“I just need to change my perspective!”
“I need to be grateful for what I have, and appreciate the little things in life!”
“When I’m anxious, I’ll just ignore it, ’cause when I focus on it it gets worse. When I’m depressed, I’ll just try harder to talk myself out of it.”
Yeah…how did that go for you?
Positive thinking is the biggest scam in the self-help / psychology industry. (Well, maybe it works sometimes, for an hour, or a day, but before you know it, the anger/fear/pain/shame/depression rears its ugly head again, like a shadow looming over the rest of your life.) But in general…IT DOES NOT WORK. And when you learn these few simple facts about brain science, you’ll understand why (very simple, bear with me):
Your FRONTAL CORTEX is the part of the brain that governs reason and cognition.
Your LIMBIC SYSTEM is the part of the brain that stores and processes emotion (mostly unconscious, by the way).
So if you’ve got all kinds of negative feelings in the limbic system – fear, anger, sadness, shame – but you’re trying to deal with it by engaging your frontal cortex (i.e. “thinking your way out of it”), you won’t get anywhere. It’s like knowing you have a dirty kitchen, and stressing about it day after day, but cleaning your living room instead. Your living room will sure look nice, but nothing in the kitchen has changed, and it’s still making you nuts.
This also explains why insight alone usually doesn’t lead to a change in behavior. Have you ever thought “I totally understand my issues. I get why I binge eat. I just can’t make myself stop.” Well…you may understand it, but I can almost guarantee there are piles of painful feelings floating around your subconscious. And they’re the ones that are “driving the bus”, so to speak – not your rational brain.
This also explains why willpower alone doesn’t work. Just wanting something more, or working harder, or beating yourself up and resolving to do better, doesn’t end emotional eating if the emotions themselves aren’t getting addressed.
So…what DOES work?
Well…this is kind of what I do for a living and it takes quite a while to teach it. But here’s a summary:
Slooooowing down – giving yourself time and space to breathe.
Acknowledging your feelings. They need a voice!
Letting yourself feel your feelings. Don’t run away!
Helping these feelings move through and out of your body by figuring out what you need (screaming? crying? deep breathing? a bath? lying in the grass?) and doing it.
Time and time and time again.
Yeah, it’s way more involved than trying to think positive, or trying to ignore that gnawing anxiety or depression. It also works. Try it!