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Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work … And What Does Work Instead

Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work … And What Does Work Instead

One of the most common pieces of advice offered to people interested in personal development is to “think positive.” In fact we are often told that personal success and happiness are virtually impossible to achieve if you have frequent negative thoughts.

I would like to suggest that telling people they need to always engage in positive thinking is one of the worst pieces of advice one could possibly get. Let me explain why.

What do negative thoughts come from?

If you are having negative thoughts—such as, “I’ll probably fail at this new project,” “He doesn’t really love me,” and, “I screwed up again”—they are the result of negative beliefs formed earlier in your life.

For example, the thought, “I’ll probably fail at this new project,” is the result of beliefs like, “I’m not good enough,” and, I’m not capable.”  The thought, “He doesn’t really love me,” is the result of beliefs like, I’m not loveable,” and, “Men can’t be trusted.” And the thought, “I screwed up again,” is the result of beliefs like, “Nothing I do is ever good enough.”

So what will keep you from achieving personal success and happiness is not your negative thinking, but the fact that those thoughts are reflections of the way you view the world. And you always act consistently with your beliefs about life, people, and ourselves. Even if you could get rid of the negative thoughts that arise from your beliefs, the beliefs would still be there running your life. 

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What do most people do to keep from having negative thoughts?

If you try not to be aware of what you are thinking, you will probably end up trying to suppress those thoughts. At worst that just won’t work. At best the thoughts will stop, but they haven’t disappeared; they have only been driven underground. They are like a beach ball you are trying to hold underwater: you can do it for a while, but eventually you will get tired of holding the ball down and it will pop out of the water.

The beliefs about yourself and life that cause your negative thoughts would still exist and would continue to drive your behavior.  So trying to put positive thinking on top of negative thinking not only doesn’t work, but also deceives you into thinking you’ve gotten rid of it when really you haven’t.

Moreover, suppressed thoughts and feelings usually manifest in some form of behavior when you least expect it. Often, suppressed anxiety results in stress we can’t seem to find the source of and suppressed anger often resulted in angry outbursts that seem unprovoked. In addition, a significant body of research has shown that suppressed negative feelings often result in illness.

An alternative to suppression is positive affirmations. Many people stand in front of a mirror daily and say out loud: “I am good enough. I am capable. I am loveable.” Rarely does this practice change anything because deep inside you know what you are saying is not true to you. What you are saying out loud is: “I’m good enough.” What you are thinking is: “But I know I’m really not.  “I am capable”—”But I know I’m really not.” “I am loveable”—”But I know I’m really not.”

Another way to understand why affirmations rarely work is to ask yourself: “Who would stand in front of a mirror uttering positive statements about themselves?” People who really believed what they were saying would never do that. So in a very real sense people who use positive affirmations are really reminding themselves of the negative thoughts they are trying to escape.

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How can we really eliminate our negative thoughts?

So, if positive thinking doesn’t work when we are having negative thoughts, are we doomed to live with that little voice that constantly invalidates us?

As we have seen, almost all negative thoughts are the result of negative beliefs. A belief is a statement about reality that we feel is the truth. As long as we feel that I’m not good enough, I’m not capable, and I’m not loveable,” are really true about us, we will act as if they are true. Our beliefs determine how we feel, how we act, and how we perceive things.

The only really effective way to eliminate negative thoughts and the negative beliefs that cause them is to eliminate the beliefs—not try to cover them up or pretend they are gone.

The Lefkoe Belief Process (LBP), which I created 29 years ago, does just that. Here are the steps of the LBP so you can eliminate a few of your own negative beliefs on your own. Don’t just read how to do it; actually identify a negative belief you hold, and use the process I describe to eliminate it.

How to eliminate the beliefs that give rise to negativity in your life

Take a look at a given belief and find the earliest possible source. What happened that led you to form the belief? For example, being criticized frequently by your parents for not living up to their expectations would led most young children to conclude, I’m not good enough.” Mom and dad not being around physically when young children want them or being there physically but not present emotionally would lead them to conclude, “I’m not important.”

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Once you’ve found the source of a belief, realize that your belief is one “valid” interpretation of your experiences. And then realize that there are other possible interpretations that hadn’t occurred to you at the time you formed the belief, but, nevertheless, could just as easily account for the events. At which point you realize your belief is only a truth, not the truth.

For example, being frequently criticized for not doing what your parents expect of you could mean you’re not good enough. It also could mean your parents have unreasonable expectations. Or your parents might think you’re not good enough but they are wrong. Or maybe you weren’t good at doing certain things but that doesn’t mean you’re not good enough as a person. Or maybe you weren’t good enough as a child but that doesn’t mean it will always be true.

We think we can “see” the belief

Then the crucial part comes: Put yourself back into the events that led to the belief and, as you look at them, ask yourself: “Doesn’t it seem as if I can ‘see’ [the belief]?” The answer for visual people will always be: “Yes. And you would have seen it too if you had been there.”

Then ask yourself: “Did I really see it?”  Because if you really saw it, you would be able to describe it with a color, shape, location, etc. When you realize that you can’t describe it, you immediately realize that, in fact, you never really “saw” the belief. You only saw events, but the meaning of the events—in other words, the beliefs you formed about the events—existed only in your mind.

At this point, for most visual people, the belief is gone. It existed and resisted being extinguished because you thought you had seen it. As soon as you realize you never saw it in the world, that it existed only in your mind, it is no longer something you thought you discovered and saw in the world; it is only one interpretation of many possible interpretations that has existed only in your mind.

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As the final clincher, ask yourself if the events that led to the formation of the belief have any inherent meaning. Did they have any meaning before you give them a meaning? By that I mean, can you draw any conclusion for sure from these events? You will quickly realize that the events that led to your belief have many different possible meanings; there is no one meaning that is inherently true. So, while the events might have had consequences at the time they happened—in other words, they could have been profoundly upsetting—they have no inherent meaning. Any meaning exists only in your mind, not in the world.

Don’t try to think positive, be positive.

To summarize: Beliefs are statements about reality that we feel are the truth, that are facts about the world. We are convinced our beliefs are true because we think we saw them in the world. Once we realize we never saw the beliefs in the world—that they were only in our mind—the beliefs will be gone forever.

Instead of positive thinking, which doesn’t work in the long run and which can lead to serious consequence, eliminate the beliefs that are causing your negative thoughts. At that point you won’t have to try to think positive, you will be positive.

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Last Updated on October 22, 2020

8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

8 Simple Ways to Be a Better Listener

How would you feel if you were sharing a personal story and noticed that the person to whom you were speaking wasn’t really listening? You probably wouldn’t be too thrilled.

Unfortunately, that is the case for many people. Most individuals are not good listeners. They are good pretenders. The thing is, true listening requires work—more work than people are willing to invest. Quality conversation is about “give and take.” Most people, however, want to just give—their words, that is. Being on the receiving end as the listener may seem boring, but it’s essential.

When you are attending to someone and paying attention to what they’re saying, it’s a sign of caring and respect. The hitch is that attending requires an act of will, which sometimes goes against what our minds naturally do—roaming around aimlessly and thinking about whatnot, instead of listening—the greatest act of thoughtfulness.

Without active listening, people often feel unheard and unacknowledged. That’s why it’s important for everyone to learn how to be a better listener.

What Makes People Poor Listeners?

Good listening skills can be learned, but first, let’s take a look at some of the things that you might be doing that makes you a poor listener.

1. You Want to Talk to Yourself

Well, who doesn’t? We all have something to say, right? But when you are looking at someone pretending to be listening while, all along, they’re mentally planning all the amazing things they’re going to say, it is a disservice to the speaker.

Yes, maybe what the other person is saying is not the most exciting thing in the world. Still, they deserve to be heard. You always have the ability to steer the conversation in another direction by asking questions.

It’s okay to want to talk. It’s normal, even. Keep in mind, however, that when your turn does come around, you’ll want someone to listen to you.

2. You Disagree With What Is Being Said

This is another thing that makes you an inadequate listener—hearing something with which you disagree with and immediately tuning out. Then, you lie in wait so you can tell the speaker how wrong they are. You’re eager to make your point and prove the speaker wrong. You think that once you speak your “truth,” others will know how mistaken the speaker is, thank you for setting them straight, and encourage you to elaborate on what you have to say. Dream on.

Disagreeing with your speaker, however frustrating that might be, is no reason to tune them out and ready yourself to spew your staggering rebuttal. By listening, you might actually glean an interesting nugget of information that you were previously unaware of.

3. You Are Doing Five Other Things While You’re “Listening”

It is impossible to listen to someone while you’re texting, reading, playing Sudoku, etc. But people do it all the time—I know I have.

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I’ve actually tried to balance my checkbook while pretending to listen to the person on the other line. It didn’t work. I had to keep asking, “what did you say?” I can only admit this now because I rarely do it anymore. With work, I’ve succeeded in becoming a better listener. It takes a great deal of concentration, but it’s certainly worth it.

If you’re truly going to listen, then you must: listen! M. Scott Peck, M.D., in his book The Road Less Travel, says, “you cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” If you are too busy to actually listen, let the speaker know, and arrange for another time to talk. It’s simple as that!

4. You Appoint Yourself as Judge

While you’re “listening,” you decide that the speaker doesn’t know what they’re talking about. As the “expert,” you know more. So, what’s the point of even listening?

To you, the only sound you hear once you decide they’re wrong is, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!” But before you bang that gavel, just know you may not have all the necessary information. To do that, you’d have to really listen, wouldn’t you? Also, make sure you don’t judge someone by their accent, the way they sound, or the structure of their sentences.

My dad is nearly 91. His English is sometimes a little broken and hard to understand. People wrongly assume that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about—they’re quite mistaken. My dad is a highly intelligent man who has English as his second language. He knows what he’s saying and understands the language perfectly.

Keep that in mind when listening to a foreigner, or someone who perhaps has a difficult time putting their thoughts into words.

Now, you know some of the things that make for an inferior listener. If none of the items above resonate with you, great! You’re a better listener than most.

How To Be a Better Listener

For conversation’s sake, though, let’s just say that maybe you need some work in the listening department, and after reading this article, you make the decision to improve. What, then, are some of the things you need to do to make that happen? How can you be a better listener?

1. Pay Attention

A good listener is attentive. They’re not looking at their watch, phone, or thinking about their dinner plans. They’re focused and paying attention to what the other person is saying. This is called active listening.

According to Skills You Need, “active listening involves listening with all senses. As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it is important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening—otherwise, the speaker may conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener.”[1]

As I mentioned, it’s normal for the mind to wander. We’re human, after all. But a good listener will rein those thoughts back in as soon as they notice their attention waning.

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I want to note here that you can also “listen” to bodily cues. You can assume that if someone keeps looking at their watch or over their shoulder, their focus isn’t on the conversation. The key is to just pay attention.

2. Use Positive Body Language

You can infer a lot from a person’s body language. Are they interested, bored, or anxious?

A good listener’s body language is open. They lean forward and express curiosity in what is being said. Their facial expression is either smiling, showing concern, conveying empathy, etc. They’re letting the speaker know that they’re being heard.

People say things for a reason—they want some type of feedback. For example, you tell your spouse, “I had a really rough day!” and your husband continues to check his newsfeed while nodding his head. Not a good response.

But what if your husband were to look up with questioning eyes, put his phone down, and say, “Oh, no. What happened?” How would feel, then? The answer is obvious.

According to Alan Gurney,[2]

“An active listener pays full attention to the speaker and ensures they understand the information being delivered. You can’t be distracted by an incoming call or a Facebook status update. You have to be present and in the moment.

Body language is an important tool to ensure you do this. The correct body language makes you a better active listener and therefore more ‘open’ and receptive to what the speaker is saying. At the same time, it indicates that you are listening to them.”

3. Avoid Interrupting the Speaker

I am certain you wouldn’t want to be in the middle of a sentence only to see the other person holding up a finger or their mouth open, ready to step into your unfinished verbiage. It’s rude and causes anxiety. You would, more than likely, feel a need to rush what you’re saying just to finish your sentence.

Interrupting is a sign of disrespect. It is essentially saying, “what I have to say is much more important than what you’re saying.” When you interrupt the speaker, they feel frustrated, hurried, and unimportant.

Interrupting a speaker to agree, disagree, argue, etc., causes the speaker to lose track of what they are saying. It’s extremely frustrating. Whatever you have to say can wait until the other person is done.

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Be polite and wait your turn!

4. Ask Questions

Asking questions is one of the best ways to show you’re interested. If someone is telling you about their ski trip to Mammoth, don’t respond with, “that’s nice.” That would show a lack of interest and disrespect. Instead, you can ask, “how long have you been skiing?” “Did you find it difficult to learn?” “What was your favorite part of the trip?” etc. The person will think highly of you and consider you a great conversationalist just by you asking a few questions.

5. Just Listen

This may seem counterintuitive. When you’re conversing with someone, it’s usually back and forth. On occasion, all that is required of you is to listen, smile, or nod your head, and your speaker will feel like they’re really being heard and understood.

I once sat with a client for 45 minutes without saying a word. She came into my office in distress. I had her sit down, and then she started crying softly. I sat with her—that’s all I did. At the end of the session, she stood, told me she felt much better, and then left.

I have to admit that 45 minutes without saying a word was tough. But she didn’t need me to say anything. She needed a safe space in which she could emote without interruption, judgment, or me trying to “fix” something.

6. Remember and Follow Up

Part of being a great listener is remembering what the speaker has said to you, then following up with them.

For example, in a recent conversation you had with your co-worker Jacob, he told you that his wife had gotten a promotion and that they were contemplating moving to New York. The next time you run into Jacob, you may want to say, “Hey, Jacob! Whatever happened with your wife’s promotion?” At this point, Jacob will know you really heard what he said and that you’re interested to see how things turned out. What a gift!

According to new research, “people who ask questions, particularly follow-up questions, may become better managers, land better jobs, and even win second dates.”[3]

It’s so simple to show you care. Just remember a few facts and follow up on them. If you do this regularly, you will make more friends.

7. Keep Confidential Information Confidential

If you really want to be a better listener, listen with care. If what you’re hearing is confidential, keep it that way, no matter how tempting it might be to tell someone else, especially if you have friends in common. Being a good listener means being trustworthy and sensitive with shared information.

Whatever is told to you in confidence is not to be revealed. Assure your speaker that their information is safe with you. They will feel relieved that they have someone with whom they can share their burden without fear of it getting out.

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Keeping someone’s confidence helps to deepen your relationship. Also, “one of the most important elements of confidentiality is that it helps to build and develop trust. It potentially allows for the free flow of information between the client and worker and acknowledges that a client’s personal life and all the issues and problems that they have belong to them.”[4]

Be like a therapist: listen and withhold judgment.

NOTE: I must add here that while therapists keep everything in a session confidential, there are exceptions:

  1. If the client may be an immediate danger to himself or others.
  2. If the client is endangering a population that cannot protect itself, such as in the case of a child or elder abuse.

8. Maintain Eye Contact

When someone is talking, they are usually saying something they consider meaningful. They don’t want their listener reading a text, looking at their fingernails, or bending down to pet a pooch on the street. A speaker wants all eyes on them. It lets them know that what they’re saying has value.

Eye contact is very powerful. It can relay many things without anything being said. Currently, it’s more important than ever with the Covid-19 Pandemic. People can’t see your whole face, but they can definitely read your eyes.

By eye contact, I don’t mean a hard, creepy stare—just a gaze in the speaker’s direction will do. Make it a point the next time you’re in a conversation to maintain eye contact with your speaker. Avoid the temptation to look anywhere but at their face. I know it’s not easy, especially if you’re not interested in what they’re talking about. But as I said, you can redirect the conversation in a different direction or just let the person know you’ve got to get going.

Final Thoughts

Listening attentively will add to your connection with anyone in your life. Now, more than ever, when people are so disconnected due to smartphones and social media, listening skills are critical.

You can build better, more honest, and deeper relationships by simply being there, paying attention, and asking questions that make the speaker feel like what they have to say matters.

And isn’t that a great goal? To make people feel as if they matter? So, go out and start honing those listening skills. You’ve got two great ears. Now use them!

More Tips on How to Be a Better Listener

Featured photo credit: Joshua Rodriguez via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Skills You Need: Active Listening
[2] Filtered: Body language for active listening
[3] Forbes: People Will Like You More If You Start Asking Follow-up Questions
[4] TAFE NSW Sydney eLearning Moodle: Confidentiality

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