Surviving n Thriving

“Just Stay Positive” and Other Fallacies

If only keeping an optimistic mindset was the answer to all of life’s ills. Few things are more invalidating then telling people about a difficulty or struggle, only to have their first response be “well, you just need to look on the bright side.” For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I will be focusing on thinking patterns that frequently occur for individuals who have dealt with trauma. I desire to hold space for this discussion within a context that provides validation and support. My intention here to is examine language and concepts that may be useful in better understanding ourselves, and to discuss ideas at the intersection of spirituality and our inner thoughts. This is not an exhaustive study; I’m focusing specifically on aspects of thoughts to which I can relate in order to provide both a topical discussion and a personal reflection.

Cognitive Distortions

1. Depressive Rumination

Rumination is but one of many facets of depressed thinking. For me, it is a return, again and again, to a situation that I just can’t leave mentally. I perseverate on it. I mull it over, reminding myself repeatedly of what the other person did that was hurtful, or the specific ways in which I failed. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness pervade. This wasn’t just a one-off; this is how it always goes for me and how it will always be, no matter what I do.

My certainty at the failure of myself and of others may not be the driver of this type of thinking. Rather, I go back to the place and time mentally as though watching a movie, believing in some irrational space that I can find the key warning, the ominous glance or sigh, the misunderstood intention, either so that in doing so I can rewrite history, or so that I can prevent this type of situation from ever occurring again. Ultimately, I refuse to accept that I failed, that the other person failed me and/or that failure may occur in the future. Perhaps the situation was truly unpredictable and unavoidable. It may be easier for my depressed mind to live in a state of half-truths, not quite aware of the real and not quite aware of the fantasy.

2. Anxious Obsessions

As a self-styled worry-wart, my mind is filled with anxious thoughts on a non-stop radio bandwidth only I can hear. I’ve lived a million possible futures and all of them end badly. If our thoughts really do become projections in an alternate universe, I’d like to take a moment to apologize to the troubled selves I’ve created. I can’t adjust the noise or tune it out; what I can manage on good days is brief moments of static during which another frequency can also play.

The best is when something unexpected happens. I go into “matrix mode.” Every potential outcome and its consequences are immediately weighed and balanced until a solution is found. On those special occasions where the most likely courses of actions are deemed too risky, the machine of my mind keeps running and running, hoping something more enticing will “compute.” Goddess forbid anyone attempt to give me a suggestion about how to solve my problem; literally within minutes of a stressor happening I have already measured out and rejected whatever the other person eventually ends up telling me to do. The whole enterprise is exhausting and isolating, but, short of substance abuse, I’ve found little to tame it.

Anxious thoughts have a natural antidote—compulsive behaviors. Worried about a relationship? Ask the other person if everything is okay. When the person says it is, my anxiety decreases. Nervous about paying for bills? I’ll check my bank account one more time to remind myself I have sufficient funds. These behaviors unfortunately do nothing more than maintain the anxiety, but I find them very difficult to avoid.

3. Hostile Intent

Anger and anxiety are cousins; we fight what we cannot flee and flee what we perceive ourselves unable to fight. In terms of thinking, psychologists have conceptualized “hostile attribution bias” as an explanation for aggressive behavior. In ambiguous situations, the angry mind may interpret potentially benign behaviors as threats. Even something as subtle as a facial expression can be a dig, an affront to our respect.

I’ve trained myself again and again to question the automatic assumptions my mind forms, and to directly discuss the issue in a non-attacking way with the other person. I try to describe the behavior I observed literally, and then lay out possible innocent and hostile interpretations for why the other person may have taken the action. Basically, I state “I saw you doing X, and I’m not sure if you meant Y or Z. Please help me understand.” In dealing with people I do not know well, I am almost always wrong in my assumption of hostility.

A red flag needs to be waived here though to caution regarding those individuals who are manipulative or abusive. They will seize on your openness to multiple interpretations as a way to disarm and gaslight you. If I’ve called someone on something and the person repeats a similar behavior or steps it up a notch, I disengage any attempt at “understanding” and focus on safety and maintaining boundaries in the situation.

4. Invalidation

Thoughts of invalidation can be initiated by another person or they can originate in our own mind. They are only able to affect us to the extent to which we accept them as truth. These types of thoughts delegitimize our experience behaviorally or emotionally. “That didn’t really happen that way.” “I don’t feel this.” “I’m fine.” “The other person didn’t do this, say this, or mean this.” Thoughts of this nature often function to temporarily decrease our uncomfortable or awkward feelings. If we use denial and discounting on a regular basis, our reality begins to warp. In our distancing of ourselves from our feelings or experiences, we can inadvertently undermine our sense of self and our connection to others.

I believe an insistence on “higher vibrations” and “positive thoughts only” frequently serve as sources of internal invalidation. It is neither reasonable nor healthy to deny anything that isn’t sugar-coated and syrupy. Terrible things happen every day to people who do not deserve them; I think we all need to wrestle with this reality if we want to live authentic and deep spiritual lives. It is completely acceptable to have periods of time where we are unable to do so because of our own situation, but to judge and discount those who point out this truth as “negative” exemplifies the spiritual bypass route of denial in my opinion.

Goddessing Our Thoughts

Psychological assistance is often needed to deal with past trauma. Many therapies directly target thought distortions and work to help individuals reinterpret and reclaim their experiences. The first step is almost always noticing our thoughts; recognizing when we are denying our feelings or misinterpreting others gives us an opportunity to see things from another vantage-point. I will leave it to you to determine the mental health care you may need related to these issues; I want to focus instead on spiritual aspects of our thinking. In other words, my suggestions are not prescriptive ways to “fix” thinking problems, instead, they are ways to gently support yourself while you do the hard work of trauma recovery.

1. Remind Yourself of the Bigger Picture

A wider perspective often serves to help us gain a foothold when we feel overwhelmed by anxious, depressed or angry thoughts. Perhaps there is someone you trust to give an honest appraisal of your situation. Engaging in actions like journaling may open your mind to another way to view your experience. If possible, taking a break to clear your mind may help you to re-center and re-engage with a new mindset.

It can also be useful to practice specific calming statements. The ones I use are not always particularly positive, but they are effective for me. I frequently remind myself of how short and unpredictable life can be, as a way to let go of minor irritations into which I could otherwise become entwined. When people get under my skin, I tell myself that they are going to have to spend the rest of their lives with their sorry selves, and I am lucky to only have to play a bit role in interacting with them. My anxiety and anger flare significantly when I am under time pressure, so I actively return to the idea that I have enough time and that a catastrophe is not going to result based on being a little short on time.

2. Connect Your Struggles to Those of the Divine

I have only begun to take full advantage of this way of supporting myself. A multitude of myths, legends and stories exist of Goddesses and other Divine figures, each of whom faced Her own trials and tribulations. By familiarizing myself with these tales, as well as experiencing the Presence of the Divine directly, we can diminish our sense of otherness and the isolation that negative thoughts may bring. I think we often find Source in others as well.

3. Include Positivity Alongside the Difficult

Psychological research shows us that those who are resilient do not necessarily think only positive thoughts. Instead, when faced with difficulties, they are able to find light moments. The easiest way I have found to ensure this happens is to make a regular practice of gratitude. I passionately detest any notion that we should feel better simply because someone somewhere else has it worse than us. Suffering in one form does not negate suffering in another form; it’s just more suffering. What I mean by gratitude is that there are always moments, even on my worst days, of beauty, gentleness, unexpected good fortune and hope. Allowing these experiences to exist alongside my misery, instead of as a counterweight to it, lets me breathe and take in both the good and the bad at the same time.

4. Use Ritual and Routine as Behavioral Aids

Waiting for the right mood to strike before taking action can be excellent fodder for procrastination and can act as an impediment to progress. Sometimes the action has to proceed the internal motivation. I’ve noticed that my routines and my spiritual practices tend to set the stage for me to feel connected and centered, especially if I stick to them with regularity no matter what my internal thoughts want me to do. A depressed mindset can easily twist a failure to follow through into one more reason we should feel guilty and unworthy. I simply notice when I’ve gotten off my routine and do my best to steer myself back on track.

5. Practice Awareness of Body, Mind and Heart

Our thoughts do not occur in isolation. They interplay with our emotions and our physical states. Simply gaining an internal awareness of the interconnected relationship between these internal experiences may assist us in better understanding who we are and how we function. We get to decide what we want to do with this knowledge. Practices like mindfulness can assist in this inner work.

Because I view our physical existence as a core component of spirituality, I see the insight we can gain about ourselves as having spiritual implications. We are each a unique expression of the Divine. As such, we reflect a specific core of energy. The more we are able to see the colors, shapes and shifts of who we are, the more our place in the cosmic web can become solidified and strengthened, and the more we can use this place of power to affect positive change in the world.

I think that’s it. I’ve spent so much money, time and effort in therapy and on my own trying to fix myself, trying to change myself, and the question is always to what end. Why does it matter what I think? Who cares how much I’m incorporating the positive or practicing my rituals? In my view, I see now that ultimately I am not putting in this effort solely to reduce my own suffering, but rather because the extent to which I gain awareness my own sacredness, my own connection to Source, the rawness and realness of who I am, the greater good I can achieve. I believe the same is true for each of us.

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