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When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Help

Sad girl

“The best way out is always through.” ~Robert Frost

Earlier this year my partner, our son, and I all moved to Santa Barbara from Oregon. People move all the time, but for us it was a huge step.

My partner had a new exciting dream job, and we were eager to experience the sunshine of California. But our son was only six months old at the time, and we were leaving both our families and all of our friends. On top of that, I was leaving my successful private practice in Chinese Medicine to become a stay-at-home-mom.

I knew it was going to be hard, but I was determined to turn the move into a positive new opportunity for myself. It was a chance to renew my commitment to blogging, perhaps work on that book I’ve been talking about writing, maybe start a coaching practice?

We arrived in January, excited to find sunny skies and mild weather, while our friends and family were complaining about the rain. We both started a cleanse, determined to start the New Year off to a healthy start. We walked more, took our son out for strolls.

My partner went off to work, and I was determined to dive into re-inventing my business. All I needed was determination, the right attitude, and everything would just come flowing my way, right?

Friends would call and ask me how I was: “GREAT!” I would answer, determined to keep a smile on my face.But it wasn’t great. Nothing was working. In the few spare minutes I had between chasing a six-month-old, I would try and write. But I was stuck and I couldn’t figure out why.

I even hired a life coach, thinking all I needed was someone to point me in the right direction. The first thing she said was “You are back at square one, it’s not time to be making plans.” I burst into tears.

She explained how I had to take the time to grieve my old life. I had to grieve the loss of my career, my identity, friends, family, even the loss of my favorite grocery store if that is what it took.

No wonder nothing was working! I was so determined to think positively about my new transition I didn’t even take time to feel sad.

It was like I hadn’t even landed in my new home; I was just walking around about a foot off the ground in a bubble of “everything is fine,” when really, I wasn’t fine; I was sad.

I took her advice and it made all the difference. Here is what I learned about when positive thinking can actually slow you down:

Feel your feelings; just don’t attach meaning to them.

I was so afraid to feel sad because I thought I would be blocking myself from positive experiences. The trick was letting myself feel the sadness without attaching a story to it. Like, “I will never find friends” or “I will never get my practice started.” It was the negative stories that weren’t helpful, not my feelings.

Feelings are just like the weather; they can’t be controlled and they are always changing. I found that if I just let myself be in the sadness, it passed so much quicker.

Take the time you need for yourself.

Shortly after this realization I took some time just for myself. I quit blogging, quit planning, quit putting so much pressure on myself, and just let myself be sad. I cried. I napped when my son napped.

Planning and being busy were just another way for me to avoid how I was feeling. I needed time to turn inward, not expand outward.

Even in grief there is room for gratitude.

This was a hard one because I wanted to blame my unhappiness on our new home. But as hard as I tried, the beauty and charm of our new home won me over.

As I took time for myself, I made sure to be grateful that we had landed in such a beautiful spot. Having something to be grateful for really helped me keep my head above water.

The time for dreaming will come again.

At one point I thought it was never going to shift, but then it did. Little by little, I began being excited by life here. I stopped feeling like I was missing something so much. With that shift came new friendships, new business opportunities, even a renewed sense of fun and adventure in my relationship.

This was the magic I was looking for; it had to come from a place of true, grounded joy, not hollow optimism that I thought I had to fake.

There is nothing wrong with trying to keep a positive attitude, but it can’t come at the expense of your true feelings.

Only by allowing yourself to be present with more difficult emotions can you begin to move through them and create space for a new experience. Real happiness comes only when the positive thoughts in your head are aligned with the true joy in your heart.

Man under raincloud image via Shutterstock

About Allison Carr

Allison Carr is a writer, healer, coach and mother. She helps people find more magic, meaning and passion in their lives through writing, teaching and private sessions. She lives in Santa Barbara with her partner and their son. She can be found at http://allisoncarr.net.

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  • Hi Allison,

    Thank for sharing your interesting personal story. I think we should not hide what we feel. Because it won’t go anywhere. Soon or later it will show up.

    I tend to agree it is be and feel it as it feels.

    I am in the situation like you’re moving home too. I am stuck in the middle of my way but let’s deal with it and hopefully I will get something as result soon.

    Hope you are now happy with your new home!

  • Hi Allison,

    thanks for sharing this moving story of your new life. I am 100% with you about positive thinking. It’s supposed to make us feel good, but because we too often use positive thinking to hide our true feelings, it doesn’t have the desired feeling.

    By reading your post I know realize that every time I have moved from one country to another, I took the time to grieve and acknowledge the fact that I was sad to leave although I was looking forward to my new life in the new country. And yes, I grieved over a favorite grocery store (!), or it was the view from my apartment in Vienna, or the beautiful week-ends in Mexico, or my friends in Paris.

    Wish you all the best in Santa Barbara!

    Anne

  • Allison Carr

    Best of luck with your move Santel, just give yourself room to breath and feel and adjust, you will be moving forward in no time!

  • Allison Carr

    Thank you Anne, I’m glad someone could relate to the grocery store thing! It felt silly, but it was so true. Sometimes it is the smallest things that we miss the most!

  • Kimi Sokhi, Nutritionist

    Hi Allison- thanks for sharing this article. This is very timely for me as I am moving to a different country in about a month, and overall feel like it’s going to be a positive step in my life. However, it’s important to not “sugar-coat” the loss of the old life so that you can grieve it, feel it and make space for a new life. Thanks!

  • Allison, Thank you for sharing your journey. As one that was just laid off in December, I know exactly what you were feeling in the beginning and the way you are feeling now! Such wisdom in what you said “There is nothing wrong with trying to keep a positive attitude, but it can’t come at the expense of your true feelings.”

  • Anonymous

    Allison,

    I know that my situation isn’t completely related to yours but I’m going through a breakup right now and one of your points really stood out to me:

    “Take the time you need for yourself.”
    “Planning and being busy were just another way for me to avoid how I was feeling.”

    I head to the local library everyday after my 8-hour workday to work on trying to find out what I want to do with my life career-wise and yesterday, I just couldn’t do it. I’ve been putting so much pressure on myself to pick myself up after the breakup and I just told myself that I’m allowed to go home and relax if I need it, and skip a day of trying to be “productive”. How applicable that was to the point you made.

    Your other point:

    “Feel your feelings; just don’t attach meaning to them.”

    is also extremely powerful. I haven’t thought about feeling my raw emotions as they are, but I’m sure it will be helpful to do so.

    Thank you for your wonderful article. Best wishes.

  • Great article Allison. I really liked the part about gratitude. When we have problems we tend to forget all the good and focus on the negative. And even though that comes naturally, I think that taking the time to note what we are thankful for can help to shape a more positive outlook. Thank you for sharing!

  • Allison Carr

    Thanks for sharing your story. Yes, please take time for yourself as you go through this painful transition! It can be so hard to feel painful emotions, but sometimes just sinking into them for a few seconds helps them pass more easily.

  • Allison Carr

    Thank you Brenda, I’m so glad it resonated with you. Here’s to new beginnings, in what ever form they come!

  • Allison Carr

    Wishing you all the best for your move Kimi!

  • Allison Carr

    Yes, gratitude helped me so much to stay out of the victim place. Thanks for sharing Paul.

  • Allison,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I can relate to a lot of what you are saying here. Especially the trying to remain positive and keep up a front until the situation comes back to where it should be.
    I have been in a run or slump or whatever you want to call it lately. As a mater of fact my last blog post was about being in a perfect storm scenario with everything coming at me at once and ending up in a funk. i have been working on backing off from everything while maintaining my daily responsibilities.

    Thank you again and take care,

    Eric

  • Helen mushtaq

    A lovely article. Thank you for sharing your story. I especially found the “don’t attach meaning to your feelings” part helpful. Its not easy these days to just stop and allow ourselves space to check in on how we are feeling. But when we can do it and just allow ourselves to just feel without judging our feelings or trying not to feel that way, we can reach a place of acceptance. And in this acceptance we can usually find our peace 🙂

  • Allison, Though I haven’t had a big move I can totally identify. Even when I come back from a short vacation I can’t immediately get back into the swing of things…not out of laziness but because I have to give my feelings time to acclimate. I allow myself to be introspective, to feel my feelings and in the process I learn more about myself and a clear self honesty is revealed. Wonderful article!

  • Lisa Zoe Morgan

    Hey Allison, love this! Totally agree with everything you say. Sometimes we can be in such a rush and put ourselves under such pressure for everything to be great and create an amazing future, when all that’s really needed is to STOP! To quit forcing, steering and directing our life. Your quote at the beginning sums it up perfectly. And it usually gets us there much faster.

  • Anony

    Allison,

    Your article really touches me at my heart. I just moved from South East Asia to the States, am going to be here for 1 year and leaving my family, best friends, home etc. behind has been really really hard. I am trying to go out with co-trainees here, but it’s not like going out with friends back at home, because 90% of the time, I cannot relate to what they chat, and I cannot join in. I just trying my best to listen, and make the best out of what I have now. Sometimes low, sometimes high 🙁 🙂

  • bharat

    Hi, Allison,

    After reading your article I understood that, “Life is complex because of it’s simplicity”. Some times the problem and the solution are just right there. But being so busy in dwelling in the problems, we forget what should we do to get out of it. When we are in trouble, sadness all we need is some one saying what we wanna hear, that ” it’s going to be okay” . some times we know how go through the problems, we just lack the courage, strength. We don’t need complex motivational messages, but just simple words of assurance and comfort. I must say, picturing you with your son, while reading your article and your simple yet warm words,I feel pleasant and comforted, knowing that some one has gone through their problems. Thank you Allison.

  • sam morrisey

    Allison, thank you so much for this post. It doesn’t directly relate to me right now in my life, but I have been there so many times before and put on a brave face pretending things were fine and all that meant was it took me sooooo much longer to get over things and it always ended in a HUGE melt down (I suffer from anxiety and depression) repeat panic attacks and physical illness. Thank you for spelling this out to me! Next time I will approach it differently. 🙂

  • Wow I was led to this article. Divine intervention for sure. Thank you Allison.

  • Christine

    Hi Allison, I am so thankful you wrote this. I am 24 years old and have already lost my father and now the one person who has been there for me my entire life. My grandmother. I lost my best friend, my mother, my soul mate. She was an incredible woman and always thought positive. She lived a crazy and eventful life but never let any of the event stop her from giving her heart to a person in need. She has been my inspiration and now, she is gone. I didn’t know how to process such a thing, the magnitude of loss that I am experiencing until I read your article. Not only am I mourning the loss of a hero, I am mourning the loss of a life that lived with her. Now that I understand really how much I have to handle, I know I will be okay. I am no longer lost. And I can’t thank you enough. I will be rebuilding my world and will try and remain positive but it is nice to know it is okay not to be okay. or positive for that matter.
    I hope this article helps more people like it has me! 🙂

  • Such a great post Allison! It was an honor and pleasure to work with you as your coach. I am so very happy for your big transformation.

  • Beth

    Great insight, Allison. I’m trying to practice positive thinking and I wondered about the quandary that you described. When something is not all that great, should you pretend that it is or allow yourself to feel the reality? I think you struck the perfect balance.

  • Allison Carr

    Christine, I’m so sorry for all that you have lost. Your grandmother sounds amazing. I’m wishing you lots of love during your time of grief.

  • Allison Carr

    You are welcome Elizabeth!

  • Allison Carr

    Sam, I’m so glad you found it helpful.

  • Allison Carr

    Bharat, I’m so glad you found some comfort. You are right, being with my son is always a comfort to me. No matter how bad things are, he puts a smile on my face!

  • Yvonne Spence

    I agree with what you’ve written here, and think there’s a lot of unnecessary stress caused by the tyranny of positive thinking. It’s not actually positive at all to push away our true feelings, and when we allow or welcome them the actually transform. (The moment you welcome your feelings you are actually feelings acceptance so sadness, grief etc can’t do anything but transform.)

    I can also confirm your fourth point, even in times of deep, deep grief. My father died last year, and even in the raw pain of the first few days I felt gratitude for his life, for memories, for the amazing person he became – and other family members had similar feelings.

  • Gorgeous, Allison! I can 100% relate having moved across the globe and back (but to another coast) all in 3 years. For me, keeping busy and having something to focus on and talk about was a total bandaid for how I was really feeling and that was sad, lonely, isolated, frustrated. I thought I’d be showing weakness to admit I was unhappy. Once I accepted my feelings and just felt them, I felt lighter and could move on from them. THEN things started to change: I met new people, I felt motivated again, I started to let myself feel “at home” etc. This is such a great article. Thanks for sharing your wise words!

  • Anonymous13

    This article is definitely what I needed to read. It appeared on my Facebook newsfeed like if life was sending a message to me. I couldn’t resist; I clicked on the link.

    I moved to the US from Canada – just for a year. A year without my friends, my family, my career and my home to be with my partner. I cannot stay in the US and while I am struggling to be happy here, I’m scared to be unhappy when I go back home – because it will be far away from my ”new” home. It will be a new sadness – being away from my partner again for months, leaving my new home that I am learning to love everyday and my new career. I am dreading this upcoming changes but your article helped me to understand I need to feel sad. I need to grief. I wish my partner would understand this better; he is all about filling your days to avoid sadness and negativism. My life is lead with my heart.

    Thank you so much.

  • kick buttowski

    Hi
    I keep reading this article, but I don’t know how to feel my feelings. I don’t know I cry . :/
    It make sense but I can’t apply it.
    Does it mean I must seat on a chair and get angry or sad till I vomit?
    Please help me cry everyday and my life would be better.