The elusive key to Emotional mastery, Part 4: The danger of positive thinking!

This is Part 4 of a series on mastering your emotions. Please read Part One, Part Two and Part Three first.

Before we continue …let me purge some of my own emotions right now…here goes……

ARGGGHH! All these pop self-help books and websites! ARRGHH!!

Why this frustration? Many of those are actually dangerous! Did you know? They hurt you more than they help. I came across many of these self-help books and blogs in my own journey – they were popular, nicely written, with fancy words and a clean academic style. But I practiced their brand of emotional mastery a long time ago, and they just make things worse.

It’s especially dangerous for newcomers, who can’t distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly. So take it from me approach all such material with a critical mind. Don’t just follow them blindly, no matter how good they sound. Try them out for a little; decide for yourself if they are good or bad. And yes, that applies to this blog you are on right now, too. I’m definitely not ugly though, unless you see me without my makeup.

Why this rant?

My rant applies to happiness and emotional mastery material in particular. A lot of the stuff out there is ineffective at best, dangerous at worst. Sometimes they only work at certain stages of your growth or healing. Here’s a list of the major offenders I’ve come across, and I’m sure there’s more that I’ve missed:

  1. Switch your negative thoughts to positive ones
  2. Interrupt your thought patterns
  3. Visualise a happy place / situation
  4. Change your physiology (body posture) to change your emotions
  5. Anchoring
  6. Forgiveness
  7. Love the offenders and the pain unconditionally

Now, I’m not saying that these are bad or wrong. But they are not a catch-all cure. Used at the right time for the right ailment, they are fantastic. But for emotional purposes most of them dont work, and for others, it is vital that they come at the right time.

Used at the wrong time, they can have adverse effects. I started my journey with this material, believed in them fully, and therefore got stuck in my negativity for too damn long. Some of these techniques made me feel good for a period of time, but negativity soon set back in. I hadn’t rid myself of them; I had merely denied them.

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll just call them all positive thinking from this point onwards.

Introduction to positive and negative thinking

Let’s begin with a description of positive thinking. At its most basic, it means self-talk. How do you talk to yourself? Do you even know you talk to yourself? Do you catch yourself with negative thoughts or do you just take them for granted?

If you are about to go into an interview, for example, negative self-talk would be telling yourself “Oh my god, I’m not going to get the job!” Sometimes you don’t run words through your head – you could easily have images, a mental movie, or even just a general feeling.

Positive self-talk, then, is telling yourself: “They’re going to love me!” It makes you more likely to get the job – for you get what you focus on. Think about success a lot and you will succeed. Think about failure and you will fail. Nothing fancy about that, it’s pure common sense.

So where’s the danger? The danger comes when you force yourself to think positively. Many texts suggest catching and replacing negative self-talk and thoughts with positive versions whenever you can. The problem is: If used at the wrong time, it’s a form of repression and denial.

It is the same with unconditional love, forgiveness, pattern interrupts, thought chaining, positive visualisations, and changing your body posture. You’re pushing the pain away.

Heavy emotional thoughts

This can be bad for you on two levels. Let’s discuss the emotional first. We’ve discussed denial and repression in detail throughout this entire series. Can you see that this is the same thing – except now it’s “endorsed” by several authors?

Let’s explore deeper. A negative thought that carries emotions is heavy. Imagine that your mind is a room. The door is closed, and on the other side is the raging river of your negative emotions and thoughts. Denying it with unconditional love or positive thinking or forgiveness is like being in the room, pushing hard against the door so the water doesn’t force it open with its sheer weight.

What do you think would happen? That’s right even if you are strong enough to hold the door shut, water will still seep through the edges of the door. What about the windows? What about the air vents? Even at your best, you’re expanding energy on an uphill battle. This is why many people feel tired for no obvious reason – they’re expanding mental energy 24 hours a day to hold the door shut.

And have you noticed that stressful and unhappy situations bring back all the old pains? When you are stressed or unhappy, even about an unrelated matter, you are mentally weak. Your muscles no longer have the strength to push against the door, and it crashes open, bringing back all the unhappiness.

On the other hand, once you’ve purged the emotions, these negative thoughts no longer carry any weight. The river has died down to nothing. Strictly speaking, they’re no longer negative thoughts but rather just a habit, conditioned by your past.

When do you love, forgive, and think well?

So when should we use positive thinking, when should we forgive, or love unconditionally? Only when your negative thoughts no longer carry an emotional charge, and only after you’ve reaped the practical benefits.

Here’s another metaphor. Compare your emotional wounds to physical wounds, and negative thoughts to salt. You probably know what these thoughts are: Memories of ex-lovers, past arguments, and the like. Each time you replay these memories, you’re pouring salt on your wounds. If you have an emotional reaction, no matter how slight, your wounds are open. You know your wounds have healed when you can replay those memories and not feel a thing it’s like pouring salt over unbroken skin.

That is when you begin using all the other techniques to simply break the bad habit of thinking negatively. I’ve found that once they carry no charge, it’s simply a matter of catching yourself doing it, and deciding to stop. It’s so easy without any weight behind them. No need for any fancy techniques, although you can research them if you want.

Note that these wounds sometimes reopen. If that happens, all you have to do is go through the same process and clean them again.

The practical level

That’s the emotional level. Now let’s discuss the other level – the practical. Let’s say you get into an argument with a workmate over a project that you’re both working on. She made some mistakes, and you did too. You’re feeling bad about the argument as you drive home.

You decide to stop the unhappiness by telling yourself to stop thinking about it. You clear your mind; maybe you try to think about something else. Or you tell yourself to love her unconditionally.

What do you learn from it? Nothing. You don’t see the mistakes you’ve made, you don’t learn from them, and so you’ll make them again. I’m not saying you have to mull over them, or replay it again and again, but we have to apply the same basic principles – accept and acknowledge.

Feel the unhappiness; think about it for a bit. What can you learn? Why did it all happen? Is there anything you can do to make up for it, or to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

Let’s take another example – anxiety, perhaps. Don’t be too hasty to get rid of it. A percentage of your anxiety might be logical and actually good for you. How much? Acknowledge your anxiety, investigate it, and find out.

If you are anxious for the future of your business, for example, 50% of that might be logical – you know that your marketing campaign isn’t up to scratch. Pushing your anxious thoughts away might have stopped you from fixing that. On the other hand, the other 50% of your anxiety might be irrational. That would be a wound that you have to accept and purge. And then, once you’ve done all you can, that is when you begin boosting your confidence with positive self-talk and affirmations.

Makes sense? Let’s move on.

Working your way down

Now, many people think that accepting and purging your emotions only apply to the big ones like rage and depression. Let’s work our way down, for it applies to the smaller ones too. Let’s expand on that anxiousness and doubt example.

I occasionally doubt whether I can achieve some of my goals in life. Right now, the two biggest are: Developing UrbanMonk.Net into an authority site, and achieving a PhD in Psychology. Now, these little doubts are normal. Contrary to popular belief, confidence is not being immune to doubt. (Such people are not confident, they’re emotionless zombies.) Instead, confidence refers to how fast you recover from damage to your confidence.

Now, recently I took a major blow to my confidence. A friend rang me to talk about my blog. She asked if it was a good idea.

There were 70 million blogs out there, she said, and only a few ever succeed people like Steve Pavlina are one in ten million.

“What are your chances of reaching his level?” She asked. “Do you think you can juggle working, blogging, and still get your PhD?”

That conversation hit me hard, although she meant well. I felt down the entire afternoon. It was then I realised that this was also an emotion, and that I had to accept and investigate it. I sat quietly on my couch, feeling the doubt and insecurity completely. Most of this doubt was emotional, and they passed once I spent some time accepting them. However, a small percentage of it was logical – I had been neglecting my marketing efforts. (I hate marketing, I just want to write!)

It reminded me to step up my marketing efforts – I had set myself a certain quota of marketing tasks per week and I haven’t met them for a while. This blow to my confidence actually helped push me to return to my marketing. If I had simply pushed my doubts out of the way with positive thinking, they would have still been in me, and my marketing would probably still be weak.

Down to Nothing

So: We’ve covered the big emotions. We’ve moved down to the smaller ones. Let’s keep at it. What’s next?

Damn straight. What’s next is full, complete, emotional mastery. Stay tuned for that one, coming right up!

Link love

Before I leave you, I’d like to give a shout out to some new friends I’ve made in my blogging adventure. First off is Eric G of Deepest Health. His site, while new, is fantastic reading on the topic of Classical Chinese Medicine. So if you want to move out of UrbanMonk.Net’s inner world, and into your physical health, have a look. He also has categories on Confucianism and Character – I’m hanging out to read them once he fills them up.

Secondly I would like to give some link love to Grayson of Modern Worker. His blog, also new, covers Personal Development in a different area – mostly productivity, technology, and work, similar in spirit to the Life Hack sites out there. So if that is something you think you need, step over to his blog and have a look.