Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Power of Positive Thinking

There is new research out that suggests that a) positive thinking really does have an effect on your life in general and b) being nicer to yourself—showing “self-compassion”—is really integral to a happy life.

Great. Something else to feel bad/guilty/unworthy about.

I found out about the New York Times article on self-compassion from the northern half of Evelyn David right after I had seen the report on “Good Morning, America,” about positive thinking. Apparently, by being self-compassionate, your diet and weight loss program will be more successful, and more importantly, you may have less stress, depression, anxiety and gain “more happiness and life satisfaction.”

I guess all of this news should make me happy as I consider myself a “glass is half full” kind of person but it just makes me worry. What if I’m not positive enough, not compassionate enough to myself, to keep things like stress, depression, and anxiety at bay? Does that make me a failure as a positive thinker? Do I need to work harder? Will I make myself sick because sometimes I let negativity get the best of me?

See where I’m going here? It’s kind of like when someone tells me to “relax!” Instead of calming down, it’s like some kind of caged animal has been released into the world. It’s the antithesis of relaxing.

Some of the research on positive thinking points to someone being “wired” a specific way, a way in which no matter how hard they try, their outlook will always veer toward the negative. To me, then, all of this new research begs the question: are we trying too hard to be what we’re not? How much stress are we adding to our lives by thinking about our personal mindsets and that we may be failing at the one thing we are born doing—thinking?

Curiously, there is no research on that, but I think some lip service needs to be paid to feeling what you feel when you’re feeling it. I come to this conclusion from having spent five years of my life pretending everything was just FINE! even though I was undergoing a very debilitating cancer treatment while working full time, writing, and being a mom and wife. I found that while pretending that everything was FINE! was great for everyone around me, it was not so great for me, because it masked the fear and sometimes hopelessness I had in my own heart while everyone around me felt great. The downward spiral would come when I beat myself up for not being more positive or for not being kind to myself or that thinking negatively was having an adverse reaction on my health—one that I couldn’t control. However, by just allowing myself to say “Wow, this stinks” and dealing with the fear or anxiety, the fear and anxiety would pass. Talking to a friend would also help. But trying to talk myself into a more positive mindset would have the opposite reaction. It would just make me feel more negative because I couldn’t feel more positive. It was an enigma wrapped inside a conundrum, or something like that.

I think these kinds of studies are important but I’m not sure where they lead or what, really, they tell us.

In reality, I’m all for positive thinking, but I’m interested to know if there is anyone else out there in the Stiletto world who feels that when they read these articles or learn of these studies they feel as if they are deficient in certain areas or that they need to work harder to change their particular mindset. Do you let your “wiring” dictate how you feel or do you make a conscious effort to work against feelings of negativity? And just how exhausting is that?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Yep, what you said is right.

    Marian, who struggles with the same questions

  2. I really do give myself a direct talking to now and then to stop focusing only on the negative or wrong in a situation. I do think it helps if for no other reason than it makes me open up to other possibilities, instead of being all "decided" about something. I might still go with the "nope, this sucks" but at least I tried to see more angles. Isn't that at least in part what facing challenge and being strong is? To fight the adversity you face. Exhausting, yes, but probably worth it and what we ought to be doing. "It is what it is" works some of the time, but so can "it is what I'm going to make it".

    But, I think you're right Maggie that it is also okay to be truthful and acknowledge that something negative is in the mix or affecting the day. That doesn't mean that negative has to win, but I see no harm in being realistic. Dealing with the truth is always a mix and so what?

    Years ago you and I were talking about how we can turn anything in our lives to a potential source of guilt and shame. I recall you telling me that you couldn't take the available seat next to a handsome man on a bus because the first thought that went through your head was "oh, my god, what if end up I having a sordid, adulterous affair with this guy! Eeeeeek!" At which point you ended up getting off the bus four blocks early because you'd rather walk in penance than take the chance.

    Now, some of you may be saying "gee, Maggie was nuts even 20-some years ago", I'll just say that, no, she wasn't and I consider this action evidence of her creativity, her ability to create stories.

    Plus, don't we all read LOTS of stuff that we pit our own situations and attitudes against in a lacking way? We don't exercise enough; we don't do enough for others; we don't know how to cook a good roast chicken like the magazine says we should/can; we don't make pretty handcrafts and decorate our homes the right way at Christmas; we discipline our kids the wrong way; we don't grow our own vegetables; we sit next to the handsome man on the bus. And on and on.

    But, let's all cheer up and not over-analyze!

  3. Gee, Vick, I don't remember the bus story but it certainly sounds like my pre-30-year-old self! I like your closing advice: let's all cheer up and not over-analyze! I'm taking that to the bank. Maggie

  4. I read a recent study that said it's healthy to be conscientious and a bit of a worrier, so I'm thinking, "Yay, I'm doing it right!" Otherwise, as I've learned from studies that come out re. breast cancer (or anything!), results from one will say one thing and results from another something different. So I take it all with a grain of salt. You know I'm a worrier, too, Maggie, but I am seriously trying (and trying hard) to not let things grip me the way they used to. I'm even managing to stay relatively calm waiting for word from NYC on how my LBD revisions are going over (well, the house will be clean from top to bottom soon anyway!). Keep your sense of humor intact, and you'll be fine, I say. :-)

  5. Worrying comes with being female, I think. I try not to worry and when I find I am the best thing I can do is start praying about whatever it is that's troubling me. Then forget it, or at least try.


  6. I tend to be a tad bit obsessive about things and I try really hard not to be but it doesn't always work. I truly believe in the power of positive thinking and I try to be upbeat as much as possible, but I'm still human :)

  7. I agree with you on not pretending during rough patches. Sometimes you just need to give yourself a pass and say, "it's okay to be down about this." I think the true key is letting yourself be blue for a little while, and then pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and finding the things that make you happy. That's what works for me, anyway.