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Positive thinkers aren't

A positive person is not positive if they cannot also be positive about the "negative"

Often, the idea of "thinking positive" is another rendition of the idea good and bad or right and wrong.

"I don't like to have negative thoughts," my client said. I asked, "Give me an example of a recent negative thought that you had." He replied, "I'm not good enough."

Let's look more carefully to understand whether that thought is negative or not. What was having that thought trying to do for him? Every human thought or behavior has, at minimum, positive intent if not benefits behind it. 

Enter an imaginary world to learn the truth

First, I told my client, let's explore this with a bit of imagination. Imagine that somehow you knew that everyone in the world, your family, your friends, your colleagues, all your acquaintances, and even all the people you don't know, know all about you, including your internal thoughts and struggles. In addition, imagine that all these people are in awe of you. They feel such compassion for you and they're so admiring of how well you're doing in life given how things are and how things occur for's hard for them to imagine they would do as well if they were in your shoes. Everyone has the deep conviction that you're fantastic and the idea that "you're not good enough" is wholly unfounded. If you were fully present to this imaginary world, would you still have the thought or belief in that world, "I'm not good enough"?

He admitted he would not.

The benefit of thinking "I'm not good enough."

The fundamental benefit of thinking less of ourselves or self-criticism is to feel safer. Safer from what? To feel safer from the actuality or possibility of others thinking "negatively" of us. Self-criticism and guilt are an attempt to reduce our fear of others thinking badly of us. Whether or not there are people actually critical of us, we're essentially saying to others, "Look, I already know this. I'm already feeling bad about this. I'm beating myself up so that I'll try to change. Please don't feel so bad about me because I'm proving that I'm not such a bad person and I care about your disapproval by beating myself up first."

We learn very early in life that the ticket to belonging, the ticket to being considered redeemable, is guilt, Let me show you how true this is, just in case you think you haven't bought into this idea. 

The benefits of guilt and feeling bad about ourselves

Consider two separate men, both incarcerated for life. They both committed similarly heinous crimes of cruelty and murder. The first feels deeply guilty, remorseful, and repentant. The second feels no guilt or regret. 

Which of these two do we consider to be the least worst human being, perhaps deserving of forgiveness? Which do we consider to be a psychopath or worse?

Regardless of how each of us may differ or what we consider to be good or bad, right or wrong, for that part of society that we identify ourselves as part of, we have internalized the habit of self-criticism as the "right thing to do," in any and all circumstances of life.

For many of us who live inside the perpetual self-criticism of thinking, "I'm not good enough" and our never-ending attempts to prove otherwise, we're not even waiting for possible criticism. We've beat others to the punch, regardless of whether one throws us one.

The benefit of self-criticism is an attempt to avoid the fear that others are or might blame us

Guilt is not negative. It does, to some extent provide some short-term benefit of avoiding/resisting the fear of others' blame or disappointment.

Yes, there are substantial costs, especially long-term ones. But that doesn't make it negative. Everything has a benefit/cost tradeoff, often short-term against long-term. Eating an ice cream cone is not negative even though it's often trading a short-term benefit for longer-term costs.

"God says, 'Take what you want and then pay for it.' In the final analysis, this is the bottom line of life."

—Nathaniel Branden (1930-2014) was a psychotherapist and writer, known for his work on self-esteem and his association with Ayn Rand as a leading advocate of Objectivism in its early years.

When we characterize something as negative, we shut down our ability and our inclination to learn more about it by just classifying it as "something to be avoided."

We sabotage any chance of understanding and accepting how the different parts of ourselves (Now, Next, Oneself, Others) are all validly trying to take care of us and our relationship with others. We sabotage any chance of finding ways to end the civil war that continues to undermine the peace, satisfaction, and results that we can have in our life by increased Now-Next Integrity and Oneself-Others Integrity.

Referring back to what Branden said above, if we keep ourselves in the dark about both the costs and benefits, risks and possibilities, short-term and long-term, for ourselves and for others, then we are very unlikely to come up with the better ways of having it all work together.

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