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Why “Be Positive” Isn’t the Best Advice When You’re Down

Depressed man

“Learn the alchemy true human beings know. The moment you accept what troubles you've been given, the door will open.” ~Rumi

As much as I tried to apply personal development ideas in my life, I failed big time.

All the affirmations in the world couldn't make me love myself.

The more I tried to “be present,” the more all-over-the-place my mind became, getting lost in overthinking.

Mindfulness didn’t work for me either. Observing my thoughts got me to chase each and every thought and analyze it. When I tried “letting go,” I just held on tighter.

This was my experience from reading hundreds of popular self-help books over a ten-year period. I studied intensely as if for a PhD, experimenting with the techniques several hundred such books suggested, but still my life wasn’t working very well, to say the least.

My mind was a storm of thoughts and emotions. Sometimes I had panic attacks, which caused me to spend hours in bed, making me unable to work for stretches of time. I tried various drugs (medical and recreational) and other compulsive behaviors in an attempt to get over my depression that descended on me like storm clouds.

Through my job at that time as a journalist, I interviewed some of my favorite personal development authors of the time, in a bid to overcome the low feelings and anxiety that were ruining my life. But little helped.

At first I thought it was just me experiencing such problems—that there was something wrong with my mind—but when I spoke to other people in a support group I started at the time, I realized many people were experiencing the same frustrations as I had with some of the books out there, which made it all sound so easy.

Although they knew they “should” be positive and focus only on what they wanted, they couldn't do it. And then they felt bad about themselves that they couldn’t do it.

Positive Thinking Pressure

Positive thinking is everywhere these days, and yet it’s not helping the depression statistics—which are going up, not down.

“Be positive” has become the new way of telling someone to “cheer up.” It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. It’s hardly like you need to be told that you should feel better. Of course you already know that. Of course you’ve heard it a million times before. And it’s downright annoying and useless to be told it again.

Like Instagram and other forms of social media, this “positive thinking” movement seems to be about living up to an ideal standard of perceived perfection all the time. Not satisfied with looking “perfect,” now you’ve got to think perfectly, too.

It’s like something out of the film The Stepford Wives, where real people are replaced with robots. Denying our emotions is an insult to the journey of what it means to be a human being, and it does nothing to help people feel better.

Why It’s Okay to Be Down

Even the great saints and mystics weren’t this perfect. They had bad days, and they were open about it. Buddhism, for example, teaches in the Noble Truths that pain is universal and inevitable. Of course, there is a difference between “feeling down” and dealing with major depression, but for many of us the former evolves into the latter because we compound our feelings with self-judgment.

Unlike certain dubious New Age “teachings,” these authentic masters understood that negative thinking is part of the human journey, and that it’s okay to feel less than your best sometimes. And they also knew that it’s a quick route to self-hatred to expect any more of yourself.

Without going into the low emotions, we would not feel and appreciate the high emotions. And another thing: it’s the challenges that actually evolve the best times and bring the best out of us by strengthening our “mind” muscles.

Think of going to the gym and telling the trainer you want the ideal body but you don’t want any tension on your muscles. It’s the same with experiencing challenges. The tension of life evolves us. 

What to Do When You’re Feeling Low

When you’re feeling low, the mind races into overthinking and you start trying to figure out a way to get out of the mood. Although doing this makes sense, this is exactly what keeps you stuck there. Like fighting with a giant spider’s web, the more you try to escape, the more trapped you get.

Your Choice: To Fight or Relax

In the middle of a bad mood you think your option is to feel good or not—to “be positive” or “be negative.” But it isn’t. Your two choices are seemingly more limited than this: to be okay with the where you are, or fight against it.

The frightened mind really wants to overthink and so trying to “be positive” becomes near impossible Trying to “be positive” is actually self-criticism; it is sending the message that you “shouldn’t” feel bad. We look for books to help us—suggestions to help us get out of the mood—all the while anchoring deeper into the darkness.

Instead, you want to turn and face where you are. So in other words, you want to go with the anxiety rather than fight against it (and against yourself).

You may not want to be there, but that’s beside the point. Making peace with somewhere you don’t want to be seems illogical, but it’s a necessary step in moving to where you want to be.

Accepting All Parts of Life

Now, whenever I feel low, I know it’s not the end of the world; it’s part of life. When I feel this way, I also know that positive change is on its way. I know that my life is evolving; that new ideas are on their way.

Just as I don’t have a nervous breakdown at the gym when I feel tension in my muscles as I workout, I no longer fall apart when I feel the tension of life evolving me. I welcome it. I accept the process. And I accept myself even when I can't accept the process in any moment. After all, I'm human.

Nothing has gone wrong if we find ourselves feeling less than our best sometimes, despite what we may have read.

Negative thinking will not make your world fall apart—quite the opposite. It is the source of our evolution. And the first step to feeling better is realizing it’s part of the process, and it’s okay. Just as what we resist, persists, it is only in acceptance that we can let go and move on to better feelings and better experiences.

Meditation

Forget rearranging thoughts; trying to sift the positive from the negative. Those “new age” gimmicks will get you nowhere, kind of like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. To shift your life, a more “serious” approach is necessary. And that’s where meditation comes in. It’s something that’s been proven for centuries through all faiths and philosophies. In short: it works.

Through meditation, we come into the present moment and foster a sense of inner calm. It’s not about changing our thoughts. It’s about learning not to attach to them and diminishing their power over us.

Once you’ve made friends with exactly where you are, even with your negativity, a regular practice of meditation will make you less likely to be taken by those storms of negativity in the first place. But if they do take you down occasionally—and they probably will because that’s the journey of being human—you now know what to do about it.

If you are suffering from depression or anxiety I recommend that you find a professional to support you and not do this journey alone.

About Michael James

Michael James is one of the UK’s most revolutionary personal development teachers who shares ideas to help people empower themselves and live their best life. His book LIGHTHOUSE: Navigate the emotional storms and discover the power within you deals with what to do when you feel low – and is available through his website www.michaeljames.be.

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  • Craig

    Wow, thank you for this! I used to think this way and continually remind myself to accept what I’m going through as a natural reaction to what is going on in my life. Its’ important to remember that there is a difference between these two and that accepting what we are going through allows us to learn from it and deal with similar circumstances a better way the next time.

  • What a great post Michael. While I do believe that our attitude towards life does determine our happiness, I’m tired of the simplistic “just think more positively!” approach. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do is admit that things really suck right now and accept that that is ok.

  • kddomingue

    I’ve always thought that it is wrong to try to deny the negative and struggle to make the negative a positive instead. The whole idea is akin to denying your grief when someone you love has died and, instead, plastering a smile on your face and insisting that it’s a positive experience. Sorrow, grief, sadness…..these are all valid feelings. They deserve to be acknowledged and allowed to run their course. I feel that accepting them instead of denying them actually causes them to run their course in a more timely fashion while denying them causes them to linger for much, much longer. If I embrace my sadness, it will soon become peace. I I acknowledge my anxiety, I become calmer. If I accept that life isn’t always a bed of roses, I appreciate the scent and beauty of every rose I encounter exponentially more.

  • Rob

    The simple fact that you state the following (quoted below) is confirmation that positive thinking works, because that’s exactly what you’re doing.

    “Now, whenever I feel low, I know it’s not the end of the world; it’s part of life. When I feel this way, I also know that positive change is on its way. I know that my life is evolving; that new ideas are on their way.”

    Positive thinking isn’t about perfection, (no idea where you might have read that but they should be shot lol) nor is it a magic wand that dismisses the negative feelings or thoughts. It’s a process that replaces the negative with positive to position yourself for positive change in the near future, specifically how you think, or react and act.

    Here’s an example: You get a flat tire, so of course you can be upset, but then you have to think and act. You can either let it ruin your entire day, complain to everyone you see and lament about it as if you’ve been diagnosed with a fatal disease, or you can figure out how to get it taken care of and move forward, feeling good about not letting it ruin your day. Simple, but not always easy, it takes a re-training of the mind. It’s much more involved than someone saying “just be positive.”

    By the way, anyone who says “just be positive” without giving you instruction as to how to do it, is part of the problem.

    Rob Liano
    Best Selling Author, Life Coach and Speaker

  • I tend to agree with Rob, below, and Michael, I totally understand your point, too. I was raised in a pessimistic family that didn’t seem to know anything about positive thinking. My mother, brother, and I all suffered from depression. I first became aware of this in high school as the result of a friend’s jarring comment about my negativity.

    Wrestling with the concept of being more positive, at first I was resentful (for years). I didn’t understand how to become more positive and I didn’t believe that it worked. It took many years for me to turn my negativity around. I’m not sure I could even explain the whole process accurately because so many things were involved in transforming myself.

    Hearing “you should be more positive” was something that I resented at the time.

    One thing that helped me greatly was when I decided to challenge some very dark thoughts to take over (I don’t remember what the thoughts were, but they had to do with fear). Prior to this moment, I had always tried to suppress them.

    When I gave the thoughts permission to get as big as they wanted, I was amazed at what happened. They got very big–I could feel them growing, trying to fill my heart to the point of bursting–then looming over me. But suddenly they kept right on traveling above my head and they dispersed. They simply disappeared, leaving me feeling much lighter, relieved, and no longer afraid. I had no reason to fear them or any other negative thoughts, nor to suppress them any longer. I proved that these negative thoughts had no power over me.

    Becoming more positive is a lifelong process. I, too, still have times when my work becomes frustrating or I see injustice happening and my thoughts turn negative. However, I believe that wherever you place your own thoughts determines how you will feel.

    Ultimately, we do get to choose our own thoughts. Our thoughts make us either happy or sad, contented or frustrated. Sometimes we have to prove this to ourselves through experience–if and when we’re ready.

    People who counsel or coach others need to start where each person is on their own path. They need to find tools to offer people who are not ready to accept simplistic messages like “think more positively.” Friends need to try to understand if they want to remain friends.

    I tell others today that if they want to be more positive and happier, a good way to go about it is to immerse yourself in only positive thoughts, positive activities, and positive people as much as possible. It’s not a fake world–it’s a choice.

    We all have a bad wolf and a good wolf inside of us that are fighting a battle (this is an Indian legend). Which wolf wins? The one you feed.

  • Well said!

  • RT

    Great post Michael,many meaningful points. I am going through a separation after 28 years of marriage and I am doing it alone and I can honestly say, trying to stay positive when what has happened to my life is extremely hard. When you’re up against having to find a job,home and coping with health issues staying positive when you’re up against so much does not always help you cope. But I have done a lot of work to help myself become stronger and cope by focusing on doing what matters now instead of overwhelming myself with how much I have to do to get my life back. It is hard to try to think positive when everything around you is in pieces,you have to cope with what has happened and re-build at the same time. And alone. But accepting what has happened,knowing I am doing the best I can and staying open to my path is helping me feel in a better place. Thank you for sharing. I am always open to learning and would love to read your book and will try to get it through my library.

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Thank you for sharing your story & experiences; This really resonated with me a lot, esp the ‘Positive Thinking’ dilemma….:-)

  • Bullyinglte

    Brene Brown has an amazing video on YouTube about the difference between Sympathy and Empathy. Your points and theme are exactly what she talks about. Having Empathy for someone feeling down and depressive means you are there for them, but don’t try to force them to positive. Sympathy of course does. It’s a wonderful video that all should watch. Great post!

  • badhombrebigdo

    I have the exact same problem that you did/do… It’s not easy.. but what you say is mostly true.. You can’t let the fact that your life is a mess, mess with you. It’s life.. you’re not gonna make it out alive and it’s a mad, mad world.. You just have to accept it, and flex those mental muscles, I guess… It makes more sense that forcing yourself to be positive, even when you know that’s not how you really feel..

  • Thanks for this inspiring article! I always try to be positive and this will help for sure!

  • A great post Michael. Thank you for writing it. I had a similar journey and was forced to examine how my attempts at positive thinking were actually not helping me. Pushing ourselves to think positively all of the time, rather than accepting what is, creates a split in our energy – as you said, it can lead to self-judgment because it doesn’t always make us feel better – and it exacerbates the civil war inside us. It is only by accepting the positive and the negative that we can come to a more peaceful place. It’s a hard journey given all the messaging we’ve received around the power of positive thinking, but for me, it’s been one of the most healing things I’ve ever done. Accepting it all and facing the dark was the only way to the light.

  • Tetyana Nawrocki

    I really don’t understand when all these “staying positive”, “move forward”, “be
    strong”, etc. crap came from! I hear people say all the time: things will change for better, your time will come and other load of bull. Wait a minute…hope is not the same as a delusion and unsupported promises of false prophets!!! Finally someone start to admit lies people believed for so long and without any real evidence to support it.

    Life is a horrible experience. The only reason we agreed for it because we need and wanted to change. You are in Hell. Time to admit it. When everyone start to be honest with themselves by admitting its hopelessness, fear, misery, and pain this world will become a
    much more comfortable place to live in for all. As long as everyone is afraid to admit own situation and embrace it, we are all locked in a horror room of being only one going through this, only one being rejected, abused, or unhappy. The truth is you would be surprised how many people going through the same experiences and need to learn the same life lessons. This hurts tremendously, but there is no other way. Instead of sharing those feelings and experiences false bravado prevails. The US is especially hellish place when it comes to normal human being interactions. It has to be renamed into The US of Formidable Falsehood.
    The thing about life… it will never get better. You only get older and tired; tests will get harder, lessons to learn more complex. If that doesn’t take place I would be worried: you are either cheating yourself of your own life experience by clearly doing what you
    shouldn’t have or you are locked up in an imaginary world and refuse experience feelings. That’s right, people stop experiencing feelings. They run and hide from living behind work, drugs, promiscuous behavior and such. They avoid grief and loss (most valuable experiences) more than a plaque and bravely “moving on”. Common, stop insanity!!! No one can move on. Closure (if available) only triggers beginning a long grieving process. And don’t forget that the first step of it is DENIAL. The end of process is an acceptance of a loss, not celebration of a victory!
    We only can move grief about loss in subconscious and get depressed. That’s the cause of depression in 100%. 75% of population is officially on the antidepressants. But how many are on a street and prescription drugs (unofficial depression meds), shopping and other distraction treatments? The matter of fact there is no way to avoid experiencing loss, only delay and make it that much more painful.

    Every mourned loss provides needed resources for the next painful experience. It makes us wiser, kinder, and more compassionate to each other. At the same time it raises spiritual level. Many die without processing a thing. I guarantee they will process all of it…just in a next life while having to deal with new tasks. It’s like time to go into 2nd
    grade, but material from the 1st grade hasn’t been really processed and learnt. We just hopped over it caused we were told “to move on”. But it turns out it was basics that we failed to learn. So either one has to repeat a grade (repeat lifetime) or get very busy to catch up with the program.

  • ShaunTheCHB

    A very sad and bitter truth to life. I concur. It’s nice to believe things can get better but unless you are presented with evidence that it will happen, you are believing in something that more than likely does not exist. People often say to me that my time will come and things will get better blah blah. But my comeback is always the same “Proof or I won’t believe you”. I will only believe it when I can see it. No one has presented any proof to me…..because as far as I know, there is no proof, they have nothing to back up their claim.

  • Thanks Michael, for this article. It is very much in line with me and strengthens my thought process. I am going to retain this article for reference.

  • Ivan Kehelly

    Feeling blue today. I am just going to be with it and not make it mean anything. It’s a bodily sensation with a voice over.