July 10, 2009

Positive Thinking: New Reasons to Say The Hell With It

At Cranky Fitness, we are not known for Excessive Optimism, Unrestrained Cheerfulness, or Gratuitous Positivity--unless there's an actual reason to be positive. And, um, how often does that tend to happen?

I've even been an advocate of Negative Thinking, if it's the sensible kind. (My philosophy, in brief: Anticipate the negative and plan for the worst, but appreciate the hell out of it when the bad things don't actually happen!)

Plus, if a blogger named Crabby McSlacker can't defend pessimism, then who the heck else will?

Well... it turns out that in the battle against relentless Positivity, I've got some new allies!

The folks at Time Magazine*** just did an article on the futility of positive thinking that contradicts everything you ever heard before. The article's title? "Yes, I Suck: Self-Help Through Negative Thinking."

Basically, it discusses research showing that "trying to get people to think more positively can actually have the opposite effect: it can simply highlight how unhappy they are." And it introduced me to a whole "third wave of therapy" based on accepting, rather than fighting negative thoughts.

Think that sounds totally backwards and crazy-assed?

Well, so do some of the more traditional cognitive psychologists! So it seems there's a little cognitive catfight going on.

Note: no Cognitive Psychologists
were harmed during this dramatization.

Photo: Icanhascheeseburger

Why Does Happy Talk Sometimes Backfire?

According to the Time Magazine roundup, research tends to show that when people hear an argument they don't believe, it makes them even more likely to cling to their original position.

Not buying it? Well, as an example, they ask you to picture a light-night bar debate in which someone claims that "Sarah Palin is brilliant," or that "Michael Jackson was not a freak." OK, now see how that works?

And a new positivity study suggests that this same obstinacy may kick in when it comes to positive self-talk. In particular, if a person with low self esteem tries to repeatedly tell themselves that they are lovable, it doesn't raise their self esteem--it lowers it!

Don't Fight the Feelings

So now there's a relatively new approach to therapy that incorporates research like this into the futility of changing negative thoughts. It's called "ACT," for "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy."

Spokes-shrink Steven Hayes says we should "acknowledge that negative thoughts recur throughout life," and instead of trying to challenge them, "we should concentrate on identifying and committing to our values."

What should we do with these negative thoughts? Instead of arguing with them, Hayes advocates observing them with mindfulness, defusing their power, and not getting entangled in them.

For example, instead of saying to yourself "I'm depressed," Hayes thinks you should say "I'm having the thought that I'm depressed."

You're also supposed to work on clarifying your values, and moving towards actually living them. Do you say you value your friends and community and physical well-being, but somehow spend every weekend sitting in front of the TV scarfing cheetos by yourself?


It All Get's Too F*cking Arcane and Tedious for Me, Though

I was initially intrigued, because while I believe in the efficacy of more traditional cognitive therapy in a LOT of situations, other times it just seems a little too fake and cheerleadery. Sometimes life just sucks, and the pessimistic view is not "irrational," and efforts to take a crappy situation and paint it over with falsely positive happy talk can indeed seem counterproductive.

However, my initial curiosity about ACT and this whole "third wave" thing was dampened a bit once I started reading more. "Relational frame theory" and "functional contextualism" and how is it different from "dialectical behavioral therapy," blah blah blah--it's the same kind of incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo psychological theories always seem to employ in order to sound scholarly and serious. Someday, with a bit more patience, I'll have to wade in and find out if there are good practical ideas for dealing with counter-productive thinking lurking behind the jargon.

(But then I also heard rumors from the Traditional Cognitive Therapy people that ACT people were just a big ol' new age cult and they and make people wear silly hats and use secret handshakes discourage dissent. What do I know? But check out the photo of their Leader-- it does indeed look kinda scary.)


Why Choose?

Here's what I think: if you have negative thoughts that are getting in your way and it helps to argue with them, then argue with them! Replace them with happier, more positive thoughts.

But if the negative thoughts persist despite your efforts, then accept them as thoughts and don't let them control you. Focus on your goals instead.

Whatever works!

Or, if all else fails, try Crabby's Home Remedy: whine a little, then go for a nice long walk, then come home and curl up with a comforting beverage and cuddle with a cat, dog, child, significant other, rabbit, pet rock, garden gnome, security blanket, or whatever makes you happy.

And if you still want to join a cult? Crankyism is always on the lookout for new recruits!

***Confidential Aside to Time Magazine:

OK, thanks very much for the research and all, but fer cryin' out loud, how is anyone supposed to take your online articles seriously when they're full of these ridiculous computer-generated links for totally unrelated crap? Like these two had "see pictures of couples in love," "see pictures of people mourning the death of Michael Jackson," and "see pictures of facial yoga." WTF???

So, how do you folks deal with negative thoughts? Fight them, accept them, obsess about them, defuse them, believe them, ignore them?


  1. Well after my divorce I was in a really low place self esteem wise, I went to a seminar for work and they sold these tapes Self Esteem and Peak Performance, anyhow I listened to them while commuting to and from work and the last tape was affirmations and they really did work for me as an individual to get out of that negative self talk. I definitely have negative thoughts I think everyone does, but I'm not perpetually negative like some debby downers that I know.

  2. I think I'll stick with Crankyism.
    (my word verification? iratermi!)

  3. Negative thoughts - hmmm. Yes, I have them, but not all the time. But, I don't let them define who I am.

  4. Okay first of all: who let Uncle Fester out of the basement and why is he suddenly an expert in psychology?

    Secondly: there are days when the sarcastic, dark, negative thoughts serve me well, but most of the time I'm a pretty happy person so I try to stick with the positive.

  5. Some see the glass half full, some half empty. I say "Can't somebody else load the godd*mn dishwasher once in a while. I work all day and come home to glasses and dishes all over the kitchen. WTF!!!!!"

  6. I view a "negative" thought as an indicator that something needs to change. If it is something that I can't change, like the shape of my face, then I don't dwell on it, but try to change my attitude and tell myself that round faces are all the rage in Paris this year. And then, I try to move on to something I can change, like the shape of my ass.

    Like Moonlight, I went through a pretty low time after my divorce (11 years ago) but that time was very healing, and I never really thought of it as "negative", more like a time of painful but necessary growth. Maybe it is all the same thing, it just seems so negative to call it negative. :-)

  7. I have had good results in helping my own depression with traditional CBT. But I think this article kinda represents the old school of thought. It really isn't about saying unbelievable things to yourself, it's more about changing negative patterns in your pattern through repitition. That said, I'm intrigued by the new wave therapies as they do sound like they could be helpful. I'm a therapy junkie, I'd try anything!

  8. I go with acceptance. Wade through whatever's happpening. Have the thought, see where it takes you, then dump it when it's usefulness is used up. I do the same thing with happy thoughts, too.
    I can't see how forcing yourself to be happy gets you anywhere. It's another form of denial.

    Gotta love it. My word verification was "scorn."

  9. I'll be honest -- I have a natural aversion to therapy and therapists in general. This aversion is also linked to my aversion for "you can do it!" pep talks and "you suck" defeatist anti-pep-talks. I guess the thing is, we all want genuine advice and know that telling ourselves bullcrap to pull ourselves up is like taping us up with scotch tape -- we're only being held up superficially and we'll soon plop right back down. Is that a pessimistic view? Not at all in my book! I think it helps to empower ourselves with the ability to see the truth and tackle it. Sugarcoating is a waste of time and so is negative thinking. Not gonna lie -- I do have internal pep talks with myself all the time. This doesn't involve me doing a "rah rah!" cheerleader chant, but instead it's more of a rational, plan of action sort of thing where I really deconstruct any hurdle i've built in my mind and figure out how to tackle it. Ok I'm just rambling now. But i want to add, in regards to the advertisements placed within the Time Magazine: When I wrote about MSNBC's article on "Phantom Fat" I found it hilarious that the authors and those quoted were advocating that people should try to see realistic reflections of themsevelves instead of their former larger selves. But guess what was strewn all throughout the article? Ads on how to lose weight! Hmm I wonder why people are so obsessed with losing weight? I mean...REALLY?!
    Le sigh.

  10. So you're saying that facial yoga has nothing to do with positive or negative thinking?

  11. I tend to obsess about them but am learning to examine them briefly and then toss them. Some bounce back, but some actually stay where they land. Who knew? :)

  12. Uncle Fester! OMG Jill, you're right!!!!! I knew he looked familiar.

    So I love all these thoughtful and hilarious comments. I've been VERY bad about blog visits lately so I SO appreciate those of you who are stopping by.

    And Annabel, I hope the people at Time Magazine come down here and read the commments (yeah, right, but a Crab can dream) because while Michael Jackson popping up unexpectedly might be annoying, weight loss links popping up in the middle of an "body self acceptance" article is just plain inexcusable!

    Oh and Patty, it's good to know that round faces are hot in Paris, 'cause that's the kind I've got too!

  13. I could much more easily be a blind follower of Crankyism than any of the other therapies listed here. Write a book and do the lecture circuit, dammit. People are craving this no BS approach.

  14. The problem with self-help affirmations is that unless they're tailored specifically to the individual, there's a risk of triggering the BS meter. You know (or at least think you know) you're lying to yourself, and that sort of thing doesn't lead to inner peace and contentment.

    I do think it's important to halt negative self-talk, but it's silly to take it so far that you don't even believe your own words. If you know you're not beautiful, you won't feel better by telling yourself you are. Instead, find something you can agree with, like "I'm strong and healthy," or "I have lovely eyes," or even "I may not be conventionally pretty, but I clean up just fine."

    Ultimately, self-esteem isn't about what you tell yourself, but about what you do. There may be deeper issues that need to be addressed, but a pop-psychology book and sticky notes on the bathroom mirror aren't going to be as helpful in that case as a qualified counselor.

  15. Thanks Gigi!

    Alas, I recently floated a book proposal to a few agents, but preliminary feedback seemed to be "great concept, but whoops, you're not famous enough to publish a health and fitness book!"

    Have not given up on the idea, however...

  16. ACT sounds like a rebranding of the philosophy that Buddhism has taught for thousands of years: bad things happen, you have to learn to accept that and work at being stable enough to persevere and flourish despite the challenges, or even because of the opportunities for growth that challenges present.

  17. Um, I'm having the thought that I'm confused...embrace the negativity? I've worked to hard to shun it!

    P.S. I think a Cranky Fitness book would be most excellent, and obviously the publishers are not in touch with the blog world because in here y'all are FAMOUS!!!

  18. Crabby, have you considered having 8 babies at once whilst starring in your own reality show?

    Here's the plan:

    I'll grab a camera and follow you around all day filming.

    Then, presuming you don't arrest me for stalking, I'll send the video to a television station, where you'll be an instant hit.

    Then all those silly people will jump at the chance to publish your book!

  19. Crabby and Merry - forgive me for stating the obvious but isn't there an opening for "_____ & Kate plus 8"? Get ready for that close-up, Mr. Demille.

  20. I like the comments...

    When I was in my 20's, I obsessed. When I was in my 30's, I had 3 babies and 1 miscarriage...so I don't remember much; it's all a blur...except for postpartum depression, lots of junk food, and screaming (the babies' and mine).

    Now into my 40's, I don't obsess with the negative thoughts; I know they'll pass especially if I try to sleep more, eat somewhat healthier, go on long walks, and help someone else out. There's something about being of service to others that gets me out of my own poor-me mentality.

  21. I'm prone to pessimism but I think it's all too heady. If I'm left alone in my head, which is a very bad neighborhood, I'll quickly adopt the Chicken Little outlook.

    In the end, I find that two things work for keeping me forward-thinking:

    1. Be in motion. Make sure my actions are positive and they outweigh my thoughts.

    2. Go to a Muay Thai class and beat the s*** out of something. It takes me out of my head and lessens the importance of whatever negative scenario I was imagining. Intense exercise of any kind is great for emptying the head.

  22. Great post!!! I love your views (and humor) on this whole subject matter! I have even been thinking about this a lot lately as I read many of the blogs out there & so many people seem so damn happy & have all these ways to get thru the depressions or negative thoughts.

    I admit, I do obsess about the negative thoughts at times & other times I really try to change my thought process. The one thing I have learned though is that sometimes all this push to make me think positive all the time can backfire. It makes me feel like something is wrong with me or I am not as good as that other person because they can get think positive no matter how negative the situation which makes me get down on myself for being such a baby & giving in to the negative thoughts.

    I am trying to be better about being more positive, but for me, I think it will be a life long process (even though I am already 51) and I am trying not to let all the always positive people effect my own self worth.

    I really appreciate you writing this cause it just makes me feel better that I can give in to those "bad" thoughts & not feel bad about it.

    Thx so much!

  23. Book proposal?
    Unfortunately I don't think publishers accept petitions from would-be readers as proof of "fame."

    I am an unreasonably cheerful person, but my BS detector is hairtrigger sensitive, so deliberate positive thinking is not my style.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  24. A lot of times, well-intentioned people will say that you have to think positive thoughts especially with cancer cuz they think cancer is caused by negative thoughts and if you think positively, you can cure your cancer and if you think negatively, well, you're so negative, and that's why you got cancer in the first place.
    I don't know how I handle my negative thoughts other than to move to THAT exact moment in time and take a breath.

  25. I waffle back and forth...I like encouragement and positivity most times...as I find that you can give yourself a kick in the ass without insulting it. I used to be rather mean to myself when I encouraged myself to do more...now I'm more positive.
    I do get a bit annoyed at the positive thinking sometimes though...it just reminds me a bit too much of Stuart Smalley from SNL.
    I like the Crankyism...moping, working our for happy vibes and then cuddling up with my gnome and some tea help shake the funk most times :)

  26. I'm a big believer in the the mind/body connection, so when a negative thought pops up, I acknowledge it, but don't allow it to lodge. I expose the lie, debunk the thought and move on. When it's something like "I'm so slow", or "I can't do this", I acknowledge that I slow right now, but I will get faster with practice or that I may not be able to do something yet, but in time I might be able to.

    I suppose I'm fortunate in that I'm generally quite a positive person. I do have to take care to avoid a lot of negativity around me though, because it can really drain me and before I know it, I'm carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders and feeling quite down myself.

  27. How's this: I am positively fat and positively suck at losing weight and exercising!

    I think I will stick to my chemicals ;)

  28. I'm with Gina! The older I get the less negative thoughts have time to get in my head. My spare thoughts tend to focus on my children in a positive way, rather than dwell on myself in a negative way.

    But, hey I still get them! I tend to give in a little and feel sorry for myself a bit :). Then I realise I have 10 minutes to get the kids from school, and poof! they are gone.

  29. Negative thoughts can be the culprit for a disaster!
    I am not a believer in shrink, rather more self care and self love. Getting oneself hyped is the key to overcoming negative thoughts. So what, is usually my attitude when I think of something negative.

  30. (LOVE the pic!!!)
    I think therapy is a "different strokes for different folks" kinda thing. What works for Joe may not work for Jane.
    (I must say that this article reminds me of a "Far Side" cartoon about "Dr. So-and-So's controversial cure for phobias" which shows a guy enclosed in an elevator, filled with spiders and snakes, dangling off the side of a building.)

  31. I kinda like this approach...things can suck, just get over it and move on. It beats sugar coating the bad stuff. I was never good at convincing myself of that sugary fluff anyway.

  32. I wholly embrace the power of "this really does suck" and the incredible value of "hey, that didn't suck as much as I thought" I tried that new class at the gym that I was dreading and I came away thinking it was fun. To me cranky = honest. love this post!

  33. "Basically, it discusses research showing that "trying to get people to think more positively can actually have the opposite effect: it can simply highlight how unhappy they are." "

    i'll agree with that ... but that might be my realist/pessimist view of life.

    i'm not so much with positive thinking and instead more with telling my inner critic to go * itself. lately, though, that's been harder than usual. :(

  34. Leah, Cammy and POD nailed it, it's acknowledge the though as what it is, just a thought, and let it go. No need to act on it or left it bum one out.

    Basically an essential Buddhist teaching, reworked as something new, but it's 2,500 years old. And it works, but the Buddhist source is clearer.

    Yup, Uncle fester, but scarier.

  35. Cranky

    About ACT

    Hmmm. Actually we invite our critics to our meetings; true we do silly things in evening "follies" there but that is just to poke fun at the pomposity inside scientific traditions (including our own).

    The stuff about contextualism and relational frame theory etc etc is mostly for the science geeks doing research about ACT -- just like you want good knowledge about the body underneath surgery, but folks going thru surgery may not need all that.

    You will be exposed to precious little of that in the ACT self-help world and when we've done research on ACT self-help books (like "Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life" etc) they help quite a bit.

    So don't give up on us quite yet. We do have a geek side but you'd have a hard time finding a less pretentious group than the ACT folks.

    Steve Hayes (the guy in the scary picture).

  36. i have negative thoughts at times. but i do not let them control me i block them out with positivity. Knowing that i create my life with my mindset.

  37. Steven:

    Oh my goodness, I'm so embarrassed! My cranky half-assed two minute take on ACT of course did not do it justice, and I am sorry about that Scary Picture reference. (I've since seen other pictures that do not look scary at all.)

    I sometimes forget that Google can lead people even to silly little blogs like ours, and it had not actually occurred to me that you might see this.

    Thanks so much for writing in!


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