Is negative thinking something we should be ashamed of?
All over social media, the internet, and within countless books we hear of ways to “stop,” “banish,” “eliminate,” and “eradicate” negative thoughts.
We even see more noble and spiritual posts out there aimed at helping us to “overcome” and even “transform” negative thoughts into positive thoughts.
While all of these blog posts, advice columns, and step-by-step guides may be written with good intentions in mind, what they are really doing is deepening our suffering and causing us to fight against ourselves under the guise of “self-improvement.”
The reality is that trying to get rid of your negative thoughts is a reactive and mentally confused approach towards increasing your happiness, calmness, and well-being. Those that advise you to replace your negative thoughts with positive thoughts aren’t actually helping you in the long term. In fact, if anything, the positive thinking approach does more harm than good. In this post, I’ll explain why.
Why Positive Thinking Isn’t the Answer
Undoubtedly, positive thinking makes us feel good – temporarily. We can even train ourselves to adopt a more positive mindset, which helps us to see life, ourselves, and others through a more optimistic lens.
But while trying to transform our negative thinking patterns into more positive patterns feels good, and may temporarily make us feel better about ourselves, it isn’t the answer. In fact, if anything, positive thinking is actually a form of spiritual bypassing because it is used by people to avoid their deeper issues such as persistent unhappiness, deep-rooted anger, and emptiness.
There is a reason why positive thinking makes us feel nauseous and overly optimistic people annoy us to no end – and that is that, deep down, positive thinking feels fake and disingenuous to us. Metaphysically speaking, positive thinking is still playing by the black and white rules of duality which is a way of seeing the world in a fractured and unrealistic state. In other words, when we think negative thoughts, our knee-jerk reaction is to believe that the opposite end of the spectrum – positive thinking – is the answer.
The problem here is that we are still puppets of the mind – we can’t see that there is actually a third way that transcends thought altogether, a way that doesn’t involve identifying with thought at all.
Positive thinking also involves a tremendous amount of judgment. When we want to “think positively” we are essentially condemning the rest of our negative thoughts and trying to be a way which we think is “better.” Once we have condemned our negative thoughts as bad or undesirable, we are actually creating more negativity, but this time painting it with the pretty face of “positive thinking.”
If you have tried positive thinking before, you would have also realized (if you were self-aware) that positive thinking always comes with a sense of subtle underlying anxiety. Because you believe that thinking positive thoughts will make you happy, you are scared deep down that you’ll lose your ability to see the world optimistically – and therefore lose your happiness. This undercurrent of fear and anxiety leads to demonizing negative thoughts, and any form of negativity, in passive and phobic ways.
Have you ever seen “positive-vibes-only” types of people passive aggressively react to any source of negativity? These anger-phobic types of people seem vibrant and happy on the surface, but the perceptive person will always be able to see an undercurrent of fear. This fear comes from resisting life and anything that is perceived as being “bad,” toxic or negative. While it’s understandable that anyone would want to keep negativity out of their lives, positive-vibes-only people seem to be particularly phobic and resistant to the darkness. Ironically, this fear of negativity and underlying obsession with staying positive actually generates massive amounts of suppressed emotion leading to an unstable psyche and personality.
The truth is that positive thinking always involves some level of resistance to the negative – that is simply how the game is played. Unfortunately, it is very hard for many people to realize this as they’re so invested in positive thinking as the miraculous panacea to all their problems. However, if you honestly examine positive thinking with an unbiased mind, you can see that it creates more harm than good.
3 Reasons Why You Need to Stop Fighting Your Negative Thoughts
The thoughts change, but not you. Let go of the passing thoughts and hold on to the unchanging Self. – Sri Ramana Maharshi
Here are the three major reasons why you need to stop fighting your negative thoughts:
1. You cannot control your thoughts
Do you really control your thoughts? Yes, you can give yourself the impression that you are “controlling” them through positive thinking. But actually, you’re not controlling your negative thoughts – you’re just superimposing positive thoughts on top of them. Yes, you can train your brain to have more positive thoughts through repetition and habit, but at the end of the day, you cannot truly remove your negative thoughts. No matter how hard you try, you will always have negative thoughts.
Why is this the case?
The truth, realized by countless sages through the ages, is that we cannot control our thoughts at all. Our thoughts simply arise and fall, like waves in the ocean. One moment we have one thought, the next, we have another.
Can you honestly say that you know what the next thought in your brain will be? Or the next, or the next? If you could truly control your thoughts, don’t you think you would choose to think 100% feel-good thoughts all the time?
Sit in silence, bring awareness to your thoughts, and find out the truth for yourself.
2. You are not your thoughts
We tend to assume, automatically, that we ARE our thoughts, without truly inquiring into the origin and nature of our thoughts. This is why we become so obsessed with “thinking positively” – because we believe that WE are the ones creating our negative thoughts. Not only that, but we believe that we are our thoughts. In other words, we automatically identify with our thoughts and believe whatever any thought says is true. Identifying with our thoughts is actually the root cause of our suffering.
How can you create your thoughts if you don’t even know what the next thought in your brain will be? How can you be something that is so transitory and passing?
The truth is that you are not your thoughts. If you cannot control your thoughts because they spontaneously arise in your brain, then there is no need to fight them because they mean nothing about you! Your thoughts only mean something when you assign them meaning.
3. Fighting your thoughts increases your suffering
Trying to control, get rid of, or eliminate your negative thoughts actually feeds into the illusion that “you are your thoughts” which creates more suffering. When you believe what your thoughts say, you feel emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, insecurity, self-hatred, paranoia, and countless other emotions.
Even subtle and disguised forms of fighting such as practicing positive thinking feed into the illusion that “you are your thoughts” and your thoughts mean something about you. Instead of trying to think more positively, why not simply see that a thought is a thought, and it means nothing about you unless you believe it? Learning to stop fighting and suppressing negative thoughts, and instead, learning how to witness and disidentify with them, is much better in the long term. There are great teachers out there such as Noah Elkrief and Byron Katie who specialize in helping you to see thoughts as simply thoughts.
Instead of Fighting Your Thoughts, Learn to Observe Them
As we’ve just seen, negative thinking isn’t the problem: the real problem is identifying with your thoughts. Solutions such as practicing positive thinking actually create more harm than good because they fuel the illusion that you “are” your thoughts, your thoughts mean something about you, and therefore cause you to suppress and condemn whatever isn’t deemed positive.
For thousands of years, sages and awakened people have known that the solution to our suffering is learning how to witness and detach ourselves from our thoughts. In fact, the premise of many powerful spiritual practices such as meditation and self-inquiry is to help us see thoughts for what they truly are: temporary fluctuations of energy. We don’t need to believe these thoughts, instead, we can simply learn to witness them without identifying with them.
Here is how to practice witnesser consciousness:
- Give your thoughts names. During meditation or even during any moment of the day, notice the types of thoughts you’re having and give them a name. For example, you might say “sad thoughts,” “angry thoughts,” “busy thoughts,” “depressive spiral thoughts,” “judgmental thoughts.” By giving your thoughts names, you will be able to create more inner space and distance so you don’t identify with them so easily.
- Practice meditation. This point is pretty obvious, but nevertheless still important. If you have struggled with meditation before, experiment with a few different approaches. For example, I like to start my meditation practice with a mindful body scan and finish it by observing my thoughts arise and fall. If meditation is a big “eh” for you, try to do a bit of research and experiment some more with different techniques.
- Slow down and prioritize. Moving quickly causing us to get lost in our thoughts very easily. Find ways of slowing down during your day.
- Use your emotions as triggers. Whenever you’re feeling anxious, sad, angry or depressed, notice what thoughts are behind your emotions. Then, question your thoughts by asking “Do I know that is 100% true?”
By truly understanding that you only suffer when you identify with and BELIEVE your thoughts, you have the freedom to find profound inner peace and contentment – no matter how positive or negative your thoughts are.
I hope this article has helped you to understand why you need to stop fighting your negative thoughts, and what to do instead. Please share any of your thoughts or feelings below about this topic.