While popular as a concept, positive thinking has its limitations. It is based on the idea that our thinking controls how we feel. But in my experience, the reverse is also true. Our feelings control our thinking.
You may have noticed that when you are in love or in a new relationship, you tend to think how wonderful life is. You may have also noticed that when you're sad or depressed, you tend to think how awful it is.
Thinking happens in the frontal cortex of the brain. Feelings happen in the body. We say that we have a lump in our throats or butterflies in our stomachs. We say that we feel weak in the knees, or feel something in our guts, or feel heartbroken. You are able to distinguish one feeling from another because it is a felt, in-your-body experience.
We have inherited a cultural bias that our thinking is superior and more evolved than our feelings and that we can and should use our thinking brains to tame, subdue, or control our emotions. And while self-control is something all children must learn, we tend to grow up with a habit of analyzing, pushing down on, pushing away, and judging our emotions. It becomes so second nature that we don't even realize we're doing it. It's this unconscious resistance to our feelings, not the feelings themselves, that's negatively impacting our health and driving our behavior behind-the-scenes. And it is this negative attitude toward our emotions that we must undo.
Not only is this habit of trying to suppress our emotions unhealthy, it requires a lot of effort and is ultimately ineffective. Take an Iraqi war vet for example. Intellectually he knows full- well that he is safe at home, but whenever he hears a car backfire he hits the ground. All the positive self-talk in the world will not convince the feelings, beliefs and memories in his bodymind, to react any differently. (Read more about trauma and the body here).
While not all of us have experienced trauma to this degree, we've all had traumatic experiences. Things that happened to us when we were little may seem inconsequential as seen through our adult eyes, but your child-self might have perceived that her/his very life was at stake. These memories are stored as energy in the body and can be activated by current events and experienced as "over reactions."
As long as we treat our emotions and emotional reactions like embarrassing relatives we don't want to own up to or as unruly children we need to quiet, they will continue to make trouble and "act out" as soon as we let down our guard.
But if we can learn instead to listen to our emotions, hear what they have to say, and learn how to work with them with compassion, they will release. Then, not only will we feel better, but we'll develop an empowering and collaborative relationship with an inescapable aspect of our humanness. We will grow in love for what we once deemed unlovable and will naturally become more understanding of the hurt feelings that drive the behaviors of others.
So instead of trying to think positively in an effort to control how we feel, we learn how to change how we feel so that our thinking improves. Then, instead of trying to think positive, we will simply be positive - naturally.