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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 January 15, 2021

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

7 Ways To Have More Confident Body Language

The popular idiomatic saying that “actions speak louder than words” has been around for centuries, but even to this day, most people struggle with at least one area of nonverbal communication. Consequently, many of us aspire to have more confident body language but don’t have the knowledge and tools necessary to change what are largely unconscious behaviors.

Given that others’ perceptions of our competence and confidence are predominantly influenced by what we do with our faces and bodies, it’s important to develop greater self-awareness and consciously practice better posture, stance, eye contact, facial expressions, hand movements, and other aspects of body language.

Posture

First things first: how is your posture? Let’s start with a quick self-assessment of your body.

  • Are your shoulders slumped over or rolled back in an upright posture?
  • When you stand up, do you evenly distribute your weight or lean excessively to one side?
  • Does your natural stance place your feet relatively shoulder-width apart or are your feet and legs close together in a closed-off position?
  • When you sit, does your lower back protrude out in a slumped position or maintain a straight, spine-friendly posture in your seat?

All of these are important considerations to make when evaluating and improving your posture and stance, which will lead to more confident body language over time. If you routinely struggle with maintaining good posture, consider buying a posture trainer/corrector, consulting a chiropractor or physical therapist, stretching daily, and strengthening both your core and back muscles.

Facial Expressions

Are you prone to any of the following in personal or professional settings?

  • Bruxism (tight, clenched jaw or grinding teeth)
  • Frowning and/or furrowing brows
  • Avoiding direct eye contact and/or staring at the ground

If you answered “yes” to any of these, then let’s start by examining various ways in which you can project confident body language through your facial expressions.

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1. Understand How Others Perceive Your Facial Expressions

A December 2020 study by UC Berkeley and Google researchers utilized a deep neural network to analyze facial expressions in six million YouTube clips representing people from over 140 countries. The study found that, despite socio-cultural differences, people around the world tended to use about 70% of the same facial expressions in response to different emotional stimuli and situations.[1]

The study’s researchers also published a fascinating interactive map to demonstrate how their machine learning technology assessed various facial expressions and determined subtle differences in emotional responses.

This study highlights the social importance of facial expressions because whether or not we’re consciously aware of them—by gazing into a mirror or your screen on a video conferencing platform—how we present our faces to others can have tremendous impacts on their perceptions of us, our confidence, and our emotional states. This awareness is the essential first step towards

2. Relax Your Face

New research on bruxism and facial tension found the stresses and anxieties of Covid-19 lockdowns led to considerable increases in orofacial pain, jaw-clenching, and teeth grinding, particularly among women.[2]

The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research estimates that more than 10 million Americans alone have temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ syndrome), and facial tension can lead to other complications such as insomnia, wrinkles, dry skin, and dark, puffy bags under your eyes.[3])

To avoid these unpleasant outcomes, start practicing progressive muscle relaxation techniques and taking breaks more frequently throughout the day to moderate facial tension.[4] You should also try out some biofeedback techniques to enhance your awareness of involuntary bodily processes like facial tension and achieve more confident body language as a result.[5]

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3. Improve Your Eye Contact

Did you know there’s an entire subfield of kinesic communication research dedicated to eye movements and behaviors called oculesics?[6] It refers to various communication behaviors including direct eye contact, averting one’s gaze, pupil dilation/constriction, and even frequency of blinking. All of these qualities can shape how other people perceive you, which means that eye contact is yet another area of nonverbal body language that we should be more mindful of in social interactions.

The ideal type (direct/indirect) and duration of eye contact depends on a variety of factors, such as cultural setting, differences in power/authority/age between the parties involved, and communication context. Research has shown that differences in the effects of eye contact are particularly prominent when comparing East Asian and Western European/North American cultures.[7]

To improve your eye contact with others, strive to maintain consistent contact for at least 3 to 4 seconds at a time, consciously consider where you’re looking while listening to someone else, and practice eye contact as much as possible (as strange as this may seem in the beginning, it’s the best way to improve).

3. Smile More

There are many benefits to smiling and laughing, and when it comes to working on more confident body language, this is an area that should be fun, low-stakes, and relatively stress-free.

Smiling is associated with the “happiness chemical” dopamine and the mood-stabilizing hormone, serotonin. Many empirical studies have shown that smiling generally leads to positive outcomes for the person smiling, and further research has shown that smiling can influence listeners’ perceptions of our confidence and trustworthiness as well.

4. Hand Gestures

Similar to facial expressions and posture, what you do with your hands while speaking or listening in a conversation can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you in positive or negative ways.

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It’s undoubtedly challenging to consciously account for all of your nonverbal signals while simultaneously trying to stay engaged with the verbal part of the discussion, but putting in the effort to develop more bodily awareness now will make it much easier to unconsciously project more confident body language later on.

5. Enhance Your Handshake

In the article, “An Anthropology of the Handshake,” University of Copenhagen social anthropology professor Bjarke Oxlund assessed the future of handshaking in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic:[8]

“Handshakes not only vary in function and meaning but do so according to social context, situation and scale. . . a public discussion should ensue on the advantages and disadvantages of holding on to the tradition of shaking hands as the conventional gesture of greeting and leave-taking in a variety of circumstances.”

It’s too early to determine some of the ways in which Covid-19 has permanently changed our social norms and professional etiquette standards, but it’s reasonable to assume that handshaking may retain its importance in American society even after this pandemic. To practice more confident body language in the meantime, the video on the science of the perfect handshake below explains what you need to know.

6. Complement Your Verbals With Hand Gestures

As you know by now, confident communication involves so much more than simply smiling more or sounding like you know what you’re talking about. What you do with your hands can be particularly influential in how others perceive you, whether you’re fidgeting with an object, clenching your fists, hiding your hands in your pockets, or calmly gesturing to emphasize important points you’re discussing.

Social psychology researchers have found that “iconic gestures”—hand movements that appear to be meaningfully related to the speaker’s verbal content—can have profound impacts on listeners’ information retention. In other words, people are more likely to engage with you and remember more of what you said when you speak with complementary hand gestures instead of just your voice.[9]

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Further research on hand gestures has shown that even your choice of the left or right hand for gesturing can influence your ability to clearly convey information to listeners, which supports the notion that more confident body language is readily achievable through greater self-awareness and deliberate nonverbal actions.[10]

Final Takeaways

Developing better posture, enhancing your facial expressiveness, and practicing hand gestures can vastly improve your communication with other people. At first, it will be challenging to consciously practice nonverbal behaviors that many of us are accustomed to performing daily without thinking about them.

If you ever feel discouraged, however, remember that there’s no downside to consistently putting in just a little more time and effort to increase your bodily awareness. With the tips and strategies above, you’ll be well on your way to embracing more confident body language and amplifying others’ perceptions of you in no time.

More Tips on How to Develop a Confident Body Language

Featured photo credit: Maria Lupan via unsplash.com

Reference

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