, and lands you firmly in the present. Being present allows you to act with strength and resilience and hold hope for a better tomorrow. We should celebrate our “not knowing.” It leaves us with unlimited possibilities.
Here is a great Maybe exercise that I do when I feel fearful and unsure about the President’s actions. (By the way, if you feel positively about Trump’s policies, you run the same risk of being on an emotional roller coaster ride if you struggle with uncertainty. At some point, life will throw you something unexpected. So, this exercise is good for you, too!)
First, spend a few minutes thinking about the current situation that is causing you stress and worry. Write down a statement about how you feel about it.
Now ask yourself, are your worries and stressful thoughts absolute? Can you know for certain how things will turn out? If you are not certain, try to acknowledge that other possibilities exist. How does the thought that other possibilities exist make you feel?
Next, challenge your statement with the idea of Maybe. Write down the following: “Maybe my beliefs about my situation are not true; Maybe what is happening is good; Maybe what is happening is awful but I can help improve the situation; Maybe I can find a way to accept whatever I am experiencing and still be all right; Maybe, in time, I will know what to do next; Maybe I need to act; Maybe there is something in this moment for me to experience.” You can put these statements in your own words or just use the ones above. How does your situation look against the idea of Maybe? Do you feel more hopeful? Do you see that the situation can work out differently than you were fearing it would?
Write these Maybe statements down a few times each day and review them often. If you can, add more Maybe statements that challenge your stress and worry about the current situation. Keep your attention on these Maybe statements the next few days and see what happens to your fears and worries.
Maybe allows us to see that uncertainty can be the most hopeful part of our lives. It actually supports us to stay positive with a looser grasp of what the future holds.
No matter your politics, most often you begin to see that each situation you face has many possible outcomes. Maybe you need to march, petition, go to town meetings, run for office, or make your voice heard in some other way. Because if you don’t like what is happening today, Maybe with some time and effort things can get better tomorrow, or next year, or MAYBE in the next election.
Keep hope alive!
Originally published at www.psychologytoday.com.