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Monday, November 3, 2014

Psychotherapy Blog: Are You Using Your Idea of "Positive Thinking" to Deny Your Problems?

As a psychotherapist, I'm all for people having a genuinely positive attitude about themselves and life.  I think that people who have a genuinely positive attitude, especially people who can reframe unfortunate things that happen to them as being meaningful, tend to be more resilient.

A Genuinely Positive Attitude About Life Can Help You to Be Resilient

While positive thinking can be a valuable tool to deal with life's challenges, using positive thinking to deny your problems is just another form of denial and is counterproductive (see my article:  Changing Coping Strategies That No Longer Work For You: Avoidance).

Using "Positive Thinking" as a Form of Denial and Avoidance

Over the years, I've seen many instances where psychotherapy clients use their idea of positive thinking as a form of denial, which keeps them from acknowledging and being proactive about their problems.

Rather than acknowledging and coping with their problems, they use their version of positive thinking to deny that they have problems or that they need to be proactive.

For many of them, it's as if acknowledging that they have problems makes them a "negative person," which, understandably, they don't want to be.

"Putting on a Happy Face" Doesn't Help When You're Life is Falling Apart

But "putting on a happy face" while your personal or work life is falling apart doesn't help.

No one would expect you to tell everyone you know about your problems.  But so many people come into therapy and, instead of being honest with themselves, they want to learn how to be "positive" in order to avoid coping with problems.

This isn't what adherents of positive thinking had in mind.

The following composite scenario is an example of how the idea of positive thinking can be used as a form of denial:

Ted
When Ted came to therapy, he said he wanted to learn to be a more positive person.  He felt that if he could learn to be positive, he wouldn't feel so filled with "negativity."

After hearing about his personal life, I could understand why Ted was feeling so badly:  He was burdened with high debt, and not only did he stop opening his mail, he also avoided taking the collection calls to his home phone.  He was heading down a slipper slope without even realizing it.

He felt that all he needed to do was to be positive and "the universe would provide."

When I inquired as to what he thought he could do, aside from whatever the universe might or might not provide, he didn't know what to say.

It became clear rather quickly that Ted's problem wasn't that he needed to be positive.  His problem was that he wasn't being realistic.  Instead, he wanted to pull the covers over his head, avoid dealing with his problems, and hope that "positivity" would take care of things.

In other words, Ted was so frightened by his problems that he only wanted to find a magical solution, like being positive, to make everything all right in his life.

Are You Using Your Idea of "Positive Thinking" to Deny Your Problems?

As Ted continued in therapy and we began to explore the difference between being confident and resilient while taking action to resolve problems  vs. just trying to be "positive," being passive, and hoping that his problems would disappear.

As time went on, Ted began to see that his fears were paralyzing him, and he wanted to take flight into a magical world where he could delude himself rather than being proactive and taking steps to deal with his problems.

As is often the case, Ted's fears stemmed from childhood memories of his family struggling to keep their heads above water financially.  This family history and the emotional trauma that went with it left their psychological marks on Ted.

Over time, Ted was able to work through his childhood trauma so that it no longer got triggered in his current situation.  This took time.

At the same time, he began to take steps to deal with his financial problems:

  • He hired an attorney to help him negotiate with his creditors.  
  • He went to Debtors Anonymous, a 12 Step program for people who spend compulsively and get themselves into debt.  
  • He also continued to come to his therapy sessions regularly.

As he took steps to deal with his problems, he felt reinforced and empowered to take additional steps.

This work wasn't easy or fast because Ted's sense of denial as well as his fear were strong.  There were times when he still longed for a magical solution to make all his problems go away.

This wish was understandable.  Would we all wish that someone could wave a magic wand and make problems go away?

The difference lies in seeing the wish for what it was.  In Ted's case it was a childlike wish from a time when he was younger and felt overwhelmed by his family's problems.

As an adult, when he felt gripped by this fear, he felt that all he needed to do was to recite affirmations and "be happy," and his problems would take care of themselves.

Whenever he would backslide, we would talk about whatever was getting triggered in him from the past and work through that issue.

Each time that this happened, we would explore what was underlying his magical wish, work through it, and then Ted would continue to make progress.

At the same time, instead of berating himself for having the wish, Ted learned to develop self compassion for the younger part of himself that was holding onto this wish.

Although he was learning in therapy to be compassionate for that younger part of himself, at the same time, he was also learning not to allow that younger part of himself to be in charge.

He learned that the adult part of himself had to be in charge at the same time that he acknowledged the hurt and pain of his younger self.

Progress in therapy is usually not like a straight arrow that begins and keeps going straight forward.

Progress is usually more like a spiral with two steps forward and one step back.  This is part of the therapeutic process.

Over time, as Ted learned to cope with his fears and to take action, he realized that he was feeling genuinely positive about himself.  His positive feelings were no longer a defense--they were real, and they were based on his experience of being proactive, feeling capable, and taking care of himself.

As Ted became more confident in himself and his ability to deal with his problems, he saw the real power of being positive.

Getting Help in Therapy
Understanding that the "power of positive thinking" doesn't mean being passive or hoping that something external will resolve problems is often a difficult concept for people, who use this defense mechanism, to see because the wish for something magical is so strong.

Without the help of a licensed mental health professional, people who use this defense mechanism often double down and think they just need to "try harder" to make positive thinking work for them.  But, in the meantime, their problems, left unattended, get worse.

Getting Help in Therapy

If there are times when you can see that you're using your idea of positive thinking as a way to avoid dealing with your problems, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who can help you work through the fears underneath your denial.

A licensed mental health professional can also help you to learn to be compassionate with yourself so you can start being proactive to overcome your problems and feel genuinely positive about yourself.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.







































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