Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Use Caution With Positive Thinking

positive thinking.jpg
Back in July, John Cloud wrote a piece for “Time” Magazine called “Yes, I Suck: Self-Help Through Negative Thinking.” In the article, Cloud lays out the research why “cognitive restructuring,” the process of retraining your thoughts–of changing self-defeating attitudes to constructive ones–simply doesn’t work.


Actually, it’s worse than that.


Sometimes when we tell ourselves statements that we don’t really believe (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me”), it can decrease the little self-esteem we had to begin with. As I mentioned in my post “Happy Thoughts Can Make You Sad,” this is precisely why Dr. Smith told me to stay away from self-help books when I was suicidal three years ago. In a severely depressed state, any efforts made to reverse thinking can actually activate the amygdala or fear center of your brain. In other words, it can have the opposite effect of what you’re going for.

So what’s the alternative?


In February of 2006, Cloud penned another interesting article that was recently brought to my attention by Joshua Shenk, author of “Lincoln’s Melancholy.” Cloud writes about the “third wave of therapy” from psychologists like Steven Hayes, who wrote “Get Out of Your Mind & Into Your Life.” Unlike most psychologists, Hayes writes in the introduction that “suffering is normal and it is the unusual person who learns how to create peace of mind.”


Here’s how Cloud explains the psychology of Hayes and like minds:

Hayes and other third wavers say trying to correct negative thoughts can, paradoxically, intensify them, in the same way that a dieter who keeps telling himself “I really don’t want the pizza” ends up obsessing about … pizza. Rather, Hayes and the roughly 12,000 students and professionals who have been trained in his formal psychotherapy, which is called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), say we should acknowledge that negative thoughts recur throughout life. Instead of challenging them, Hayes says, we should concentrate on identifying and committing to our values. Once we become willing to feel negative emotions, he argues, we will find it easier to figure out what life should be about and get on with it. That’s easier said than done, of course, but his point is that it’s hard to think about the big things when we’re trying so hard to regulate our thinking.


I’m with Hayes to a certain degree. For the same reasons that Dr. Smith told me yesterday (yet again) to put down the self-help literature: It was making me feel worse. Because when I can’t change the negative intrusive thought into a positive thought, I feel as though I have failed. And when I reach a low period, which I have recently, it’s increasingly difficult for me to transform my thoughts. Thus, I feel more and more like a failure.

This is why, for the time being, I need to practice mindfulness over cognitive behavioral strategies, and tell myself that my thought isn’t a fact. It’s an event that will go away. Hopefully soon. I should try not to judge it. In fact, I should try not to judge myself as I’m trying not to judge it. I don’t have to connect with the thought in any way because it is impermanent. Transient. There is nothing lasting about this thought of mine.


To that end, I applaud Hayes and the third wavers. Thank you for giving me an alternative.

But I don’t agree with Hayes that almost everyone is depressed–that psychological pain is to be expected, the status quo–and “Almost 100 percent of all the people on the planet will at some point in their life contemplate killing themselves.” That sentence makes me want to give up right now. God, if this is normal, then I can’t take another 35 years on this planet. Get me off now.

No, suicidal thoughts aren’t normal, and they are to be taken very seriously. You are supposed to enjoy your life. At least parts of it. Not simply cope through it.

At least that’s what Dr. Smith told me yesterday when I described my post, “My Life Goal? To Finish,” and asked her whether or not that attitude and philosophy was normal, or was it an indication that I was depressed. 


Thankfully she told me that it was my depression doing the writing, and that happiness is possible, that she has seen me thoroughly enjoy life, and I will be able to do that again.

So I put away my self-help guides, and told my thoughts that I no longer had the energy and willpower to try to change them … that I have no pixie powder with which to make them fly away. I am trying to follow the advice of metaphysical writer Robert Adams:

So what do you have to do to cease thinking, so that the thoughts can become dead? You simply do not attach yourself to the thoughts. By not attaching yourself to the thoughts, by not reacting to the thoughts, by not responding to the thoughts, they lose their power and begin to fade away. You do not give them any energy. Do not give them any power. Do not say to yourself, I have to stop my thoughts. Do nothing like this. Just slow down, slow down. Let the thoughts do what they may. Allow the thoughts to go their own way. Do nothing with your thoughts. Do not think about them. Do not fight them. And above all, do not try to stop them.


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  • Laurie

    This mindfulness/acceptance approach makes sense to me and I have been using it with some success.

  • Emily

    I do not think that it is a healthy approach for someone that is depressed. Being a depressed person for many years I have to disagree to some point. The self help books and making positive statements can help you. The problem comes from one not being able to rise up OUT of depression to a point where those statements and possible thinking make a difference. If you are at the lowest point in your life, you need to identify “why” you are there. Once you can identify why you are at that low point, then come to some acceptance of the situation, then and only then can you find a way to overcome the depressive state.
    From the time you begin to come out of it, you have to accept that life is not perfect. You are given situations in life to learn a lesson or sometimes you go through things for the sake of others learning a lesson. Its not always about you. Depressed people tend to think in that way, that they are without options and its all about them (which is not true). Despite all the hardships and lessons from life, you find that you can only control certain aspects of your life. And at that point you are able to bring positivity into your life which is something you can control. Fill your life with positive people, print out positive statements and place them where you can see them throughout the day. Do things that inspire you and motivate you. Find out what makes you happy and do it!
    Self-help books are only meant to help you see things in a different light or to help you see things from another perspective. This is not something that can be done when you are in that deep dark place in life. Put you can apply those techniques once you uproot yourself from your depressive state.

  • Meg

    Maybe Dr. Smith thinks your recent post is indicative of a more depressed state….she probably knows better than I do :)
    Still, I liked that post. You didn’t dangle some lofty goal out there, you were very realistic. This is a goal you can maintain even in your dark times. When that happens, you will still be able to say “I’m working on it” and you won’t have set yourself up for failure. Just try to be open to the happiness in life when you can be. Hopefully it will surprise you…
    It is frustrating when the CBT stuff doesn’t go the way you want it. I found mindfulness more helpful in those times (like last winter) and I hope that you will too. Life made of of cycles, and hopefully this one will soon move on to a new phase.
    Good post, Therese. Wellness requires different kinds of work.

  • Luciana

    Dear Therese,
    I think that Steven Hayes is overstating if he says that all people will feel suicidal at some time. But I think that if you practice mindfulness and read or listen to other people who practice mindfulness, you’ll find that ‘psychological pain IS to be expected’–at least some of the time.
    That’s actually a relief to me in a way–it’s normal, and not exclusive to me and other ‘sick’ people.

  • GeriGreene

    FINALLY someone who put into words what I’ve experienced !!! My husband was a PMA advocate – Positive Mental Attitude – to the point of distraction (for me) – problems simply did not exist! Even when they DID! He would not participate in discussion – but rather disappeared into his laboratory (our huge lawns) and when he re-appeared HE felt better but I was left to deal with the issues still, without the benefit of input or being involved in the decision. Ignoring pain does not make it disappear.
    When first the cassette tapes appeared, I would play one in my office (private office) and scream back at it B—S*** !!! It did exactly what you write, that it triggered opposite the intended purpose!
    Finally I have found that action is involved when illogical phrases do nothing but exaggerate the thoughts. KUDOS for providing this piece – you have made my day!!!

  • skylark

    Dear Therese…When I fall into the newest trough or low point in
    my journey there are always things I can fall back
    on from previous experiences ..much like a sailor
    on storm-tossed seas we rely on ingenuity and God..
    in the knowledge that even if we do nothing the
    storm will pass and the seas will smooth.
    During the last low I was inspired to read the Book
    of Tobit, one of the deuteroncanonical (Aprocrophyl)
    books of the bible. Tobit and his daughter-in-law
    Sarah ( she had lost 7 husbands on her wedding nights)
    were at such low points in their lives they begged
    God to take their lives and therby relieve their
    miseries…Of course God doesn’t…He never does
    but He always provides a way out. If you’ve never
    read this book try it as it is quite inspirational
    in reminding us that trust in the Lord is unfailing.
    I am also aware that those living in the North
    east where we are blessed with four seasons, for
    some subjection to real lows and stresses involve
    physical and mental adjustments each time we swing into
    season..I have just adjusted to the heat and humidity
    of summer when WHAM! the leaves are beginiing to fall
    off the trees and I’ve got to swing into a whole new
    routine…Fall especially throws me with its reminders
    of dying and death everywhere around me…and trying
    to think positively about the beauty of the changing
    scenery doesn’t always click with me…just the
    drudgery of getting all the leaves up off the lawn so
    that the grass doesn’t die is enough to flatten me..
    but if I begin to realize that what is happening to
    me IS seasonal and that it too will pass (St. Teresa)
    perhaps I can instead look forward to long walks in
    the kinder warmth of the autumn sun, fresh crunchy
    apples, warmed cider, marshmallow roasts, and change
    my frame of reference. It is all in your thoughts!
    and your trust in God who will provide the way out.

  • Rosa

    Personally, I beleive there is Scripture to address any situation. For me, thinking is not positive unless it is based on the promises of God, and supported by my belief. Somethings are faith, some things are presumptious, and some things are downright foolishness. But, when I search the Scriptures, I always find something to support my mood, and lift me up. This is the foundation for which my positive thinking is based. Peace and Love.

  • Kaitie

    Positive thinking is for people who are ready to feel their vibrational reality. Positive sounding words that feel bad are not really positive and produce no change. Positive words and thoughts that really make you feel better are extremely effective. The books that I recommend have a very clear disclaimer for those who are being treated for specifics illnesses. If you don’t follow the advise of the disclaimer then you are liable should you have a bad experience. The books that I highly recommend are The Teachings of Abraham, translated by Ester and Jerry Hicks. I have seen a very dramatic improvement in my health, relationships and finances as a result of these very well written books.

  • Please stop writing your blogs

    *Not* try to change one’s behaviours? At one time you were suicidal? Sorry, but your thoughts are toxic! Please, do us all a favour and find another profession. Your messages are dangerous for others to read.

  • Diane

    I’m still alittle concerned about how we channel our negative thoughts according to this method? Do I accept negativity as part of my life? Issues in our life happens however it’s how we handle them. Maybe, thru a positive approach or negative approach. They are part of human nature. I believe it’s just the cause and effect on how an individual accepts it or how they will approach whatever causes the thoughts that follows.

  • Morag

    Just had to say I completely disagree with “Please stop writing your blogs”. Nowhere have Therese said we shouldn’t try to change behaviour. As I see it, she’s trying to find a way to stop giving energy to negative thoughts, to let them surface so that the can float away, even if they do get stuck in an eddy for a while.
    Therese’s thought are NOT toxic. They help each of us to know that it’s not just us who feels this way, that we can get through and beyond those thoughts and feelings.
    Therese – you’re FAR from a failure.

  • rick

    how about if you include God in the equation and see what happens to depression.

  • Joe Masefield

    This is all utter rubbish. Good and bad, positive and negative thoughts are encoded in our neurons as we are growing as a fetus. Self-help books, of sorts, predate the Pyramids, whether from religious or philosophical sources, or nowadays as massive publishing strategies.The world swings, and always has, between Macbeth and the Marx Brothers; from the brilliance of an Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein, to the imbecile chattering of a Jimmy Carter and a Nancy Pelosi; from Shakespeare to the insane distortions of today’s mass media,who are the stenographers of liars, fear mongers, and the lowest level of society, criminals and politicians. It’s called “reality.” The next time someone sticks a gun in your back, tell them to read Dale Carnegie and see if it helps.

  • john

    i agree, Rick. i could not escape my negative thoughts w/o help from a God or my understanding of that. And part of it is being able to connect with others who share similar thoughts. Prayer is def. big, and while NOT a holy roller at all, i do have faith in something bigger than me today. but meds help, too! :) i like what Tolle says about thoughts and emotions in A New Earth. it’s a great read for anyone open-minded.

  • Gloria

    Thoughts are important. I’ve learnt to remember all the good times in my life and to voice them thus enforing them. From doing that I’ve learnt to enjoy the moment more. Why dwell on all the negative events, it’s those that depress.

  • Eileen Lichtenstein

    As an advanced EFT practitioner, and I allow for acknowledgement of the negative thought by the client and thento the EFT process of changing thoughts-behavior, by tapping on specified meridian points while making relevant statements. There is a “set up” phrase that goes: Even though I…; I fully and deeply love and accept myself.” You may add “and know this is temporary.” There is also kinesiology testing that can be done if the practitioner suspects the client doesn’t believe the statement he is making and room for “psychological reversal” in the method.
    However, clients sign a waiver saying that he-she is not suicidal or under a physicians care for diagnosed mental illness.
    EFT does, however, work magnificantly well with anxiety-panic attacks,phobias and cravings.
    You can see more about this modality on my website: and the founder of EFT, Gary Craig’s:
    Therese, I’ve been following your column for several years and appreciate your honesty and research that goes into the work.
    Have a speedy recovery for your “temporary” condition- and be well~
    Eileen Lichtenstein, MS.Ed.,EFT-ADV
    CEO Balance & Power, Inc.

  • dancingwings

    I found a great meditation on, it’s titled “Letting Go” During that meditation you practice holding on to your breath until you’re desperate to exhale. The meditation focuses on letting go of what’s no longer useful, such as pain, bad thoughts, etc. Hope people find it helpful.

  • Sarah F

    But I watch Fox “News” for entertainment.

  • Toni

    Hi Theresa,
    I will have to agree with your Doctor, People think at one time or another in their life. It would be better if I were dead, I wish I were dead or something like that. I will have to agree that positive self help crap well is crap. If you are already at a point that your self worth is at an all time low, you are not at a place in your mind or life that you can feel, or see how this positive book or whatever can make you feel better. Depression is a process that you have to work through, and you have to know what your pressure or trigger points are and hopefully you are not so low that you still can realize how low you are and that you need help. I have been very low and thought of suicide now 3 times in my life. The last time in the last few weeks. My fiancee killed himself. So I know first hand how worthlessness and darkness effects a persons emotional well being. People that are at this point are in so much emotional and mental pain they see no other way to stop the pain. But to take their own life. I am trying to create a non profit organization to help people deal with suicide. We need more support groups for people before they take their lives and we need support groups to help those of us they call griefers and that is spelled correctly. But no one wants to help with this. We will have approximately 200,000 people to comment suicide this year. Every year it has increased and more now that people can not find work and take care of their families. Of the 200,000 more than 80% are white men. And least are black females. There is very little information on suicide, we really don’t know why people comment suicide and we don’t know how we griefers cope. They do think that someone directly associated with suicide are 3 to 4 times more likely to comment suicide themselves. this is one of the many areas I would like to be able to provide this information with my non profit organization, but again I can not get anyone to help me. I asked Godaddy to help create the web site and they said no.
    Mental illness is no different than someone having cancer. Both are painful, and both can be deadly. But even today we still think mental illness is taboo. Which is ridiculous. It is great to read your blog. I hope and pray I can get the site for others out there.

  • Lisa

    Has anyone heard of the research or the use of amino acids for the treatment of panic dosorder and depression. I currently take buspar and xanax 1/2 a pill 2x per day. This has helped my panic but not depression. Any feed back or experience with the aminos is greatly appreciated. By the way Therese I love your website!

  • x

    i have never been happy even when i was a child. i was beaten from my earliest memories and sexually abused. i am 40 and male and i still am sexually abused and harrassed. i don’t know how to find “good” in this world. i don’t know where it is and i do not know what to do with good if i found it. i wish god would take me in my sleep. i almost died last year. i am still very angry at god that i didn’t. if there is no god, then i am angry at myself for getting scared and going to the hospital. when i honestly believed i was going to die, it was the first time i ever remember being at peace and happy.

  • Your Name

    Thank you for your column. It has helped me countless times to not despair entirely, to regain myself. In the Quotes everyday there was this one I’ve heard many differing ways before:
    Forgiveness is having the courage to take down the walls that we think are there to protect us. – Suztes40
    But who is Suztes40??? I tried looking up the quote itself but hit a dead end as it seems to be attributed to a variety of Biblical sources…
    Please help and e-mail me directly when you find out. Thank you. Karen

  • Leeann

    Therese you are right let them the thoughts do what they need, don’t try to fight them or try tot fight them or find reason behind them. I have learned that, with bipolar I have many of those and many nights keep up by them and the days long trying to find meaning..And TRYING TO GET RID OF THEM well it doesn’t work. The best advice I can give is to try to do things to take your mind off of them. The statement of Suicidal thoughts who in the world would come up with that!!! IT is serious and only people who are in desperate need of help truly have those thoughts and should be taken very seriously. I should know that is what land me in a pysic ward in 02.
    Thank you for your wonderful posts.

  • Taylor Parrish

    Hi Therese.. I love your articles keep sending me more thanks!

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