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Workarounds: Is There Any Value to Positive Thinking?

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POSITIVE THINKING

My article last week on self-imposed limitations inflamed the usual suspects, who generalized the notion into some kind of diatribe against taking whatever positive steps you can when faced with difficult circumstances. Of the many critiques I could have chosen to reprint, this one from "Averyavenue" seems to sum up the challenge in a nice paradox (I appreciate this comment for a number of reasons, but primarily because it frames the challenge so many face: what to do if you really want to improve?):

I can assure you that no one is going to be helped in any way at all by an article or blog. They may THINK (for a moment) that they are being helped. But it is an illusion, which they will learn, sooner or later. This is kind of a Dr. Phil mentality, that allows people to think that a problem can be fixed -- or even located -- in half an hour or a thousand words. I know this, too well, from experience. So I wonder what the point of the article was... For those of us who have been on a path to expand and improve ourselves, and have looked to others for answers or hints, we have been disappointed many many times. I learned the hard way that it is impossible for most people to shake off thirty, forty, fifty or more years of defeatist thinking and faulty upbringing. Even more, that no one book will do it (with very rare exceptions). It is a lifelong process, filled with incredible hope, dreams, disappointments, sadness, wins and losses. Like every life.

What's most interesting about Averyavenue's comment is that the answer s/he might seek to expanding or improving can actually be found in the generalized dismissal of the idea. S/he is perhaps accurate when s/he writes that no one is going to be helped by reading an article or a blog and that no book will "ever do it" for you.

My mentor coached me on this problem some years ago, as I said something quite similar about some ideas I had been reading in a book. My father had recently died of leukemia (I was 19), the insurance company responded by denying all health and death benefits (alleging that he had withheld knowledge of this "pre-existing" condition when he took out the policy 20 years earlier), and I wound up living in my car. As I was bemoaning my fate, Ernie had me read Gestalt Therapy Verbatim, a landmark book by Fritz Perls.

The book reframed remaining a victim as a matter of choice, of taking "response-ability" for moving forward. Had I stopped at simply reading the book, I'd probably still be in the dumps somewhere; instead, I embraced the challenge of "being able to respond" and began making small choices to improve my life circumstance. Nothing was going to change what had occurred; however, it was my choice to do something about it.

Clearly, there was no single step that completely changed everything. However, without having some kind of positive (and possible) outcome in mind coupled with the willingness to take the first step, nothing was going to change at all.

I learned that reading about something is quite different from actually doing something about it. You can read all the cake recipes in the world and none of them will taste like cake until you actually get busy putting the ingredients together and having the patience to let the ingredients combine with the heat of the oven to produce the final product.

Averyavenue is also correct when s/he suggests that looking to others for answers probably isn't going to work and that you may well wind up disappointed. No one is likely to ever have your answers for you; however, someone else may have an answer that has worked for them that contains an idea or two that could help you -- but only if you're willing to get past your inner critic and test the ideas in your own life.

If you are willing to make the cake, not just read about it, someone else's recipe may prove useful. You may find that it works perfectly for you; if you're a cook, you may use their recipe once or twice and then start to modify it to come up with something you like even better.

However, I think we need to underscore something that I have said and written many times over: positive thinking just doesn't work. If you click on the hyperlink, you will notice that I wrote an article some time ago with the same title. Of course, there's a bit of a twist here: positive thinking doesn't work, but positive action does. The tricky bit is that it's pretty hard to take a positive action without some kind of positive intention or positive thought in the first place.

So why do people get so exercised about "self-help" articles or books, or "positive thinking" in general? I have no quarrel with a note of caution. After all, there have been a stream of disreputable types out there suggesting that blindly following some misguided form of "positive thinking" will change things for the better. However, real positive thinking is about finding your way forward, not about pretending how wonderful that tsunami was.

The value in a book, article or even a simple blog post isn't in finding magical solutions that work all by themselves; rather, the value lies in the possibility that you might start thinking about what you can actually do beyond simply reading about the issues you are facing. Let's be abundantly clear here: the challenge is to get up off your objections and actually take a positive step forward. One step will not get you across the finish line, but how else will you get there if you won't at least take a step?

If you're looking for more assistance in this blend of positive thinking plus positive action, I have an archive of articles available right here on The Huffington Post. This collection of writings won't change your life; change is up to you. However, you may discover something you can do to begin making the change, or at least something you can do to make the best of your circumstance.

Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell@russellbishop.com.

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If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life or how you can take a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, download a free chapter from Russell's new book, "Workarounds That Work."

You can buy "Workarounds That Work" here.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about his work by visiting his website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact him by email at Russell@russellbishop.com.

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