Freedom Has Its Price: The Upsides of Negative Thinking

Do you want to think positively? First, get in touch with what benefits you get from negative thoughts.

As spring begins to spread its warm embrace, Passover rapidly approaches. On the holiday’s majestic eve, millions around the world will sit down at the Seder and vividly discuss the nascent Jewish nation’s exodus from Egyptian bondage millennia ago. Jewish law stresses that an integral aspect of the Seder is for each participant to make the story personal. The Seder cannot be complete with a participant reclining and merely recalling a story of long ago. A fully engaging Passover experience can only be attained if you envision yourself as if you were freed that evening from brutal servitude in Egypt. Consequently, the Haggadah liturgy transforms the Exodus into a three dimensional narration that unfolds as the Seder proceeds.

As your thoughts focus on personalizing the jubilation of freedom from pitiless Egyptian oppression, you might contemplate mini-redemptions that you have experienced in your own life. In the same vein as the Exodus, you might consider the joy you have felt as you were liberated from an unpleasant employment experience to a job that fits your passion or from a souring personal relationship to a thriving and dynamic one.

One of the victories that you might not be able to yet celebrate is a freedom from the affliction of self-doubt, negative thoughts, and an internalized image of both past and future failures. In our generation of self-help books, positive psychology, and motivational blogs, it is curious that these pernicious thoughts still plague most people. Why is it that a society committed to self-growth and actualization suffers so prominently from the very scourge that it is trying so hard to obliterate?

Perhaps one reason that these undermining ideas are part of our collective and personal conscience is that we work too hard to simply eliminate them. The first step to effectively removing these biting ideas is to come to notice that self-defeating thoughts and feelings of worthlessness are painful, damaging and detrimental…and helpful. Usually, a thought that you are unable to achieve your goals or your happiness has a silver lining. That is often why your mind creates them and keeps them around. Until you become in touch with the benefits that your mind sees in self-effacing thoughts, there is a great chance that they will linger and grow, despite all efforts that you make to dissolve them.

There are many pluses that your brain might see in negative thoughts. Some might be easier to focus on, and others are more difficult. These benefits aren’t necessarily rational or logical, but your brain has taken them as evidence that negative thoughts are a way of accomplishing something positive. When you see how you mind wants to perpetuate negative thoughts because of the redemptive value they have, you can become closer to letting them evaporate.

One advantage that your mind might see in self-critical thoughts is that they prod you to be more productive. Since you are constantly barraging yourself with thoughts of worthlessness, you work harder to prove your worth to yourself and the world. As you make phenomenal efforts to escape the pain of those negative thoughts, you rise up the corporate ladder, garner societal prestige, or increase your income. Your mind notices that your adverse thoughts also have a very positive side. Since they have such benefits, it is highly unlikely that your brain will let go of those negative cognitions.

Your mind might see disapproving thoughts as bringing you another desirable goal. They might help you maintain your memory or closeness to your parents. It is likely that your parents created your internal compass of self-censure which developed into a necessary component of your thinking. The reproach your parents provided as a child might have been necessary, deserved, and important. They might have had your best interests in mind, their own welfare as a priority, or both. They might have rebuked in a way that was gentle, measured, and balanced…or perhaps not. It doesn’t necessarily matter. Criticism comes from parents. Accordingly, even though self-criticism is caustic and undermining, it provides the strong advantage of allowing your mind to connect you to your parents. That benefit is something your brain can sense, and will not allow itself to dissolve those feelings easily.

Focusing on positive thinking alone will not be as productive or sustained. The brain wants to keep the negativity around because it perceives value in that. If you think about how your brain sees positive results from negative thoughts, you can begin to try to replace the harmful cognitions with encouraging ideas that might achieve similar results.

As we approach the clear air of spring and the freedom of Passover, your mind might yearn to breathe free. A crucial step closer to that goal is to let yourself become aware of how your brain sees gain from your pain and positive from your negative. As you allow yourself to probe the complexities of what good you get from the bad, you might be able to attain goals and feel freer than you have in the past. When you sit at your Seder you might not only rejoice in the euphoria of the national and individual Egyptian exodus, but the sweetness of personal freedom from the bondage of your own mind.

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