Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

A few months ago, I read a fascinating article by Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg. It was titled “The Problem with Positive Thinking” and ran in the New York Times on Sunday, October 26th 2014.

Dr. Oettingen wrote about the downsides of what’s come to be known as “the power of positive thinking.” Studies are showing that when people limit their thinking to imagining positive outcomes, they tend not to put forth the effort to make those outcomes come about. As she put it:

Positive thinking fools our minds into perceiving that we’ve already attained our goal, slackening our readiness to pursue it.

It’s as if we assume that we can ride the wave of positive thinking all the way to the shore without putting in any effort.

By contrast, when people balance positive thinking about a desired outcome with a realistic look at the challenges and obstacles that might arise, they are much more likely to achieve their goals. She calls this balanced process “mental contrasting.”

She uses the goal of losing weight at an example. According to Dr. Oettingen, if you confine your thinking to fantasizing yourself in a thin body, you’re much less likely to find yourself in one than if you also pay attention to what obstacles might arise.

This got me thinking about what obstacles might arise if you have weight loss as a goal. In an effort to make yourself feel better, perhaps you respond to painful emotions, such as loneliness, by eating. If this is the case, it makes sense to me that balancing positive thinking about losing weight with the resolve to remain aware of your tendency to overeat when you’re feeling lonely would be a smart way to help you reach your goal.

I see mental contrasting as a type of mindfulness practice. You set the intention to pay attention to your tendency to eat too much when certain painful emotions are present. This awareness then triggers the need for you to exercise extra will-power to refrain from eating simply as a way to soothe yourself emotionally. I’m not suggesting that this would be easy, but if Dr. Oettingen is right, positive thinking alone won’t take those pounds off. On the other hand positive thinking plus mindfulness plus doing the best you can to change your behavior (based on what mindfulness has revealed to you), can get you to your goal.

Here’s an example of how I could have benefitted from mental contrasting. In 2014, I went with my husband and my son and his family to Dillon Beach in California for a four day stay at a cottage. (I wrote about the experience in “What It’s Like to Take a Vacation While Chronically Ill.”)

It was a difficult four days for me. One reason I struggled so much physically and emotionally was that I’d approached the trip with only positive thinking: “I can do it! It’s only four days!” “If I just keep reminding myself how much I love the beach, I’ll have a great time.” As a consequence, when I had to spend a good part of the day in bed, I was bitter and resentful about being chronically ill, even though it’s not my fault and it’s not something I can control.

When I read Dr. Oettingen’s article, I realized that I’d have fared better had I engaged in mental contrasting instead of thinking solely in positive terms. With mental contrasting, in addition to conjuring up positive images of myself at the cottage with my family, I’d have balanced those images by considering the difficulties and the obstacles presented by taking a trip while chronically ill. Such an approach might have sounded like this:

I’m really looking forward to this trip, but I need to remember that even when I’m at home, I’m not able to spend the entire day out of bed. In addition, the preparations for going, the 1 3/4 hour drive from where we live to the cottage, and the extra company once I get there might take so much out of me that I’ll have to rest a lot, even though it means time away from my family and from ocean-gazing.

Had I engaged in mental contrasting, I’d have been better prepared for the trip—emotionally and physically. For example, by considering the challenges and obstacles before embarking on the journey, it's likely that I'd have decided ahead of time to take an extra nap or two each day. Because I didn’t do that, when I had no choice but to leave everyone’s company and go lie down, I was bitter about it. At times, I even convinced myself that the entire trip had been a mistake. But had I’d known to balance my positive thinking with a realistic assessment of my capabilities and limitations, those naps would have simply been part of the plan all along.

Realizing how much better the trip would have gone had I engaged in mental contrasting ahead of time, I’ve been putting it to use in other settings. This past Thanksgiving, we hosted our son and his family, my husband’s brother and sister-in-law, and a few friends. Instead of engaging solely in positive thinking by imagining the perfect gathering, I balanced that fantasy with a realistic look at the difficulties that might arise for me.

On the positive side of the gathering, I was definitely looking forward to seeing everyone. But I also reminded myself that it was highly unlikely I’d be able to get through the day without lying down for a while. This helped me to plan the day ahead of time: I’d visit when people first arrived, then I’d lie down, then I’d join everyone for dinner, and then I’d lie down again.

This practical assessment put me in a balanced frame of mind for the occasion: I knew I’d enjoy myself, but I also knew I’d have to miss some of the fun because, through no fault of my own, I happen to be chronically ill. This frame of mind enabled me to retreat to the bedroom to lie down without feeling resentful about my life and about the occasion.

***

Like the Buddhist practice of equanimity (which I’ve written about many times in this space and in my books), mental contrasting is grounded in the recognition that life is a mixture of positives and difficulties. By engaging in mental contrasting, we can use both to our advantage—inspiring ourselves with the positives while also remaining aware of the difficulties and obstacles that might arise so that we can best plan how to reach our goals. I hope you’ll try it.

© 2015 Toni Bernhard. Thank you for reading my work. I'm the author of three books: 

How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide (2015)

How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow (2013)

How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers (2010) 

All of my books are available in audio format from Amazon, audible.com, and iTunes.

Visit www.tonibernhard.com for more information and buying options.

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