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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Why positive thinking doesn't work (and the alternative)

Do you use affirmations or positive thinking?... Great idea in theory. But how long does the effect last? Of course, it feels great to be affirmed and validated (and have people cheer you on with positive messages). But how long does the weight stay off, the anxiety stay at bay or the motivation for change last, once you forget to think positively or find yourself alone again?... I thought about this after someone commented a recent Wise Wednesdays (Why you shouldn't focus on goals) to clarify that I was not talking about positive thinking. If anything, I was talking about unthinking the negative. Allow me to explain... Positive thinking is an antidote. From a health perspective, affirmations and positive thinking are in the realm of medication not transformation. They’re an antidote to something toxic. But if you didn’t ingest the toxic substance, then you wouldn’t need the antidote in the first place, right? As a public health physician, I specialised in prevention… So the question is: why take an antidote, when you could avoid ingesting the toxic substance in the first place?

But what's the toxic substance? Indeed. Simply put, the toxic substance poisoning your mind is just this: limiting thoughts. Call it what you want: the inner-critic, negative thinking, imposter syndrome or even toxic work cultures - they're toxic mind-altering substances! A couple of examples. 1) Does a toddler need positive thinking to learn to walk? Is it likely to give up trying to walk because it fell too many times? No. Because it never had a limiting thought of not being able to walk in the first place. Every toddler known to humankind has walked, unless there was a physical impediment. 2) Losing weight. Based on personal experience, clients and research (I have a PhD on obesity so I’ve spent some time thinking about this subject…) I’ve come to this conclusion: I keep my weight steady by noticing when it’s off (same with my family and clients who work with me long enough). Then I maintain awareness of my impulses and behaviours… You can have a healthy weight by allowing the notion to take root in your mind and body. Not by forcing yourself to lose weight or punishing yourself. The latter may work temporarily. But in the end, if you’re limiting your self-concept and self-worth to an arbitrary body size number; and if you engage a self-punishing, critical obsession with weight goals is toxic – you trigger your survival physiology and, paradoxically, energy conservation and weight gain! In other words, stressing about losing weight fuels the mechanism for putting weight on. Positive thinking might counter that temporarily. But why not stop the obsession and self-punishment around a limiting body image in the first place? And, no, stressing yourself is not how you make sure you get things done (we’ll go into that another day).

Transformation not medication So positive thinking and affirmations can appear to work, at least temporarily. But it’s symptom management. Not cure. The cure is to stop ingesting the toxic, limiting, negative thoughts in the first place. This is the domain of transformation not medication. It’s not information or affirmation but transformation of perceived limitation that poisons your mind and your life. This is what Wise Wednesdays is about (second best to working directly with me!) Let me know if Wise Wednesdays has helped you and how. Have a great week, Amina Liked it? Subscribe to Wise Wednesdays - weekly wisdom to live by + updates.


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