Is Positive Thinking Bullshit?

A few weeks ago I watched a video series by a business coach named Todd Herman. In one video, Todd talked about the difference between an “OW Mentality” and a “WOW Mentality,” and told the story of meeting two business owners, each of whom had a different mental outlook on their businesses. Todd said he could predict, just from their outlooks, which business would succeed and which would fail. Spoiler alert: Todd predicted that the one with the WOW Mentality was going to succeed, whereas the one with the OW Mentality would fail.

The business owner who looked up and saw only the mountain left to climb, how much further there was to go until his goals were accomplished, was destined to failure, while the one who turned around and looked at all she’d accomplished and felt the rush of her successes thus far pushing her up the rest of the mountain was going to succeed.

This is nothing more than a reframed conversation about the power of positive thinking, but sometimes a re-frame can be really powerful and hit you right where you need to be hit.

I’m not new to the whole positive thinking movement. After all, I’m a life coach and these are things I teach and often preach.

But it’s time for me to get super honest about this shit, because since watching Todd’s videos, I’ve been in a mental pickle about this whole OW to WOW Mentality thing.

Science has proven that people who practice gratitude are happier. It has also proven that people who “think positively” tend to live happier, more productive lives. It has shown that people who worry or spend too much time focusing on the negative (or the stretch of mountain that’s left to climb) are more miserable, and less productive. So, easy, right? Focus on the positive + practice gratitude + ignore the negative = happy, successful and productive. Duh.

Except that we are human beings with a wealth of deep thoughts and emotions that get triggered by the slightest (and biggest) things, and we are apt to feel sadness, fear, frustration, anger every once in a while. Or, in some cases, every. single. day.

In a very real sense, all this OW to WOW stuff tells us, “Don’t look at that steaming pile of shit that’s festering in the corner and stinking up the whole house! Go out in the garden and smell the roses and everything will be ok!”

Except that damn pile of shit tends to still be there when you get back in the house.

As a Certified Life Coach, one of the tools I was given in my training is something called Process Coaching, whereby we take our clients deeply through an experience, often a painful one (but not always), in order to fully process it, because, you know, the only way over is through. The theory goes that until we are willing to get our hands fully dirty with that steaming pile of shit, to fully feel its impact on ourselves and our lives, to fully face it, dead on, it will always be there, lurking in the corner, stinking up the place.

How, then, does this reconcile with the whole positive thinking movement? Where is the balance between feeling the real feelings, experiencing that deep pile of shit and keeping a positive attitude full of gratitude and productivity? And are some people simply predisposed to OW vs Wow thinking, and can we actually shift which direction our thinking goes over time, or are we just fucked if WOW thinking doesn’t come naturally?

I caught myself struggling with this today.

It’s the day after Christmas and all through the house are reminders of loss. I’m a divorced single mom, who shares custody 50/50, which means I got my son on Christmas Eve, and lost him halfway through Christmas morning.

Parenting solo can be joyous; it can also be as hard as hard gets and exhaust me to my bones. I can’t lie, sometimes when he leaves to go with his dad, it’s a relief. And then about two or three hours later the guilt rises, the mental list of everything I could have done differently starts up, and I want my time back. I miss him with every fiber of my being and I want a do-over STAT. Except I have to wait three or five days before I get to see him again (depending on the week), and it can be soul-crushing.

This week, all of that happened on Christmas Day.

To top it all off, my ex-in-laws are in town, and I am on the sidelines as my ex-husband, his wife and their three kids have family time with the people who used to be my family, and it hurts. (The hardest part about my divorce was losing my ex’s family, and it still is.)

Cue downward spiral.

My ex is successful and rich. He’s remarried. He’s happy. His life is far from perfect, but he has love and money, and I’d give my left ovary for either of those two things (but no one would have it, because I’m middle-aged).

I’m a life coach (and even though I have a great practice, overall it isn’t the most lucrative profession out there), I’m single (by choice, but still…), and as I just mentioned, I’m middle-aged. (Trifecta baby!)

And today I am feeling the weight of these things wash over me in huge, crashing waves.

I am alone. (wave)

I am poor. (wave)

I am old. (wave)

And in the middle of feeling all these things, I begin to panic.

Oh my God, I’m slipping into an OW Mentality! I’m thinking negatively! I am creating this poor, lonely life with my thoughts! I’m fucking myself every minute I feel this sadness wash over me. Each wave is another ten years of misery and aloneness and brokenness—guaranteed!!
No! It’s ok! The only way over is through! Feel the feelings! Let them wash over you, cleanse you, absolve you!
NO!!!! The feelings are the cinder-block pinning you to the bottom of the ocean floor! Focus on the positive, find gratitude! Quick, ten gratefuls, now!!! Focus focus focus!!

And I collapse in a flood of tears in the middle of Trader Joe’s where I have come to buy wine for my ex-in-laws who are coming for dinner in an hour.

When I get home I cry for another 10 minutes, after which I feel better able to look around and see the other side: the joy at being able to see my ex-in-laws and spend an evening in their company. The comfort of my beautiful house, all cleaned up from the whirlwind, not to be re-cluttered for another couple of days. Deep gratitude for the friends I can be honest and share my real shit with, and the excitement of planning a new year in my practice.

Maybe the way over really is through.