This is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Adversity Is Your Greatest Ally. It was one of the greatest lessons I've learned about positive thinking and how it can be a form of denial.
When I became involved with personal development programs back in 1990 I was really drawn in to the teaching of the power of positive thinking. I had always been an optimistic person, so it was a natural progression for me to really embrace what a lot of the motivational speakers were preaching. Their message was to always be positive and look at the bright side of things. It was this positive thinking that allowed me to deal with the multiplicity of challenges I was dealing with at the time. If not for my positive thinking, I’m sure that I would have fallen into a deep abyss of despair and depression, which may have ultimately ended up with my demise.
But I embraced the positive thinking mantra and made a commitment to always think positive. Without question, this way of thinking has positively impacted my life, but there was a negative side of positive thinking that I want to share, to shed some light on why positive thinking sometimes doesn’t work and can also be detrimental to your life.
The biggest lesson I learned about the detrimental effects of positive thinking occurred while I was basically homeless. I had a friend that allowed me to stay at her house for a while until I could find a place of my own. During that time I was searching for employment and doing everything I could to get back on my feet. I didn’t own a car and she would sometimes let me borrow hers to look for employment. She was an absolute angel whom I am forever indebted to for her generosity, caring, and friendship.
One evening my friend came home and asked me how my day went. I told her about the rejections I had received while trying to find a job, and I told her that I was still optimistic that I would find a job soon.
She then looked at me with a caring compassionate heart and she asked how I was really doing. The conversation went something like this:
Her: Michael, tell me how you’re really doing. How are you feeling right now?
Me: I’m doing great! Although I didn’t find a job I’m confident that I will soon and I will be able to get back on my feet.
Her: But Michael, you didn’t answer my question. How are you feeling right now? In this very moment how do you feel?
Me: I told you I’m doing great. I know the Universe is going to support me and help me find a job so I’m excited and happy about my future.
Her: Michael, I think that’s bullshit! You keep saying you’re doing great but the truth is you aren’t. Right now your life is a mess and you’re unwilling to be completely honest with yourself about how you really feel. I believe in you and have faith in you that you will get your life on track, but until you are able to be completely honest with yourself about how you feel, not what you think, you really won’t be able to change. I personally think that you are in denial and you are hiding behind your positive thinking and denying how you really feel. Can you tell me right now exactly what you’re feeling?
Me: I told you, I’m doing great. I’ve got some challenges to deal with but I keep telling you that I’ll deal with them. What more do you want me to say?
Her: I want you to share your feelings with me. Tell me what’s going on inside you. Not what’s in your head, but what’s in your heart. How do you feel?
Me: I don’t really understand what you’re asking. I keep telling you that I’m fine. What else can I say?
Her: So Michael, answer this question, how does it make you feel to not be able to have your own home and have to rely on other people? Does it make you sad? Does it make you angry?
How did you feel when you were rejected for the jobs you applied for today? Were you upset? Were you disappointed? Were you afraid?
Or how does it make you feel when you know you can’t see your kids because you don’t have transportation or money to visit them? Doesn’t that make you feel sad?
Do you see what I mean now? I want you to share your emotions with me. I want you to express your feelings. Can you do that?
Me: I’m not sure.
Her: Michael, you and I have been through a lot together as friends. I love how you are able to be optimistic and positive, and I love how you can find the good in all situations. But the truth is you aren’t connected to your emotions and you hide behind being positive and intellectual. You are so stuck in your head that you can’t feel from your heart.
You are my friend and I love you. I will never judge you or reject you. I’m not asking anything from you except your willingness to be authentic and real with me. Can you do that? Can you share yourself with me in that way?
After listening to her for a moment I started to allow myself to feel. I really started looking closer at myself for what emotions were present, and all of a sudden I knew what she meant. In that moment I felt my heart beginning to surrender and I began to speak.
Me: I understand what you mean now. If I’m completely honest I feel sad and afraid. I’m sad because I feel like less than a man because I have to rely on you to take care of me. I feel afraid that I’m not going to be able to find a job and ultimately you will have to kick me out on the streets and I’m not sure what I will do.
Her: That’s what I’m talking about. Keep sharing. Tell me more about how you feel.
Me: I really feel like a failure right now. I worked so hard to build my perfect life, only to have it come crashing down on me. I’ve lost everything. I lost my wife, my kids, my home, my job, and my self-esteem. I feel lonely and sad right now.
All of a sudden my friend walks over and begins to hug me. She takes me in her arms and tells me that everything is going to be okay. She assures me that it is okay to share what I’m feeling, and that it does not make me less of a man to do so. As she continued to hold me in her warm embrace, I continued to share how I was feeling. I allowed all the trapped emotions to come out and the tears began to flow. I found myself releasing years of repressed pain, sadness, and disappointment, and the emotions just began to pour out of me through my tears. Although it was extremely painful, it was also therapeutic. Allowing myself to feel and express those emotions was extremely healing and cathartic. Before long my tears of sadness and pain turned to tears of joy, as I recognized just how much my friend cared about me and how much love I was feeling from her in that moment.
Me: I am so glad we are having this conversation because I’m really tired of pretending that everything is okay. I have been hiding behind this new-age spiritual positive thinking mask for so long I haven’t allowed myself just to feel my emotions. I guess there was a part of me that believed if I shared the negative things in my life it meant that I didn’t have faith that it would get better. But now I realize this isn’t true. Just because I may be feeling sad or afraid does not mean that I’ve lost faith, it just means that I’m human and I have feelings and I should always be aware of, and true to, those feelings.
Her: The key to happiness is being in touch with how you truly feel and being able to express whatever you feel openly and honestly. Feelings are neither good nor bad, they just are. Emotions are just energy in motion which really is a human being’s way of receiving internal feedback and then expressing your internal response to external stimuli. In reality, our emotions are our internal guidance system that keeps us in touch with our humanness.
Now that we’ve had this conversation, I hope that you will be able to speak with me openly and honestly about how you really feel, and you should know that negativity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you focus on it too much it can make matters worse, but the key is to always be honest with how you really feel, no matter what situation you may be in. I accept you unconditionally as a friend and I’m going to be here for you even when things are tough. You don’t have to impress me with your optimism and intellect because I accept you for who you are, not what you do. Do you understand?
Me: I really do. This experience has really been good for me and it has opened my eyes to the fact that I still have some healing and some growing to do. Thank you so much for seeing through my positive mask and challenging me to take it off. I promise that I will do my best to be as open and as honest as I possibly can when I’m speaking with you. Thank you so much for being my friend. I love you!
After that conversation I had to carry out some deep soul searching to figure out exactly why it was so difficult for me to initially express my feelings to my friend. As I contemplated our conversation I was able to see a pattern in my life that I had been using for a very long time. I always used positivity as a way of not expressing my true feelings to others, and I always sought other people’s approval to feel good about myself.
I knew that I wanted to break this pattern, and I decided that I would figure out what steps I needed to take to do so.
I decided to talk to my friend to see if she could begin shedding some light on my behavior. She informed me that one of the reasons why I may have had so much difficulty expressing my feelings could have been the result of some childhood trauma. She shared her own experience about going to therapy to deal with some issues from her childhood, and she suggested that I consider therapy that may help me deal with my issues.
She then said something that really stood out for me. It was a statement that was so powerful it literally caused me to rethink everything I had learned in the personal development arena. She looked at me and said; “I don’t care how positive you are, how many books you read, or how many seminars you go to. Until you make peace with your past you will never truly be happy.”
It was this statement that challenged me to thoroughly examine my entire philosophy on personal development.
I then realized that all the motivational seminars and books I had read did not help me make peace with my past, so I decided to make it the number one priority in my life. I intuitively knew that making peace with my past was the missing link to finding true happiness.1