Is positive thinking just denial dressed up?

For many years I was pretty suspicious of positive thinking. Wasn’t it just denial? What was the point in pretending everything was fine, when it clearly wasn’t? And how could thinking positively really help you deal with the underlying issues, rather than just ignoring them?

I’m still not a fan of denial or ignoring what’s at the root of the problem, but I also understand a lot more about how the brain works.

The most primitive part of the brain.

In the deepest part of the brain lies the amygdala, often called the oldest , or most primitive part of the brain. This is the part of the brain which is largely responsible for fight or flight type reactions. (Incidentally, all this is a bit of an oversimplification as different parts of the brain take on different roles at different times but it’s a useful way of looking at it.) The amygdala is sometimes called as ‘the lizard brain’, or the ‘chimp’.

Essentially this part of the brain is trying to protect you from harm, but, because it doesn’t exactly have a sophisticated world view, it often does more harm than good. This is the part of the brain that prompts you to lash out when someone upsets you, or tells you that you won’t be any good at learning a language so you’d better not try, or that everyone will laugh at you if you go out in that dress.

Detaching from the negative voice.

It’s also the part of the brain that spends far too much time worrying over and over about bad things which may never happen, or which are now past. And the more you let it ruminate in this way, the more the negative connections in your brain deepen and strengthen. The first step in breaking these connections is to simply notice the lizard brain churning over this negative self talk. As soon as you’ve noticed that, ask yourself, who is it exactly that is noticing? Isn’t it a different part of you from the negative voice of the lizard brain?

Neuroscientists might say that it’s your cerebral cortex doing the noticing, while those of a more spiritual persuasion might call it your Higher Self. Whatever you call it, you can develop and strengthen that observer part of you, and as it gets stronger, you will find yourself able to detach from the negative voice. You may never get it to shut up completely. However, as soon as you stop identifying with it, and treat it as the annoying (but ultimately powerless) nuisance it is, it’s already lost a great deal of its force.

Re-wiring more positive connections.

You can also help to rewire your brain in a more positive way by deliberately thinking differently from the negative thoughts you notice. In other words, positive thinking, or questioning just how valid that negative thought is. You can put in new ‘programmes’, so that when a particular trigger happens, the more positive thought pops into your mind first.

Over time, positive thinking will rewire your brain, creating new and more positive neural pathways, and the lizard brain’s fear-based messages will quieten down or even disappear.