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Can positive thinking make you more depressed????

Posted Dec 25 2012 4:42am

I have a friend who really believes in positive thinking.  He also is one of the most depressed people I know.  It is a true paradox and one I have tried to understand for a long time.  Much of his life seems a very frustrating effort to “housebreak” his depression only to find it continues to make a mess in his life whenever and wherever it wants to. 

Part of the problem is he believes being positive and being hopeful are the same thing.  They are not.  Being positive has come to mean believing that wanting something to be so bad enough is going to make it happen.  Being hopeful means knowing many bad things happen and many things are out your direct control but knowing that what you do when they are matters.  Being positive often denies reality because it is afraid that accepting negativity and being resigned to negativity are the same thing.  Hope has a stake in seeing things the way they really are.  Positivity has a stake in seeing things the way we wish them to be.

He really tries hard to not feel depressed, not to think in a depressed manner.  In fact it is sometimes exhausting watching him be so positive only to hit dead end after dead end.  He fights hard against giving up but never seems to get away from feeling like he should.

In a way it is about white bears.  If I challenge you not to think about white bears for 5 minutes you will find you can think about them for hours whether you have ever thought of them before in your entire life.  When you try to control the way you feel or think you easily come to meet the white bears.  It is a really simple sequence:

  • You resolve not to think depressed thoughts.
  • You monitor yourself to see how you are doing.
  • When you are looking out for depressed thoughts you tend to find depressed thoughts (the white bears).
  • You try to banish them.
  • You look again to see how you are doing and …..
  • Of course the negative thoughts seem even stronger.
  • You get more stressed and start to berate yourself as failing and start wondering if you can ever control your depression.
  • And you get more exhausted and stressed and soon you dont just think depressed thoughts…. You are depressed.

I know I have lived this sequence.  Many of the people I have known have lived this sequence.   I think my friend is learning about living it.

One friend told me his take.  “Trying not to think or feel negative thoughts is not hopeful…. Its stupid.”  I dont know about that.  Somehow I think it is about knowing bad things happen….but they dont happen all the time….. they need not last forever…..and they need not mess everything up….. and not all bad things are about what I have done or not done, what I have thought or not thought, what I have felt or not felt…..

Acceptance is the most hopeful thing you can do.

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