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Why Positive Thinking Just Doesn't Work

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Six weeks ago, I started a series on aspiring to an inspired life with an article suggesting there may be more to life than your 'to do' list. Last week, I posed the question, "Are You Doomed By Your Circumstances?"

This one article seems to have pinched a nerve in a number of people. Actually, several nerves. In fact, over the past year or so, these pinched nerves have erupted in various forms, revealing a pattern of complaint. Some of the complaints come from obviously caring and well intentioned people, some from people in apparently difficult or even desperate conditions, and some from the usual group who seem bent on shooting down anything positive or uplifting.

A sampling of common complaints:
• Positive thinking doesn't work
• Some circumstances are beyond repair
• Not everyone can succeed in life or reach the top

Not Everyone is Going to Make it to the Top

Before diving in too deep, I want to underscore that my work always emphasizes awareness and choice: what are you aware of experiencing, what would you prefer to experience, and what choices can you make that will help you make some kind of movement toward what you want? Distinguishing between material world success (things) and the deeper, more meaningful levels (enriching experiences) characterizes my work and the focus of these articles.

That doesn't mean you can't achieve success in the physical world. It just means that most of us would prefer inner peace, grace, loving, expansion and caring over material world possessions.

I began exploring this theme with my first post in July, 2008 asking people to notice the difference between what they pursue in life and why they actually want it. Some still miss the message, focusing instead on physical level achievements.

One reader wrote:

Some people are very lucky, or to put it another way, they get some breaks that not everyone will get, and then chalk it up to their own determination, grit, talent, amazingness, whatever. Reality. Not everyone is going to be hugely successful in life. I'm not saying don't try, but it is not true that everyone can reach the top just by trying or keeping a positive outlook. There is limited real estate at the pinnacle. Sorry to be a downer, but that's how I see it.

It's absolutely true that not everyone will wind up being the richest person on earth. That's not the point. As W Mitchell is fond of saying, "It's Not What Happens To You, It's What You Do About It." In case you don't know already, Mitchell (as he prefers to be called), survived a horrendous motorcycle crash that left him disfigured and burned his fingers off, only to wind up paralyzed in a plane crash. He has gone on to become a writer, speaker and inspiration to many.

I have worked with holocaust survivors, victims of rape, mayhem and untold physical abuse; I have worked with the rich and powerful; I have worked with ordinary folks trapped in the hum-drum existence of 9-5 and even with prisoners locked away for life due to the heinous nature of their crimes. More importantly, I have seen thousands take what they have, make new choices, and wind up with an improved quality of life, despite the apparent hopelessness of their situation or circumstance.

My experience has shown me that no matter where you are, what you have endured, or what your current level of circumstance, you can almost always do something to improve the quality of your experience, even if you can't do much about the quantity of it.

Indeed, not everyone is going to wind up at the top of the material world success pyramid; however, everyone does have the opportunity to improve the quality of their life experience.

Positive Thinking Doesn't Work

Surprisingly I couldn't agree more - positive thinking doesn't work! Unless, of course, it does.

Positive thinking alone is unlikely to change much of anything in the physical world. You can sit there and hope, pray, project, imagine, fantasize, visualize, make up great affirmations and just about any other kind of positive thinking idea you can imagine, and not much will change - at least not without actually getting involved, without taking some form of action towards what you want more of in your life.

Here's an example from one reader who obviously feels stuck:

Dear Russell

We read the self help books, we go to seminars, we listen to knowledgeable people who wholeheartedly try to be of help, we check sites on the internet, we read powerful messages or stories, and it all seems to me like visiting a fortune teller, hoping we will hear something positive.

Please do not take it the wrong way, but somehow this came to my mind and maybe because I've read and listened etc but somehow I am still feeling trapped.


This is one of the most common personal traps I have encountered over the years - it's kind of like saying, "I know that already and it doesn't work," which may really translate to, "I've heard it before, but haven't successfully applied it, therefore it doesn't work."

Reading about something is far different from actually getting involved. You can read a great cake recipe, but until you actually buy the ingredients, follow the recipe, and wait while the cake changes from batter to cake in the heat of the oven, not much will take place.

Last year, I wrote the following:

If all you do is read what is written, you may not get much value. If, however, you practice or apply what is written here, if you examine each element from the point of view of how it applies to your life, if you actively participate with the information, you may discover incredible insights into your own life. Surprisingly, you may learn lessons that you thought you had learned long ago, only this time the lesson will come at a much higher level, and take you far deeper into your True Self than you ever could have imagined.

Rather than simply thinking positively, holding a positive focus just might encourage some part of you to take positive action that, in turn, just might lead to a more positive set of experiences. However, until you get involved with the suggestions, actually try it out instead of just thinking about it, you will never really know.

I doubt that Mitchell has spent many days or nights telling himself positive thoughts about how great it is to be disfigured or paralyzed. However, he represents a fantastic example of what you can do with a positive focus.

Here's another example of missing the point:

Liz wrote:

I hate when people comment that anyone can overcome anything and that it is all a state of mind.

Robert added:

I agree. Staying positive is not a solution when your life truly sucks.

Unfortunately, there is an element of truth to these kinds of comments. The element of truth rises from the fact that if you give up before even trying, if you declare that the recipe could not possibly work, not only will you miss out on the cake, but you will likely become demoralized and increasingly stuck.

Mike wrote:

I once heard psychologist Armand DeMele say something interesting about self-sabotage:

"Self-sabotage is the smartest thing you can do if you're sabotaging a self that is not really you."

Sage advice, indeed.

There's more to come on this theme. Please let me know your thoughts, questions, concerns or suggestions, either by leaving a comment below, or by sending me an email.

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You can find out more about Russell Bishop at http://www.lessonsinthekeyoflife.com. Contact Russell at: russell@lessonsinthekeyoflife.com

Russell is an Educational Psychologist, professional life coach and management consultant, based in Santa Barbara California.