False Comfort: Why “Think Positive” Doesn't Work

Here's how positive can lead to negative.

Posted Aug 31, 2019

People often attribute the source of their anxious suffering to external situations, such as “meetings make me feel trapped and anxious” or “highways give me panic attacks” or “I can’t stand being around that creepy guy.” But we actually make ourselves anxious by the way we deal with triggers or challenges, and therefore how much distress we feel is actually largely up to us.

One way people try to reduce their distress is to attempt to “correct” their thoughts by substituting positive thoughts when a distressing one shows up. However, people with sticky minds find this remarkably unhelpful. It may be difficult to see why this actually happens, as our reactivity to events seems so automatic: It seems logical that positive thinking would be a good thing to do. 

In our last two books, we have developed a way for people to understand how this substitution actually amplifies, exacerbates and reinforces anxiety.

In our previous blog, we introduced the three voices of the mind: Worry Voice, False Comfort, and Wise Mind. People with sticky minds have repetitive escalating loops of frightening, catastrophic thoughts. In fact, in deconstructing worry, we point out that worry is not just a jumble of distressing thoughts and feelings, but an alternation between anxiety-raising thoughts and flights of imagination (often “what if ...”) and anxiety-lowering efforts to make the distress disappear. These efforts only work temporarily and backfire. They function as negative reinforcers of the worry.

The attempt to replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts might lead to comfort in the short term,  but over the longer term, anxiety is increased rather than decreased. Such internal rebuttals of “what ifs?” often use language like “everything will be OK,” “what are the chances that this would actually happen?” “don’t be a pessimist,” or “you can always leave if you have to.”

We use the illustration of False Comfort as the voice in our mind that tries to “think positive.” Every time False Comfort tries to soothe the anxiety of Worry Voice, the anxious “What if?” thoughts come running back. Here is a typical dialogue:

Worry Voice: That kitten is so cute and vulnerable. What if I strangled it? It would be so easy.

False Comfort: You would never do that!!

Worry Voice: Look—my fingers just fit around its neck.

False Comfort: Don’t be ridiculous. You are kind and loving!

Worry Voice: How do you know that? I had that surge of road rage yesterday. What if I can’t help myself?

False Comfort: You just felt angry, you didn’t do anything. Just stop thinking that.  It won’t happen.

Worry Voice: There is always a first time, and I wonder if there is something sick inside of me. Why else would I have such a thought?

False Comfort: Just think about something else. Let’s get away from the kitten. This is crazy! You are thinking crazy thoughts.

Worry Mind: So you think I have crazy thoughts?

Cafepampas/Pixabay
Source: Cafepampas/Pixabay

So, trying to think positive backfires. 

Here is another example of the same thing:

Worried Voice: I am worrying that I left the stove on. 

False Comfort: Don’t be silly! Of course, you turned it off. You are an extremely safe and responsible person.

Worried Voice: Yeah, but two years ago I was about to leave the house and I realized one of the burners was still on. 

False Comfort: Well, no one is perfect, and don’t be hard on yourself for one time.

Worried Voice: But I might have burnt down the whole house!  I would be homeless. 

False Comfort: Seriously, what do you think the chances are of that happening? Highly unlikely!

Worried Voice:  But it only has to happen one time! I need to make absolutely sure the burner is off.  

False Comfort: Well, maybe you should come back from work and check it just to make 100% sure.

Worried Voice: OK, but last time I left work to check on it, I got in trouble and anyway when I got back to work, I was worried that I accidentally turned it back on because I was so upset with myself.  Maybe I have a memory problem.

When you take a closer look,  you can see that many commonly used coping tools such as escape planning, safety behaviors, positive thinking, rational refutation, calculating probabilities, avoiding triggers, exploring meaning and self-reassurance can occupy the very same function as False Comfort. This is particularly true if the intention of the coping effort is to avoid discomfort or doubts.

In fact, False Comfort simply cannot give enough reassurance, positive thoughts, or motivational pep talks to keep Worried Voice calm. Worried Voice actually thinks of new things to worry about in response to the efforts of False Comfort to help. This is the worry-reassure-worry again cycle that maintains and reinforces anxiety.  

It can be remarkably helpful to notice and label the two arguing internal voices when you are worried. Know that you are not failing to cope and don’t need to try harder to find ways to talk back to your Worried Voice, but rather you should stand back and notice what is happening. This changes your relationship with your Worried Voice. Listening internally to Wise Mind instead of False Comfort is about observing the process rather than arguing the content of the worries.  It is non-judgmental, mindful awareness of the distress, a willingness to sit with the feelings, the doubts, the discomfort—letting go of any urgency to change, fix, deny, banish or even “cope with” the thoughts—while letting time pass.

Knowing why “positive thinking” does not work relieves us of the burden of a contentious relationship with our own experience of uncertainty. And helps us to accept, allow, and let pass the experience of anxiety when it happens.