It’s great to be optimistic, unless your optimism is unrealistic. A noted psychologist once told me that growing up, he truly believed he could be a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs. “Sometime in college I realized it wasn’t going to happen. Contrary to what my folks always told me, I came to the realization that living in America did not mean that I could grow up to be anything I wanted to be. No dream was too big, they always said. Well, playing for the Cubbies was too big.”
The power of positive thinking is limited, but the power of positive actions is unlimited. One of the secrets to coping well with stress is to engage in positive actions, behaviors that bring you satisfaction and comfort. Seeing yourself perform these positive actions will give you a sense of empowerment, and will also invest you with optimistic thinking that is based on reality, not on a pipe-dream. If you want to be a positive thinker, then engage in positive actions.
Too much unrealistic thinking can overwhelm you with stress. Irrational thinking can impair day-to-day functioning as your life becomes organized around the central themes of those thoughts. Eventually, irrational thoughts demoralize you, and make you vulnerable to psychological dysfunctions like personality disorders, depression, and generalized anxiety disorder. In this last condition your mind entertains a big package of irrational thoughts, and you constantly add thoughts to the box. The result is that you worry about a huge variety of different things, and at an intensity far above what is normal concern and worry.
Actions that service irrational thoughts are difficult to resolve because they isolate you from situations that need to be challenged, and from people who can potentially help you. Telling yourself, “I’ve got to stop thinking this way” is futile. The pure repetition of irrational thoughts will dispose you to focus on and listen to them more and more. This is why those who want you to accept some idea as real, keep repeating that idea. As you hear it again and again, your actions will be modified around those thoughts, and you will develop dangerous habits of withdrawal and denial of what is really real.
When dealing with irrational thinking, your best bet is to accept the reality of your irrational thinking, identify your illogical thoughts, and focus on reasonable and sensible actions you can take. Such actions will help you modify your thinking into more levelheaded form. A woman in counseling confessed that she avoided social situations as much as possible because, “I’m afraid I will faint.”
Counselor: “Afraid you’ll faint? Has that ever happened?”
Woman: “No, but it’s possible.”
Counselor: “Yes, that’s true. But can you accept that it’s highly unlikely?”
Woman: “Yeh, I can go with that.”
Counselor: “Besides, what if you did faint? What’s the big deal?”
Woman: “Are you kidding? Everybody would laugh at me and think I was worthless.”
Counselor: “Worthless? Laugh at you? Would you react that way if you saw someone faint?”
Woman: “Probably not. I would think they were sick or something like that, and needed some help. I wouldn’t…Oh, I see what you mean. No, maybe they wouldn’t make fun of me.”
The woman thinks unrealistically that she will faint in social situations, even though it has never happened. Her low self-esteem also leads her to believe – quite illogically – that people will think she’s incompetent because she fainted. In the exchange, note how the irrational thinking is identified, and how the counselor helps her challenge such thinking. Eventually, counseling will help her develop an action plan where she can demonstrate her competence and independence to herself.
When you are tormented by irrational thoughts that literally enslave you and force you to withdraw from life, if you focus on positive actions that contradict these senseless ideas, you can acquire some perseverance, self-sufficiency, confidence, and a chance at feeling good about yourself. Such positive possibilities certainly outweigh trying to make yourself the center of attention by inviting others to your personal pity party.
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