BLOG: The Positive Power of Negative Thinking

by Aaron Weintraub

Positive self talk and mantras can backfire as a technique to steer our thoughts away from upsetting thoughts.

It has become conventional wisdom that we should try to replace negative thoughts with positive ones as quickly as possible but author Oliver Burkeman plumbs the philosophy of the Stoics to show that negative thinking can make a positive impact on our lives.

Positive self talk and mantras can backfire as a technique to steer our thoughts away from upsetting thoughts. The ironic process theory states that when you try to suppress certain thoughts or behaviors, they become more persistent, reinforced by avoidance. By way of example Burkeman points to the "white bear challenge". Try not to think about a white bear. Betcha you are thinking about that darn bear.

Rather than avoid negative thoughts, the Stoics and modern intellectual heir to their philosophy, therapist Albert Ellis recommend embracing them. Ellis' Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy recognized that facts are not negative in and of themselves, but that our belief about the facts or events are negative or positive. The events are just events.

Ellis and the Stoics recommend "negative precognition", which is basically the opposite of positive thinking. This technique visualizes the worst case scenario in order to realize that it wouldn't be so bad. In some cases Ellis had patients actively seek out the experiences that they feared as a way of reducing anxiety.

For further reading try The Antidote

Aaron Weintraub
Written by:

Aaron Weintraub

Aaron Weintraub has been working with children and families with special needs for more than ten years. His philosophy of practice is based on respect for individuals and a deep belief that every child can thrive if shown respect, affection, and trust in their innate abilities. Groups focus on building the resilience and confidence that will allow your child to make and keep close and meaningful relationships throughout life. Aaron Weintraub is the author of five peer reviewed publications and three books on Autism including: The Spectrum Manifesto, We Are the 1.01%, and The Big Shrug. Aaron was a Cunningham Fellow at Virginia Tech, and has been awarded the Moran Scholarship, the Margaret Barnes Intergenerational Scholarship, and the Mattie J. T. Stephanik Caregiver Award. His biggest and most important job remains helping to raise his two children.