You and I evolved from the cavemen who were always on the lookout: always alert for danger, always prepared for the worst. So our modern brains are always trying to anticipate what could hurt us; always trying to predict what might go wrong. No wonder we all have so many doubts, worries, concerns and fears of failure. This is not a sign of a weak or defective mind; it’s a perfectly natural by-product of evolution.
Harris is of course correct; negativity, anticipation of things that could wrong, fear, paranoia… imagining the worst case scenarios are part of our survival instincts and they should be embraced for what they are. All of the above fears and self-criticisms are, in small doses, perfectly natural and normal.
It also demonstrates a point that Harris has been keen to stress so far: positive thinking does not work and may even be harmful to our mental health. It is fragile veneer and does not tell us what to do when things go wrong. When we hit a low point, how do we cope with it? How would thinking positively have helped me when I stood on the edge of a cliff last summer contemplating the options of jumping or walking away?
It wouldn’t. By past experience I would have been so consumed with ‘I can’t do this any more’ that forcing myself to think positive thoughts would have had the opposite effect. I stopped, turned around and walked away by acknowledging that I was at rock bottom and needed help.
Are negative thoughts really a problem?
For the reasons stated above about paranoia partly driving our evolutionary survival instincts, they are only a problem if they are permitted to consume us, are treated as fact, allow them to guide all of our thoughts and actions. A bit like alcohol in that having a small glass of wine every day is beneficial to your health but consume nothing but alcohol and you will soon end up with all sorts of illnesses.
How many have heard of Joe Simpson or his book Touching the Void? Or perhaps you have seen the film. Against all odds, he survived a broken leg in the Andes, crawled back to camp braving the elements and the possibility that his friends had already left (they believed him dead). But he did survive and all he could think about was that he was going to die. Not a single positive thought crossed his mind. And no doubt you can think of multiple examples of people being spurred on, not by believing that everything will be better in the end, but being so utterly possessed that the alternative is too difficult to contemplate.
He did not engage any “positive thinking”. All he could think was that he was going to die
And now I’m starting to think that using my negative self-perception (I’m not good enough, I’m not capable) as a driving factor in my ambition wasn’t such a problem after all… my failure to recognise successes was the problem.
Our minds are so steeped in (natural) negative thoughts that we can break down into four basic groups:
- Obstacles that we create
- Harsh self-judgement
- Comparison with others
All of which I recognise as being controlling factors in poor self-esteem. I felt all of these things on a daily basis; they were facts and not opinions (until I was able to convince myself otherwise).
The key is, from both books, is not whether those thoughts are true or based in any way in fact, but whether they are helpful… and though they are to a certain degree (as discussed at the beginning of this post), in the end they will not help us achieve our goals. Use them to keep your feet on the ground but don’t let them consume you.
The next part of the book introduces some simple but very effective exercises you can do to challenge those negative thoughts. These exercises are known as “diffusion” and are techniques used in a form of CBT referred to as ACT. I’ll come back to this section once I’ve finished the exercises and have something to discuss.