Why positive thinking often doesn’t work, and what you can do instead

Do you spend a lot of energy thinking positively? Turning those negative thoughts into positive ones? Many find it’s not that easy and that positive thinking doesn’t last in the long run. And, surprising to many, positive thinking can even contribute to the problem. In this article, we will explore why that happens and suggest effective alternatives.

Thought spirals: when positive thinking keep us trapped in negative emotions

Have you ever become trapped in a discussion with yourself, trying to convince yourself that everything will be okay? Then you are not alone. Many converse with themselves for several hours a day. Often, this is based on the idea that thoughts about catastrophes can be resolved through reasoning and arguing with them. But, almost always, an argument is followed by the question: “But what if...?"

The result is counter arguments flying back and forth inside your head, like a game of ping-pong.

A primary problem of positive thinking is that it requires you to engage with the thought, or otherwise acknowledge that the thought is something bad and needs to be compensated. By doing that, you are likely to make it out to be more than it really is. Thoughts are just thoughts. They are not good, bad, healthy, or unhealthy. They are a construct of our imagination that holds no power over reality. Earlier, we wrote a practical article that explains why you probably want to avoid doing this when suffering from anxiety: Excessive worrying - why it happens and how you can stop it.

Surprising to many, negative thought spirals can be sustained by positive thinking.

Consider this: when trying to convince yourself to believe something you don’t actually believe, your brain will almost certainly come up with counter arguments. And research shows that we cannot control what thoughts we have. The result is that you are almost guaranteed to become stuck in an inner dialogue where you flip between negative and positive thoughts. For every positive or sensible thought you bring into the discussion, a new negative thought pops up. It won’t stop.

You may even have experienced that trying to convince yourself through positive thinking often does the opposite of what you intended.

Also, it doesn't help that on social media, we are being bombarded with well-meant advice about how you can improve your mood and self-esteem through thinking positively. In case you have tried this and are now suspecting that positive thinking may not really solve the problem, then you are right. Unfortunately, positive thinking sometimes provides temporary relief, though it typically has no lasting effect on your mood, self-esteem, or motivation. This has now been confirmed in recent scientific studies.

But luckily, there’s still something we can do. Because though we cannot control which thoughts we get, we can certainly control how we behave around our thoughts. For many, this offers a solution.

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How to deal with negative thoughts

First, it's important to clarify that we can't truly stop having negative thoughts. If you are human, you have negative thoughts - even if you don't have anxiety. So, what’s the difference between someone with, and someone without, anxiety?

Convincing research shows that people who are able to leave their thoughts alone will feel better. They are more present in their lives and suffer less from anxiety, depression, or other common mental illnesses.

By spending energy on trying to replace negative thoughts and feelings with positive ones, we might be giving them too much credit altogether. We are telling our brain that negative thoughts and feelings are dangerous and have real consequences on our reality. So, they need to be dealt with promptly. But none of this is true!

To avoid this cycle of forceful thinking, you could try the following:

  • Stop answering negative thoughts and emotions with pep talks and positive thoughts.
  • Don’t turn your attention inward towards negative thoughts about yourself.
  • Don’t turn your attention inward towards negative feelings of sadness or a lack of motivation. You don’t need to analyze or “feel your negative emotions fully” for them to pass. Quite the opposite is true.
  • Take a step back. Try to notice when you start spiraling into thoughts where you try convincing yourself that everything is okay, that you can do it, or that you are good enough. Much of the time, you’ll notice that your thoughts are just going in circles after 2-3 minutes. At that point, you might as well end the discussion.
  • Actions are independent of thoughts and emotions. You don’t need the right feelings or thoughts to initiate an action. Go ahead with what you have planned. Take the first steps. Your mood and motivation often follow. Either way, if not, you will still end up feeling better because you accomplished something.
  • Turn your attention outward towards what you are doing and what is happening around you at that moment. Thoughts and emotions are fleeting in nature and will self-regulate if left alone. An outward focus allows your self-regulating thoughts to work uninterruptedly.
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Negative thoughts and worries are normal. They are not the root cause of your anxiety. What it boils down to is that you can give up the fight in good conscience. We may not be able to stop the negative thoughts, but we can be less bothered by them. A lot less bothered.

With an outward focus, you can have thoughts like, “I am an ugly loser,” and still go on the date you have planned. In the same way, you can think, “I can’t do this,” and continue working on your task. And you can think, “This is making me anxious,” and remain connected in a conversation. You can be engaged in life - with whatever thoughts and feelings you have - whether or not they are negative.

Focus on the world around you instead of your thoughts and emotions. Doing what you want to do becomes easier, and your relationship with yourself will improve.

If you liked this article, then you might also like the follow-up article, “I can’t think positively. There has to be something wrong with me!”, where we discuss why some people find it difficult to think positively, and how this could result in your feeling worse.

Want to learn more?

If you liked this article and want to learn more then consider downloading our free PDF '3 steps to less worry and anxiety' where we present our favorite strategies on how to reduce anxiety.

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