I’d been feeling run down for a couple of weeks. I was working late with my colleagues and, all of a sudden, I got the shivers, lost feeling in the tips of my fingers and the dull pain in my stomach became acute. I landed myself in the hospital with what the doctor said was Pancreatitis.
This episode turned out to be the beginning of a many-year struggle with gastrointestinal issues, possibly a result of aggressive antibiotics I’d been prescribed in my 20s.
The way “positive thinking” is often sold or understood is as a shallow, “look on the bright side” technique that rings hollow for most people. It’s delusional. There are a couple of ways delusional “positive thinking” rears its head:
- False optimism. This delusion sounds like: “Everything is going to be okay and the doctors will figure out what is wrong and how to fix me.” That turned out not to be true. The last doctor I saw related to my gastrointestinal health told me, “This is just the new normal for you,” and that was a couple of years after my first stay in the hospital. Everything was not going to be okay, at least in terms of my bowels.
- False belief in yourself. This delusion sounds like: “Well, I’ll be fine because I have a really powerful immune system.” I don’t. That’s what got me into this mess in the first place.
Delusional positive thinking is simply lying to yourself. And it’s unfortunate that it’s how we understand the idea of “positive thinking” because it turns people off to one of the most powerful mindset tools available: (Searching for the) Positive Thinking.
Things that you don’t like are going to happen. When they do, you can take one of three paths:
- Negative Thinking: “I can’t believe this is happening to me! I don’t deserve this! Things would have been so much better if they had turned out the way I had imagined!”
- Delusional Positive Thinking: “Everything will be resolved with little to no effort on my part. I’ll definitely handle this because I am so great.”
- (Searching for the) Positive Thinking: “This isn’t what I wanted, but I accept that it is happening. I will focus on what I can gain from this experience and find the best path forward. Rather than worry about evaluating the entire situation, I will search for, focus on and work toward what is good about it.”
My gastrointestinal health was the first time I deliberately took the “(Searching for the) Positive” approach.
- I accepted that my stomach health was not what I would have wished. I have since refused to waste energy lamenting that fact. It’s incredibly freeing.
- I took it as a wake up call to be more mindful of my health. I have radically overhauled my diet and eat mostly whole food meat and vegetable meals (no gluten, no packaged foods, no dairy, etc). I have gotten back into exercising regularly. I drink a lot less alcohol. I work fewer hours.
- It serves as a reminder to be grateful when I do feel healthy.
Given this approach, the outcome of my illness has been that, as a result of lifestyle changes, I am in better shape, typically have more energy and feel better emotionally than I did before! It did, however, take a while to get here. I’ve spent the last couple of years tinkering with my diet and combating urges for foods as I eliminated them. I’ve gone through a sometimes disorienting transition as I’ve pulled back on partying and found other hobbies. But, as a result, I have more confidence in myself and my self-discipline. And finally, I am more compassionate to others who have had medical issues, particularly stomach problems.
It’s this approach that leads former cancer patients to say things like “cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me” (A). No one ever wants a bad thing to happen. But, once it does, we can use it as an impetus to look around and find the best path forward.
So, next time you find yourself riled up about an issue or something that didn’t go as planned, don’t lie to yourself, but do ask “However bad this situation is, what is good about it? What can I take from this? Where do I want to go from here?”
(A) Google for “cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me” in quotes and you’ll get over 3,600 results. Without quotes gets over 13 million.
Photo credit: Jenny Downing, “Specs”
Graphic inspired by: S. Lyubomirsky, The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want