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What We've Been Wrong About Positive Self-Talk - Small Happy Things
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Author: Anna Chui

Many of us strive to be positive all the time, because positivity seems to have that sparkling magic in making tough times less of a suffering. Who doesn’t want to suffer less anyway? And we’ve all heard of the importance of being positive, and how positive self-talk can lead to success, right?

Positive self-talk refers to the conversations you have with yourself. And throughout these conversations, you tell yourself positive words so as to affirm your worth. Some common phrases you tell yourself during a positive self-talk include “I can do it,” “I will make it through,” “I am strong enough”…

The psychological benefits of a positive self-talk is undeniable. You’re likely to stop yourself from spiraling down a negative loop if you tell yourself positive words such as “I will make it!” It’s a way to help yourself look on the bright side and stay strong during difficult times.

Positive self-talk worked for me every time when I was at the edge of giving up on my goal, or when I was feeling overwhelmed by a challenge. When I felt frustrated, I always told myself, “I’m strong. I will make it through!” And then I would carry on to make things work.

This whole positive self-talk worked for me for years. Until recently, it didn’t help me get through tough times any more.

No matter how many times I tried to tell myself to be stronger, and to keep going, I couldn’t pick myself back up when I was feeling sad, frustrated, and lost. I started to fall into a vicious cycle of demotivation — I told myself to be stronger but I failed, so I felt more frustrated about why I couldn’t make it through; then I tried even harder to get myself going, but still the self-talk didn’t work…

I was stuck in the vicious cycle. I even started to feel hopeless about what I had been doing — would I really be able to make things work? Would I be able to get over my challenges and reach my goals eventually?

If positive self-talk was proven to work, why didn’t it work for me suddenly? That was when I realized that I might have doing it the wrong way.

I asked my therapist for advice as I shared my experience with her. And the following lessons are what I’ve learned after talking with my therapist:

Since we were small, we were taught about the importance of staying positive, and that was, to always have hope and believe that you would make it through even the most difficult times. So whenever we felt frustrated, overwhelmed, or lost, we told ourselves that we shouldn’t let these feelings drag us down; we should stay strong and keep going.

The upside of telling yourself to stay strong is that you may really be able to get over the challenge and get what you want. But what if the challenge really is too big for you to handle at that time? What if pushing through isn’t the best option at that time?

The positive self-talk that most people believe is about pushing away the negativity and pushing themselves forward. In truth, negativity shouldn’t be neglected totally.

When you’re always saying no to your negative emotions so as to make room for positivity, you’re suppressing the emotions inside of you. Those are your true feelings.

When you’re suppressing your emotions for too long, you bottle up your feelings unconsciously. When a really big challenge or tough situation happens to you, these overflowing emotions will come back to you at your least expected time. This is exactly what happened to me; and I’ve learned a huge lesson out of it.

In Chinese culture, there’s a concept about “Yin and Yang.” Yin and Yang is thought to be a complementary, rather than opposing, forces that interact to form a dynamic system in which the whole is greater than the assembled parts.

The way positivity and negativity works is the same as Yin and Yang. Instead of trying to totally get rid of negativity, true positivity involves acknowledging the existence of negativity.

How to do that?

Whether you’re feeling upset or frustrated, don’t dismiss these emotions. Every emotion has their own value; even the negative emotions are here for a reason. They are here to warn you that maybe you’re burning out yourself and that you need to rest a bit. When you try to dismiss them, you’re belittling their worth.

What about telling yourself things like “Don’t be upset and stay strong”? Well, you’re not really helping either. Why? Because when you’re saying these things, you’re secretly implying to yourself that you’re not good or strong enough at the moment. At the subconscious level, you’ll start to believe that you’re not good enough.

So, what should you do?

Instead of using positive talk to snap yourself out of negativity, talk to your negative emotions positively. This is a technique that my therapist taught me, namely Active Imagination.

It’s a simple technique:

Find a time and a place where you can be alone and calm. Once you feel relaxed, try to engage in a dialogue with your negative emotion. You can actually talk out loud, hold the dialogue in your head, or simply write both sides of the dialogue. For me, I usually write the dialogue down just like writing a script out.

What should you talk about with your negative emotions? Ask questions and try to understand why they are here. Then, acknowledge the cause and their existence, and give them the support they need.

Here’s an example of how I talk with my sadness in a positive way:

Me: Why are you here sadness? What’s making you sad?

Sadness: I feel really overwhelmed. I know I can do better than this but I’m not able to do so…

Me: I know it must be tough. But you’re trying your best already, right?

Sadness: Yes. I’ve always tried my best…

Me: Then that’s enough! It’s okay to be sad and not be able to make it right now. You just need a little more time.

Sadness: Yes, I’ll make it. I’ll be okay.

It’s very possible that as you’re talking to your negative emotion, s/he will cry. That’s okay. Comfort him/her the way you’d comfort a dear friend. If you wouldn’t be harsh on a sad friend asking them to stop crying, why would you be so harsh on yourself?

Your negative emotions are not here with the intention to stop you from achieving what you want; instead, they’re here to remind you to be kinder to yourself, and to take a break if you want to get through tough times.

Therefore, don’t push them away as they come. Talk with them kindly, and give them the support they need. This is the positive self talk you need most.

Featured image credit: Lauren Richmond via Unsplash

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