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Negative Psychology

Do you focus on positive self-talk only to end up in the same negative spiral?

Photo by Josh Felise on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Josh Felise on Unsplash

Wherever you turn, be it pop psychology sections at bookstores, self-help gurus, or even personal growth seminars, the proponents of positive psychology will tell you that the way toward growth and healing is to dismiss your negative thoughts and adopt positive thoughts about yourself, your relationships, and your situation.

As a therapist and workshop facilitator specializing in addiction, trauma, and cultural shame, what's often missing from these overarching directives is either the misunderstanding of negative thoughts or a misplaced belief that a person can willfully push their negative thoughts to the side and substitute them with more positive ones.

In recent years, there's been a growing effort to educate people about trauma-informed care. This is a recognition that we must delve deeper into why a person can carry such negative or distorted views about themselves, their abilities, and their future, based on being impacted by adversity, neglect, abuse, or trauma.

In other words, no one wakes up one day and just has negative thoughts take hold in their lives.

For reference, here are a few common negative thoughts that can ensnare someone:

  • I am not lovable.
  • I am a bad person.
  • I am worthless.
  • I am not good enough.
  • I cannot succeed.
  • I deserve to die.
  • I have to be perfect.
  • I cannot trust anyone.

Common positive psychology would have you replace these negative thoughts with an alternate positive one. But if it were that easy, we would live in a world without the need to acknowledge and heal from trauma.

Trauma-informed care takes into account that a person's way of thinking is a byproduct of the primary relationships and formative experiences that may have led to these deep-seated thoughts in the first place.

For example, in traditional Asian collectivist cultures, where shaming is utilized as a means of child-rearing, it's common for Asians to struggle with a severe sense of cultural shame, where they perpetually think, "I'm not good enough." No matter their achievements or successes in life, there's an abject sense of defectiveness to the core.

In trauma-informed care, the goal is similar to positive psychology—to allow a person to think of themselves as lovable, accepted, and deserving of forgiveness and grace. But the big difference with trauma-informed care is that healers are willing to explore a person's past to get to the origin of these negative thoughts.

Exploration means a willingness and comfort level with addressing the neglect, trauma, or lack of validation that led to the negative thoughts in the first place, no matter the time needed to devote to the cause.

Everyone, especially here in America, wants a quick fix. While there are some folks who miraculously heal (from negative thoughts, addictions, wounds, etc.), the majority of us will need much more time than what's promised by glossy brochures, books, or the words of your favorite self-help expert.

Now, healing can be accelerated beyond just traditional one-to-one therapy, but you'll have to accept the cost—not the cost in fees per se, but the cost in vulnerability. In my years leading both one-on-one therapy and group work (as well as being a client in both modalities), I can affirm and vouch for the effectiveness of group healing. Whether it's a 12-step group, group therapy, or a group of people with a shared desire to grow, the effectiveness cannot be overstated.

We are wounded in relationships, and thus healing occurs in healthy relationships. The multiplicity of relationships available in a group format offers the opportunity to increase the trajectory of healing for most people. This is because the group provides an audience that hears your story, can validate your feelings, and gives you the empathy often missing within yourself and those who were part of your wounding.

So if you're someone who tends to believe in positive psychology, but questions why it's not working, those of us in trauma-informed care will tell you it's time to embrace "negative" psychology.