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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 April 6, 2020

10 Powerful Ways to Influence People Positively

10 Powerful Ways to Influence People Positively

Most discussions on positively influencing others eventually touch on Dale Carnegie’s seminal work, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Written more than 83 years ago, the book touches on a core component of human interaction, building strong relationships. It is no wonder why.

Everything that we do hinges on our ability to connect with others and formulate deep relationships. You cannot sell a house, buy a house, advance in most careers, sell a product, pitch a story, teach a course, etc. without building healthy relationships. Managers get the best results from their teams, not through brute force, but to careful appeals to their sensibilities, occasional withdrawals from the reservoir of respect they’ve built. Using these tactics, they can influence others to excellence, to productivity, and to success.

Carnegie’s book is great. Of course, there are other resources too. Most of us have someone in our lives who positively influences us. The truth is positively influencing people is about centering the humanity of others. Chances are, you know someone who is really good at making others feel like stars. They can get you to do things that the average person cannot. Where the requests of others sound like fingernails on a chalkboard, the request from this special person sounds like music to your ears. You’re delighted to not only listen but also to oblige.

So how to influence people in a positive way? Read on for tips.

1. Be Authentic

To influence people in a positive way, be authentic. Rather than being a carbon copy of someone else’s version of authenticity, uncover what it is that makes you unique.

Discover your unique take on an issue and then live up to and honor that. Once of the reasons social media influencers are so powerful is that they have carved out a niche for themselves or taken a common issue and approached it from a novel or uncommon way. People instinctually appreciate people whose public persona matches their private values.

Contradictions bother us because we crave stability. When someone professes to be one way, but lives contrary to that profession, it signals that they are confused or untrustworthy and thereby, inauthentic. Neither of these combinations bode well for positively influencing others.

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2. Listen

Growing up, my father would tell me to listen to what others said. He told me if I listened carefully, I would know all I needed to know about a person’s character, desires and needs.

To positively influence others, you must listen to what is spoken and what is left unsaid. Therein lies the explanation for what people need in order to feel validated, supported and seen. If a person feels they are invisible, and unseen by their superiors, they are less likely to be positively influenced by that person.

Listening meets a person’s primary need of validation and acceptance.

Take a look at this guide on how to be a better listener: How to Practice Active Listening (A Step-By-Step Guide)

3. Become an Expert

Most people are predisposed to listen to, if not respect, authority. If you want to positively influence others, become an authority in the area in which you seek to lead others. Research and read everything you can about the given topic, and then look for opportunities to put your education into practice.

You can argue over opinions. You cannot argue, or it is unwise to argue, over facts and experts come with facts.

4. Lead with Story

From years of working in the public relations space, I know that personal narratives, testimonials and impact stories are incredibly powerful. But I never cease to be amazed with how effective a well-timed and told story can be.

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If you want to influence people, learn to tell stories. Your stories should be related to the issue or concept you are discussing. They should be an analogy or metaphor that explains your topic in ordinary terms and in vivid detail. To learn more about how to tell powerful stories, and the ethics of storytelling, take a look at this article: How To Tell An Interesting Story In 4 Simple Steps

5. Lead by Example

It is incredibly inspiring to watch passionate, talented people at work or play. One of the reasons a person who is not an athlete can be in awe of athletic prowess is because human nature appreciates the extraordinary. When we watch the Olympics, Olympic trials, gymnastic competitions, ice skating, and other competitive sports, we can recognize the effort of people who day in and day out give their all. C

ase in point: Simone Biles. The gymnast extraordinaire won her 6TH all-around title at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships after doing a triple double. She was the first woman to do so. Watching her gave me chills. Even non-gymnasts and non-competitive athletes can appreciate the talent required to pull off such a remarkable feat.

We celebrate remarkable accomplishments and believe that their example is proof that we too can accomplish something great, even if it isn’t qualifying for the Olympics. To influence people in a positive way, we must lead by example, lead with intention and execute with excellence.

6. Catch People Doing Good

A powerful way to influence people in a positive way is to catch people doing good. Instead of looking for problems, look for successes. Look for often overlooked, but critically important things that your peers, subordinates and managers do that make the work more effective and more enjoyable.

Once you catch people doing good, name and notice their contributions.

7. Be Effusive with Praise

It did not take me long to notice a remarkable trait of a former boss. He not only began and ended meetings with praise, but he peppered praise throughout the entire meeting. He found a way to celebrate the unique attributes and skills of his team members. He was able to quickly and accurately assess what people were doing well and then let them and their colleagues know.

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Meetings were not just an occasion to go through a “To Do” list, they were opportunities to celebrate accomplishments, no matter how small they are.

8. Be Kind Rather Than Right

I am going to level with you; this one is tough. It is easy to get caught up in a cycle of proving oneself. For people who lack confidence, or people who prioritize the opinions of others, being right is important. The validation that comes with being perceived as “right” feeds one’s ego. But in the quest to be “right,” we can hurt other people. Once we’ve hurt someone by being unkind, it is much harder to get them to listen to what we’re trying to influence them to do.

The antidote to influencing others via bullying is to prioritize kindness above rightness. You can be kind and still stand firm in your position. For instance, many people think that they need others to validate their experience. If a person does not see the situation you experienced in the way you see it, you get upset. But your experience is your experience.

If you and your friends go out to eat and you get food poisoning, you do not need your friends to agree that the food served at the restaurant was problematic for you. Your own experience of getting food poisoning is all the validation you need. Therefore, taking time to be right is essentially wasted and, if you were unkind in seeking validation for your food-poison experience, now you’ve really lost points.

9. Understand a Person’s Logical, Emotional and Cooperative Needs

The Center for Creative Leadership has argued that the best way to influence others is to appeal to their logical, emotional and cooperative needs. Their logical need is their rational and educational need. Their emotional need is the information that touches them in a deeply personal manner. The cooperative need is understanding the level of cooperation various individuals need and then appropriately offering it.

The trick with this system is to understand that different people need different things. For some people, a strong emotional appeal will outweigh logical explanations. For others, having an opportunity to collaborate will override emotional connection.

If you know your audience, you will know what they need in order to be positively influenced. If you have limited information about the people whom you are attempting to influence, you will be ineffective.

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10. Understand Your Lane

If you want to positively influence others, operate from your sphere of influence. Operate from your place of expertise. Leave everything else to others. Gone are the days when being a jack of all trades is celebrated.

Most people appreciate brands that understand their target audience and then deliver on what that audience wants. When you focus on what you are uniquely gifted and qualified to do, and then offer that gift to the people who need it, you are likely more effective. This effectiveness is attractive.

You cannot positively influence others if you are more preoccupied by what others do well versus what you do well.

Final Thoughts

Influencing people is about centering your humanity. If you want to influence others positively, focus on the way you communicate and improve the relationship with yourself first.

It’s hard to influence others if you’re still trying to figure out how to communicate with yourself.

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Featured photo credit: Wonderlane via unsplash.com

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