What to do when positive thinking doesn't work
You have decided that from now on you are going to think positively. You say to yourself, “I just need to think positively, and good things will happen”. You are going to be healthier, more confident and smile at everyone, you will embrace your inner Pollyanna. Then the kids play up; you are late for work; your boss lays a mountain of reports on your desk and Janice from accounts is being snappy with you again. You look at the clock and it’s 3pm and you wonder where that new, positive you has gone.
I get it, I really do. The problem is, being positive can be exhausting.
The truth is you will always have bad days. It’s easy to think positively when the sun is shining and everything feels good, but it takes a great deal of effort just to get through the bad days. That’s probably not what you thought you would hear from a life coach, but then I’m not your average life coach. I have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental illness that is characterised by extremely distressing and anxiety-provoking thoughts. Believe me, there is no amount of positive thinking that will stop the OCD thoughts. In fact, research has shown that struggling to think positively can be extremely damaging to OCD recovery and can make the condition worse as positive thinking can become a compulsion.
I’m not saying positive thinking doesn’t work. When I need the courage to do a new presentation; beat my running personal best or motivate myself to do DIY then I fully embrace positive thinking. With some clients, I do use positive techniques like gratitude books, mantras and help them consider new positive perspectives. However, the people who contact me have often tried these kinds of techniques and they are still stuck due to their thoughts and beliefs.
The problem is that these thoughts are automatic; you can't stop them. You could be out with your friends thoroughly enjoying yourself and suddenly a thought pops in your head, “What if they think I’m boring? I look awful in this outfit; What if they don’t like me?” Or you want to change career, but you think, “I’m not clever enough; I won’t be able to do it; What if I’m worse off”.
So, if positive thinking isn't working for you then what’s the alternative?
Acceptance and commitment therapy
A few years ago, after years of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and struggling with my OCD, I stubbled across acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and without being dramatic, it changed my whole perspective on life. ACT fits brilliantly alongside other therapies and tools such as exposure response prevention therapy (ERP).
ACT moves away from trying to be happy. In fact, it is developed from research that shows that it is the constant struggle to become happy, that can make you more dissatisfied with your life. Especially in this age of social media where we are bombarded with images of other people living great lives (although the chances are they are struggling just as much as you and me).
Acceptance isn’t about ‘giving in’. It’s about being willing to experience all of life’s thoughts, feelings and emotions, both the pleasant and unpleasant ones, instead of trying to get rid of them.
It is 'values' focused and concentrates on the journey of goal setting rather than just the day when you finally achieve your goal. ACT uses mindfulness techniques to enable you to stop struggling with your thoughts leaving time and energy to follow your value-based goals. It helps you respond more effectively to the unpleasant feelings and emotions that keep holding you back.
There is empirical research showing that ACT is achieving substantial results with clients suffering from clinical anxiety disorders, chronic pain and other illnesses and is being increasingly used by psychologists and therapists. ACT is also starting to be used in the corporate sector as businesses concentrate more on staff well-being.
When I use acceptance and commitment coaching techniques with my clients, they often report that it’s refreshing to be able to ‘give up trying’ (and often failing) to ‘be happy’. They find new energy and perspective on life and the great thing is, you don’t have to take time out of your day to practise it. ACT tools and techniques can be incorporated into everyday life whenever you need them.
I personally found a new sense of contentment, energy, motivation and appreciation for my life. My relationships improved; I started to exercise more and increased my productivity at work. I no longer ruminated over things that happened and became more resilient. I was able to complete my ERP exercises with new enthusiasm which has helped my OCD recovery. All these benefits are not the aim of ACT, in fact, there isn’t really an ‘aim’ as such, except to create a more meaningful life. But here’s the thing, often people report that when they respond more effectively to their thoughts and feelings they are able to step out of their comfort zone and take action towards their value-based goals. This in turn increases contentment and a sense of well-being.
So, if you have tried positive thinking techniques, you are still stuck and you are wondering what to do now, then why not give acceptance and commitment coaching a whirl.