Stop Trying to Think Positively and Focus on What Matters Instead

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This article is from Awareness and choice

Chastising yourself for thinking a thought is about as futile as telling a cat not to purr. I invite you to participate in the following exercise, right now. Please:

– Scratch your arm.                                  Now stop.
– Hum to yourself.                                     Now stop.
– Think about biting into a juicy lemon. Now stop.

Really I mean it! Don’t imagine the lemon’s sour juices exploding in your mouth and washing across your tongue, coating your teeth and gums.

Did you just have this experience, despite my demand not to think about the sour juice? Probably because stopping this freight train of a mental image may be close to impossible.

Why?

Maybe because you are not the one doing the thinking. If you have ever been awake in the middle of the night churning the same thought in your mind, unable to stop its incessant flow, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I can start and stop scratching and humming. That is in my domain of power. But most of the time, I cannot start and stop a thought. That is outside my domain of power. As Byron Katie put it: “We are not thinking. We are being thought.”

Sometimes people confess to me that they are not always able to think positively. “I promise I will let go of that negative thought. I will just believe that I can succeed”, a friend vowed the other day.

All I can say to that is, “Good luck! And when you find out how not to think what you are thinking, call me.” There are hundreds of ways to mitigate the intrusiveness of painful thoughts, but we cannot not think what we are thinking. Thoughts simply have a habit of showing up and making themselves known.

Positive thinking is the act of putting icing on horse poop in the hope that it will go down better. What you resist, persists. Positive thinking is the ultimate act of resistance. When I affirm the thought “I can succeed”, it carries in its wake its polar opposite, “I can fail”. Conjuring up that kind of hidden dualism will make it hard to truly move your life forward.

Is it time then to ditch your daily affirmations booklet and your positive thinking cue cards? Not necessarily.

Let me show you one way how you can continue to use these popular tools and then put them on steroids.

I propose you consider the following:

What determines the quality of your life is not what you are thinking. What determines the quality of your life is the space you are thinking from. Thoughts come and go. Trying to control your thoughts is like trying to control the weather. Fortunately, you can still have a good day even if the weather is contrary to your wishes. In other words, what has a much bigger impact on the quality of your life is not your internal or external weather, rather is the context in which you live your life, as Werner Erhard said. Context, however, is one of the most overlooked aspects of the human experience.

Let me illustrate: if the thought “I can fail” shows up and I hold it in an empowered context, a context in which I see myself and my work as purposeful, committed and impactful, “I can fail” will affect me differently than if it shows up while I operate out of a disempowering context, a context in which my work, my support system and I myself occur to myself as weak, hopeless, and defeated.

Similarly, if your body is strong and healthy, disease germs are less likely to take over than if your body is weakened. In this highly interconnected world, we cannot choose what bugs (thoughts) we are exposed to. But most of us can have a significant impact on the resilience of our physical body (the context) with which these viruses will have to interact with.

The good news is that not unlike your immune system that can be fortified through adequate nutrition, exercise and rest, so the context for your life can be strengthened. Then, when a nasty thought does show up, as they sometimes do, we are able to meet it from a place of resilience and strength without getting derailed or even hijacked by it.

Roland was a 45-year old academic who worked at a small, private university in south-western Australia. When we started coaching together he discovered that the context from which he made his contribution to the world was the following dismal story: “I’m a nobody trying to make it at a nobody university.” His results were accordingly: weak and unfulfilling. During one of our coaching sessions, Roland created a new context for himself in which he reinvented himself as follows: “I have ideas that matter.” His transformation was simply breathtaking. Within weeks he started to collaborate with some of the world’s foremost experts, he stopped attending hum drum conferences and started to write for the top journals in his field.

Was he cured of his “I’m a nobody” thought? No. It kept showing up. First rather frequently (together with “Who do you think you are?!”) until it eventually lost its grip. Generating an empowering context is not a matter of positive thinking; rather it is a matter of honest thinking and courageous, creative action.

What challenges are you facing? What would it mean for you to be able to go beyond positive thinking and actually operate from an empowering context? What would a breakthrough in your performance and your fulfillment mean to you?

For today, I leave you with this simple idea: If you really want to shift your life, don’t fiddle with the content of your thinking, instead, shift the context from which you are thinking. This is where you will discover the source for breakthrough performance.

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