Negative thinking has ensured our survival, but we don’t have to take it too seriously
More than 20 years ago a man I bumped into at a psychology event assured me that he no longer had negative thoughts.
He had eliminated them from his life as negative thoughts are toxic: they poison the well of ambition and, worse, they increase the chances that you will bring about the very outcome you fear.
I was struck by the air of desperation about his positivity and by his need to convince others of his point of view. If I was a positive thinker, I reasoned, I wouldn’t care in the least what other people thought. I would sail blithely on, being happy.
Out of touch
Luckily a young woman hove into view whom he had earlier been trying to impress with his status as a psychologist. I escaped. Later that evening in the bar I observed him trying to talk her into his bed by declaring Irish people are sooooooo out of touch with their feelings and that we need to get over our Catholic past and all that sort of thing.
I left them to it but the man came back into my mind when I was reading a book by Dr Russ Harris called The Confidence Gap . Harris is based in Australia and teaches acceptance and commitment therapy, a mindfulness-based approach to mental health.
As far as Harris is concerned, negative thoughts are not a problem. They don’t foretell the future – how many of the catastrophes you have obsessed about have come to pass?
Moreover, negative thoughts don’t necessarily ruin your life in other ways either. For instance, I know people who take a generally pessimistic view but who seem quite content.
I myself take a pessimistic view of the past. When I look back, I tend to assume my feelings were more stressful than happy. Yet when I keep track of my feelings hour by hour in a CBT exercise, I find I am more happy than stressed. So the past in which I was unhappy is made up by my thoughts.
Harris suggests that you don’t have to tie yourself in knots trying to get rid of negative thoughts. You just let them be, and you move on with your day without getting caught up in them.
We are a gloomy species anyway: our ancestors did not survive the jungle by assuming that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. They survived because they were pessimistic sods who took the view that if you don’t know whether you are looking at a tiger or a pussycat, the safe option is negativity: assume it’s a tiger until further notice and act accordingly.
So negative thinking is part of us and it can’t be eliminated. But we can realise it exaggerates and makes things up and we can decide not to take it too seriously as it sits in the corner, grumbling.
Addendum: Here is an irritating idea which, if you are a new parent-to-be you may like to import from the US: the gender party. The purpose of the party is to allow your friends to celebrate the gender of junior – before junior is born.
To do this the absolutely right way, neither you nor the guests must know whether you’ll be having a boy or a girl. So you arrange for the ultrasound technician to hand you the results in a sealed envelope. You then dash off to your favourite cake-maker and you hand him or her the envelope.
Your cake-maker then makes a cake with blue frosting for a boy or pink for a girl – but the frosting is concealed by a layer of white icing until the moment comes to reveal the gender at the party to a chorus of ooohs and aaahs.
If you’d like to delight your Irish friends with a gender party, head over to bit.ly/genderparty on the philly.com blog for more.
Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@
yahoo.com) is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His book, Light Mind – Mindfulness for Daily Living , is published by Veritas. His monthly mindfulness newsletter is available free by email.