Why does “positive thinking” work sometimes and not others? Why are some people able to “manifest prosperity” ala The Secret while others fail again and again? Why are there some areas of life where I have been able to shift my own limiting beliefs easily and others I have not (no matter how hard I try)? I should say that I actually believe that thinking positively is essential to happiness, creates a much more fulfilling life, and is possible. The problem is, we don’t always know how to do it effectively. Maybe this is because I think there are a couple of essential problems with positive thinking from a neuroscience perspective. One, the brain is designed to keep us safe, and two, we are powerfully shaped by our subconscious.
Problem Number One: The Brain is Designed to Keep Us Safe
Years ago, before I began studying neuroscience, my amazing business partner Ursula and I intuited our way to something powerful. We started designing activities in our workshops to “trick the brain.” We realized that the direct approach to learning often didn’t work for people, so we came up with numerous ways to go through the side door.
A classic example of one of these activities we call “The Metaphor Process.” It was created because it’s incredibly powerful to simply be present with your emotions. When we can notice what is going on without judgment, something will shift. This can also be very difficult. When we would ask people to sit with an uncomfortable feeling, such as anger, fear or grief, they often couldn’t do it. Their rational brains would take them away, change the focus, attempt to diminish the feeling, or get lost in a long story. But when we created some separation by first having them think of a metaphor for the feeling, and then be present to the metaphor, it worked magically.
I believe this is because we’ve got well-worn neural pathways designed to keep us safe and away from emotions that we were taught are unacceptable. If there is no room for our anger or sadness as a very young child, we’ll learn other strategies that don’t earn us social rejection (neuroscience has shown us that social rejection activates the pain centers in the brain). As babies and young children (and arguably, every stage of life) social connections are critical to survival. Thus, asking someone to experience these emotions can feel threatening to their very survival and the brain is having none of it. It says “I’m on the job here and we are just not going there.”
This is true on the positive side as well. It is scary to the brain threaten any kind of old pattern that was created to keep us safe. So becoming more open? Scary, not doing that. Speaking up for myself? Nope. Promoting my new business and letting people know I think I have something valuable to offer? Um…. maybe next year.
Problem Number Two: We Are Powerfully Shaped by Our Subconscious
Fun facts time. Do you know that if I give you a warm drink, you’ll feel warmer towards me? If you wear a doctor’s white coat (and you know it is a doctor’s coat, not a painter’s) you’ll actually be smarter? If you stand with your shoulders hunched over and head hanging down you’ll feel less competent and confident (you can try this one at home)? And (freaky fun fact) studies of people with multiple personalities have shown that is possible for personalities living in the same body to have different physiology? One personality can be allergic to orange juice while another is not. Welts will appear and disappear depending on who is “in” the body.
So the problem isn’t so much positive thinking per se, it’s how to help people “think positively” on the subconscious level. You see, when we try to think ourselves into a new, more positive belief, if it is incongruent with what the embodied self believes at the core, it won’t stick. In fact, it can even have a sort of “bounce back” effect. Like Jack Handy, we say to ourselves “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me” and our deeper awareness says “Oh no I’m not and oh no they don’t,” at the subconscious level reinforcing the limiting belief instead of the positive one.
I believe that we can use the power of positive thinking to change our lives, but we need to do it taking into account how the brain works. Telling ourselves something we don’t actually believe is no help whatsoever and can even make things worse. We need to find ways to expand on what we do believe until we are where we want to be.
My friend Laura Fenamore is a weight loss coach who figured this out years ago. Overweight and miserable, she realized that somehow the key to weight loss was in loving herself. But as much as she tried to love her body, she simply couldn’t. It was a lie, and the old stubborn beliefs about herself kept her stuck at a weight she didn’t want. Then one day she saw that if she could simply love one pinky, really and truly, it would be a place to start. She did. She told herself her pinky was beautiful, and it worked because she believed it. From there, she went on gradually to the rest of her body, and you should see her now. She coaches, teaches and supports people now who want to learn how to love themselves into a healthy weight.
As you can probably guess, I strongly believe in the power of coaching to help people shift and transform. But remember how much the brain wants to keep us safe, and how dramatically we are shaped by things far out of our conscious control. My best advice? Find ways to come in through the side door and trick the brain, and help people start with what they can actually believe and keep pushing them to expand that edge.