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When Positive Thinking Isn’t Helpful

July 3, 2013
"We've all got both LIGHT and DARK inside of us. What matters is the part we choose to act on, that's who we really are." - Sirius Black (Harry Potter)

“We’ve all got both LIGHT and DARK inside of us. What matters is the part we choose to act on, that’s who we really are.” – Sirius Black (Harry Potter)

“I try so hard to stay positive and be grateful, but I just keep falling into these despairing thoughts. I know this is why I keep getting sick.”

I recently heard this from someone I was working privately with and it really broke my heart. This is a woman who has worked for many years in therapy to overcome feelings of unworthiness and shame stemming from having been sexually abused as a child. She has made great strides, and has been exploring energy work as a way to continue and deepen her healing. Her journey has led her to many valuable teachings that have helped her to shift her thoughts towards the positive, and to manifest more love and beauty in her life.

But now, she felt she had hit a wall, and it was sending her back into feelings of self-blame. She blamed herself for not being positive enough, for not being able to rid herself of negative thoughts, for ‘giving in’ to feelings of despair.

This is when positive thinking – and related law of attraction teachings – may lead us astray. When they become another ‘should’ in our life, and create a standard we measure ourselves against, always coming up short. We may begin to feel fear whenever a thought we deem ‘negative’ arises, afraid that it will manifest something detrimental in our lives. Then we fall into old patterns of self-blame or unworthiness, triggering an internal battle. For those who already struggle with these feelings (abuse and trauma survivors especially), this can be particularly detrimental, and prevent them from exploring the darker emotions that need to surface as part of any transformative or therapeutic process. From an energy perspective, this just piles on more shame, which specifically impacts our sacral chakra – my favorite chakra as most of you know!

This isn’t meant to discount teachings on positive thinking, the law of attraction, manifesting, or co-creation. All of these are tremendously valuable teachings and practices. When we first discover the power of our thoughts, and our ability to consciously shift them to align with greater happiness and love, it is an amazing epiphany. But in my view we need to know when to focus on them, and when to focus on self-compassion, acceptance, or exploring our shadow aspects. As the Sirius Black quote above says, we all have both light and dark inside of us. Bringing the light forth is not a matter of shutting out the dark, but about acknowledging both and making choices. And when we do this honestly and courageously, what we once thought of as ‘dark’ often transforms, and we discover the strength hidden within it, just waiting to express itself in a new – and in fact positive – way.

Here is what can happen when we try to ‘force’ too much positivity – see if you have ever experienced a phase in which these patterns surfaced for you:


Feelings of self-blame inhibit self-compassion, and often the latter is what we really need to heal. Berating ourselves with thoughts of ‘I must just not be thinking positively enough’ or ‘I must have a negative vibration that is causing this’ just pulls us down further. Often this is like piling rocks on top of an already wounded sense of self and blocked subtle body. Focusing on acceptance of our darker feelings (not the same thing as wallowing) and offering this part of ourselves compassion in response, cuts through the tendency to create an internal self-war. Tenderness and gentleness can go a long way.

Blame the Victim

When Farrah Fawcett announced she had anal cancer (from which she eventually died), I was participating in an online energy healing forum, and several people posted something along the lines  of ‘This is what happens when you are in a toxic relationship for too long’ (referring to her admittedly tempestuous relationship with Ryan O’Neal) or ‘She just has too much negativity in her life.’ Of course I don’t completely discount these theories – the foundation for chakra and energy work is the assertion that all levels of our being are interdependent, and this of course means that the energy of our environment, our relationships, and our thoughts impacts our physical.

But acknowledging interdependence is not the same as assigning blame or determining ’cause.’ We all want to believe that we can control as much as possible of our lives – that we can in fact prevent anything bad from every happening to us or those we love. But the tendency then is to seek definitive reasons why bad things have happened to other people, so that we can believe that since our life is different, they won’t happen to us.

I haven’t found someone yet, for whom this worked. Life is not fully in our control, and no amount of changing our thoughts will make it so. And unfortunately, when we focus on blame, we distance ourselves from others in a way that inhibits compassion. Compassion is born of equanimity, and an ability to accept without judgement. Ultimately, compassion is based in the knowledge that we are in fact all in this – in life – together, and all equally vulnerable, and equally mortal. And that’s ok, because we are all love too.


Problems can also arise when we try to use positive thinking to push away feelings we don’t want – but need – to face. Deeply held mental and emotional patterns often need to be explored and surfaced in order for us to shift them – just moving our attention away from them won’t stem their tide. They will simply build up inside us,  and explode when the ‘lid’ we’ve created won’t hold any longer. Then we often spiral down into even deeper cycles of self-blame and regret. Repressed emotion is also linked to stress levels – the more energy we put into trying to control or hide parts of ourselves, the more anxious we feel in our everyday lives. Allowing and acknowledging all of our feelings, without judgment, creates an internal space in which we can accept, forgive, and transform.

Fixation on Outcome

This arises when we are completely focused on aligning our thoughts with a particular outcome – what we want to have happen. This is a powerful tool, and it’s true that when we put the power of our full mind behind something, it’s amazing what we can manifest. But we can also become so fixated that we lose the flow of life, and potentially miss other possibilities. So many of the best things in life are unexpected! Allowing space for this to happen, opening to the universe and allowing it to show us a different way, often yields happiness we could never have imagined – or manifest- on our own.


Of course part of the reason teachings on manifesting and positive thinking have become so popular is that we increasingly feel bombarded by negativity online and in the media, and we seek an antidote. We face on onslaught of fear and cynicism, and shifting our thoughts – and ultimately our consciousness – in a positive direction provides a powerful and necessary counterbalance. Research increasingly shows the value of this as well, in terms of both our physical and mental health. This is in fact a bedrock of my own way of living, and so I am not trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater in this post.

But personally, I find that the most important question to ask myself each day is ‘Am I opening more? Or am I constricting?’ There are times when consciously shifting our thoughts in a positive direction, performing affirmations, or working towards manifesting a specific life goal, is empowering and creates a joyful momentum. Then these practices create an opening, an expanding outwards, in our thoughts and emotions. And then there are times when this approach actually constricts our awareness, triggering us to fall into patterns of judgement and blame. In those phases, we may need to pause and look – really look – into what is arising inside of us, and give it some compassionate attention. Once we have done so, we will naturally begin to open again.

For what we all seek is happiness and love. Opening is the path to both, but boulders sometimes block our way. Ignoring the boulders rarely makes them disappear! But so often they dissolve as soon as we are willing to sit with them, and inquire why they’re there.

Please feel free to share your own thoughts on this. I wish you much happiness, love and yes – positivity! Namaste-


42 Comments leave one →
  1. July 3, 2013 5:44 pm

    Thank you for this post, I think you made so many important observations. I agree that we are misleading ourselves if we believe we can control everything. There is power in the act of surrender as well!

  2. July 3, 2013 5:53 pm

    Hi Candice, I’m glad it resonated for you, and I’m glad you brought up surrender. I almost added more on that but decided this was long enough, would love to write on surrender one day too. This is when we really open, when we surrender. It is a beautiful thing, but brings up so much fear! So much of what we do is an attempt to stave off this fear. Thanks for commenting-

  3. July 3, 2013 5:59 pm

    This is a particularly relevant issue for me right now, and I had recently hit the brick wall of self-blame when my efforts at manifesting change in a certain area of life had “failed”. After some painful reflection and the surprising advice from a friend who is a Law of Attraction coach, I saw a way through it. I think when you hit that wall and you feel horribly disappointed and start blaming yourself, it’s crucial to step back and put a definite pause to the specific manifesting/positive thinking.

    At that time, I feel it’s much more important to focus on self-care and acceptance. I had about a week of where I just felt too exhausted, self-critical and spent of positivity to focus on manifesting anything. I paid more attention to eating healthfully, getting sleep and sunshine, and letting myself have fun doing simple, pleasurable things. With time, I felt that I had healed a bit and was ready not only to reframe my thoughts regarding the desired goals I had in mind, but also to honestly face any shadows or limitations that might lie beneath.

    It’s an ongoing challenge for me to NOT become dementedly goal-oriented and forceful about a plan or desire, and I often forget or refuse to accept help. I also let fun go out the window in my crazed ambition to “make it happen”, all of which lead to ultimate self-blame and criticism. Time to heal, a break from focused positive thinking, and simple fun (fresh air and exercise, decent sleep, lunch with a friend, buying yourself a treat, etc.) have really helped to substantially refresh me .

  4. July 3, 2013 6:05 pm

    In my own healing experience it’s been very important to embrace all the dark emotions…those that are unfortunately labeled “negative.” They are part of the spectrum of human emotion and as such we cannot be whole without acknowledging and integrating them all…the “dark night of the soul” is a metaphor I found helpful when I needed to visit the darkest parts of my psyche so that I might heal.

  5. Jessica permalink
    July 3, 2013 6:18 pm

    Thank you for this blog post. It describes what I have been experiencing for the past couple of years so well. While I want to manifest the beautiful goals I have for my life, I struggle with boulders that need to be dealt with in one way or another. Positive thinking does not always benefit me. It is only when I acknowledge my shadow self and make choices that support the positive changes I want in my life that the boulders disappear. Negative feelings are not “bad.” They are signals for still needs to be addressed.

  6. July 3, 2013 6:18 pm

    P.S. I know this isn’t for everyone, but cutting out TV and tabloid or deeply disturbing news helps me a great deal. I know what’s going on in the world, but it’s been good for me not to watch every gory or superficial detail. It also means I can avoid images or depictions of women/relationships/success that are unrealistic and counterproductive to my emotional and spiritual health.

  7. July 3, 2013 6:21 pm

    Reblogged this on wheresmytower and commented:
    I think this is a very pertinent idea and one that Cerridwen’s ( story expresses well. When her plan to take control and inject something positive into an area of her life goes awry, what does she do? She doesn’t scream or despair or give up, she chases those reasons down-not to harm them, but to ingest them and rebirth them as something glorious.

  8. July 3, 2013 6:22 pm

    “What matters is the part we chose to act on…’ – that is such a strong quote! thanks for the work it took to pull this post together. there’s a lot to absorb, digest and all so true. thank you!

  9. July 3, 2013 6:35 pm

    Great post, I personally needed this reminder 🙂

  10. July 3, 2013 6:36 pm

    Oh my… I love the timing of this. I am currently at surface with this experience–but I noticed and turned it around yesterday. The kids and I had moved away from the beach, into a space that is lovely but still *new*…which coincided with summer break and the kids home from school…which coincided with the launch of two classes that I am creating material for…and we have experienced so much magic–each day doors open to something delightful…*and* I fell into conditioning about the steps I didn’t take and self-blame instead of celebrating the ones I did take.

    It could have spiraled but after a morning of feeling ‘off’ I acknowledged I literally am tired (physically and energetically needing a break) after so much change in one month. I really cannot find anything in our new house (so let’s organize it together and make it all accessible). And, I really do miss my daily walks at oceans’ edge. And if another shared this with me I would have nothing but love, support, and encouragement, so I turned that inward to myself. And the shift was almost instantaneous…I went from constriction/exhaustion to expansion/joy by simply being kind to myself.

    This article is such a well-placed affirmation of that process. And, your course sounds absolutely wonderful and is a well-placed invitation. Thank you!

  11. July 3, 2013 7:05 pm

    This was a wonderfully reassuring post, thank you. I used to wonder why affirmations didn’t work for me and why I could rarely stick to them. They did feel like a benchmark to live up to, which only fueled more repression of feelings. Once I allowed the dark side to show her face, it wasn’t as scary as I had been anticipating. You are absolutely right I feel that there is a time and place for positive thinking, it’s a very useful skill to draw on, and that there are also times when we need to embrace what is showing up in our lives.

  12. July 3, 2013 7:06 pm

    This is a great piece of insight. Here’s a thought provoking article about positive action, i.e. beyond positive thinking. thanks 🙂

  13. July 3, 2013 9:21 pm

    A reblogué ceci sur Sighild's Lair and commented:
    I had this several times in my life. Some people assert that you should think positively and your positive energy will communicate and spread over to other people. How so? Do you think it goes so easily?

  14. July 3, 2013 9:27 pm

    Wonderful insights on this topic. One reason I like the Dynamind technique is because it’s not all about positive affirmations, but starts with a recognition of a problem – physical, emotional, mental or spiritual – and continues by saying “and that can change. I want this problem to go away.” I’ve found using Dynamind for Chakra Healing very effective, especially when working with the negative emotions associated with whatever the imbalance is. Learn more in my video, free this week to celebrate Independence Day at–tone-your-chakras-video.html
    Becca Chopra

  15. July 3, 2013 9:52 pm

    Hi Taurean Mermaid, yes by taking care of yourself you started to feel better, and then your vibration shifts, and it all will shift with it eventually…

  16. July 3, 2013 9:53 pm

    Hi Monica, yes and you know the ‘dark night of the soul’ is an important model for me too – I feel we are always moving in and out of these phases, like the phases of the moon and simply need to learn to work with them…

  17. July 3, 2013 9:54 pm

    Jessica, I like your word ‘signal’, I think that’s exactly it – what do we need to pay attention to?

  18. July 3, 2013 9:57 pm

    Thank you for the reblog and I love the Cerridwen connection…

  19. July 3, 2013 9:58 pm

    You are welcome Lisa, thanks for commenting.

  20. July 3, 2013 9:59 pm

    I’m glad it was pertinent ALethea!

  21. July 3, 2013 10:02 pm

    Thanks for sharing your example Joy, and I particularly liked it because it was an example of feeling ‘down’ when there was a lot of good things happening, and it’s easy to fall into judgement about not feeling constantly ‘up’ in times like those. When we let go expectation we can just deal with what is – in this case, your need to rest and replenish. Good luck with the getting organized the new courses.

  22. July 3, 2013 10:04 pm

    Thanks for sharing Claire. That’s exactly it – it can become a new benchmark. And for those of us who are achiever oriented, it then becomes just another ideal to aim for – the ideal of constant positivity. Letting this go, and just being with what is, is very freeing.

  23. July 3, 2013 10:06 pm

    Roberta, thanks for the article. I do love the ‘As If’ idea. I have seen this too become a problem though, when someone sets acting that was itself up as an ideal, and then measures themselves against it, instead of going inward to look at what it leading to the resistance. But I think all of these practices have their value. What’s interesting about this ‘act as if’ research is that it shows how our actions impact our neuroscience, instead of just the other way around.

  24. July 3, 2013 10:12 pm

    Sighild, I do think positivity is catching – just like negativity is. But sometimes it’s just not what people need. If someone is suffering, sometimes they need to vent, they need to feel heard, they need to be allowed to express what they are feeling, without being told ‘think positive! it will get better!, which is what tends to happen…

  25. July 3, 2013 10:14 pm

    Thanks Becca, yes this is why I liked Dynamind when you wrote about it here too. Although sometimes I think we need to spend more time with a problem in order to transform it, but I imagine you can use this approach more than once. I have several similar ones that I like too – it’s a very shamanic principle really, that we can transform, rather than push away an energy or issue causing us suffering.

  26. July 3, 2013 10:22 pm

    Thank you for the post. I have friends that are very invested in positive thinking. If something unpleasant happens, rather than helping the person to understand the lesson, they blame them for not having thoughts that are positive enough. Not much help, there.

  27. July 3, 2013 10:33 pm

    kdkh – yes ‘invested’ is a good word. We can all get this way with various beliefs/philosophies or even energy healing techniques. I think the human psyche is wired to look for a ‘solution’ or ‘the truth’. We get a certain ‘boost’ when we feel we have hit upon it, and cling to that feeling – it staves off alot of fear. But it can shut us out from really connecting – we judge from our position, rather than connecting. It’s a tough balance to strike – following our path with commitment, while still remaining open…

  28. July 3, 2013 10:34 pm

    Exactly. Some people told me to stop ranting or complaining but if I did so it was in the purpose to vent and to let go of nagativity to then be able to analyse without having this burden of dark thoughts on my mind. The storm, then the lull. That’s how it works about me.

  29. July 3, 2013 11:07 pm

    Yes. The real problem is the way we judge each other and ourselves.

  30. Melinda Beth permalink
    July 3, 2013 11:09 pm

    Reblogged this on Pathways Of Wisdom and commented:
    For this week’s Wisdom Wednesday, I want to share an awesome post on a powerful subject that I’m very passionate about. On a spiritual path, and within a spiritual community there is a lot of positive talk, which is so incredibly valuable in its place. But there is often not enough space or opportunity to express our innate darkness, and this is where we can wind up in a downward spiral of unnecessary self judgment. We are here as a spiritual being in human form for a reason. The dark and the light within us both serve a very necessary purpose. As we evolve along our path, the goal is not so much to acquire some ascended level of enlightenment but rather to experience as much of our human selves as possible and transform those experiences into real life growth; growth that serves us in our every day life, in our work, with our families, in our communities rather than some sort of spiritual brownie button that we don as though we have graduated into the next level of spirituality, or even worse, spiritual superiority. So go grab a cup of something delicious, settle back and enjoy the read!

  31. July 4, 2013 12:27 am

    Oh, Lisa. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes to this post. You’ve articulated exactly my feelings about this very subject. Thank you for this. It’s very confirming for me. I believe strongly in the power of intention, but I also believe strongly in being with what is (which includes all human emotions and sometimes sadness, grief, anger, rage) and allowing that which needs to be revealed to be revealed. Letting all parts of us have a voice.

    “If someone is suffering, sometimes they need to vent, they need to feel heard, they need to be allowed to express what they are feeling, without being told ‘think positive! it will get better!, which is what tends to happen…” Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes to this!

  32. July 4, 2013 5:56 am

    Well said, especially the over-achieving part which just clicked for me 🙂

  33. July 4, 2013 2:52 pm

    Thank you for posting this. You hit the nail right on the head, and this was exactly what I needed right now.

  34. July 4, 2013 3:26 pm

    I can’t begin to tell you how deeply this post resonated with me. It was as if the Universe dropped a gift on my lap, just for me. Thank you for restoring faith in myself and the courage and awareness that sometimes negativity can bring us back to the place of our soul’s manifestations, and positivity can, at times, literally block that. After reading your post, I can feel myself opening already!

  35. July 4, 2013 5:25 pm

    Well said Janice

  36. July 4, 2013 5:27 pm

    Wenzowsa – It seems many people have been feeling this way. Sometimes when we write a post, it is part of a ‘zeitgeist’ – an awareness in the air.

  37. July 4, 2013 5:28 pm

    Hi Deb, it seems this struck a cord with many people, and of course I wrote about it right now because it was something I needed to reaffirm for myself also. We are all linked and so often return to the same knowledge at the same time. I’m glad this resonated!

  38. BanyanTree permalink
    July 15, 2013 7:46 pm

    Very well said and I agree completely. There are so many problems with using positive thinking in such a way to put the lid on what really needs to be explored, faced and released. That is where huge transformation and healing comes from. And “positive thinking” can sometimes be fake, hiding what’s really underneath anyway. I prefer my friends and loved ones to just say what’s real for them, rather than give me a false, positive mask. As an empath, I can sense what’s below it anyhow and it always bothers me when the surface expression doesn’t match up. It takes courage to give voice to the shadows. But it’s the most powerful thing one can do on a healing path. A wise teacher once said, “Don’t say what’s nice, say what’s real!”

  39. October 16, 2013 10:56 pm

    “Am I opening more or am I constricting?” That’s a great and simple way to put such a complex notion. It really does just come down to that. How are you reacting (physically, emotionally, mentally) to these outside factors? By pushing them out and ignoring them or allowing them in to deal? Great question to put yourself into check.

  40. October 27, 2016 10:54 am

    Really, really excellent post. Gosh, I have such a long way to go–in blogging, and life–lol. This is the kind of education we could use here, a Residential Treatment Program at the VA, that I am currently living in. I’m glad I found you again! Oddly, it’s all Group based, no one-on-one therapy.


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