When Struggling, Shift From Negative to Realistic

Nowadays, people are really focused on thinking positively. We’re encouraged to practice gratitude, be optimistic, and shift our negative thinking to positive thinking. We are told that if you just think positively, positive things will happen to you. Ignore the negative; focus on the positive.

The Problem with Positive Thinking

I think there are definitely some benefits to positive thinking. (I study positive psychology.) However, sometimes I think the encouragement to shift your negative thinking to the positive can come across as dismissive to people who are struggling.

Another problem with telling people to think positively is that some people, depending on their situation, just can’t do it right now. If someone is feeling depressed, for example, telling them to think positively is likely to fall on deaf ears. “Yeah, right,” a person struggling with depression might respond. “If only it were that easy.”

It can seem like a big jump for someone to shift from negative thinking to positive thinking. Our brains recognize the positive shift isn’t in touch with reality, so it doesn’t work.

Shift from Negative to Realistic

One thing I have found helpful is to change the advice a bit. Instead of encouraging people to shift from the negative to the positive, I instead encourage folks to shift from the negative to the realistic. This is a smaller jump for most people, so it is more likely to work.

When I say realistic, I’m trying to encourage folks to get in touch with the reality of themselves and their situation. What is true about them? What is true about their situation? Sometimes people who are struggling see everything in a negative light. It’s like seeing the world with a dirty pair of glasses.

Here’s an example: Let’s say someone is depressed and struggling to get out of bed. It might not work to encourage that person to think about how great they are. It’s too big of a jump. It might be more realistic to encourage the person to think about themselves as someone who is struggling, with some strengths and some limitations. That’s probably closer to the reality of the situation.

Telling the depressed person to “conquer their day and make it the best day ever” might not be in touch with reality. Encouraging the depressed person to “try to get out of bed and do one active thing today” might be more in line with what is actually possible.

Action Step: If you are struggling today with a lot of negative thoughts, press pause for a minute and think about what is realistic. What is true about yourself and your situation? What is one small step forward that is within the realm of possibility?

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