What If Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work? (E34)

positive thinking

The Limits of Positive Thinking

Have you ever been told by someone to engage in positive thinking to fix a life problem? Do you avoid thinking about unpleasant life experiences? Have you trained your mind to minimize pain?

If the answer is yes, you wouldn’t be alone. Lots of people engage in positive thinking as a lifestyle. But what if positive thinking doesn’t work? Are there any options for coping?

It turns out the answer is yes. In this episode of the Men’s Self-Help Podcast, Dr. John Moore explores the downsides of negative thinking and helps listeners focus on alternatives.

Take Aways From Show

  • The pros and cons of positive thinking
  • How minimizing trauma and pain can make things worse
  • The ins and outs of acceptance and commitment therapy
  • Body image issues in the bedroom
  • Mirror affirmations

Resources Mentioned in Show

BLOCK A: Positive Thinking

Hello, and welcome – or welcome back, to episode 34 of The Men’s Self-Help Podcast. I’m so glad you are here. My name is Dr. John Moore, and I’m a licensed psychotherapist out of Chicago, Illinois and I’ve been involved with counseling and teaching for nearly 20 years.

In today’s show, which is being sponsored by Better Help, we’re going to talking about positive thinking and asking the question: What happens when positive thinking doesn’t work and what to do instead.

But before we take a deep dive into that topic, some of you listening may be wondering what this podcast is all about. In other words, why did I start it?

Well, here’s the deal – I created this show because I wanted to move beyond the walls of my private practice and reach three specific groups of men.

The first are guys who are all about self-improvement and hit the subscribe button because the concepts we explore help them with staying connected to their wellness goals.

So that’s group one.

Group two are men who may be curious about therapy and follow a show like this one because it gives them a sense of what counseling might be like.

Group two is also home to men who are currently involved with therapy – be it one on one with a counselor or as part of a group – and use some of what we discuss here as part of their journey.

And then there’s group three. These are my go it alone types, meaning these men are just never, ever, going to come knocking on the door of someone like me, a counselor, to talk about the issues going on in their life.

No siree bob – it’s not happening.

In fact, for many of these men, I’m about as popular spoiled milk, but to keep it real – some of these same men might just be curious enough to tap on an app and listen to a show because the material somehow speaks to them.

Are you a woman listening to the show? Well, welcome aboard! The truth is lots of women subscribe to this podcast because the content helps them to better support the man in their life, like a boyfriend or husband or even a family member, like your dad or brother.

But regardless of what brought you here today, I just want to say now right now – I’m thrilled you are here – truly.

Just a quick disclaimer – this podcast isn’t designed to act as a substitute for counseling or medical advice and I’m not your personal therapist.

Alrighty, let’s slide back into today’s topic: What happens when positive thinking doesn’t work?

As you reflect on that question, here’s a few more to think about:

  • Have you ever been told that if you just focus on the positive, everything will turn out OK?
  • Does it seem like you force yourself to think happy thoughts, only to discover the experience itself falls short?
  • Do you steer clear of emotional pain because you’ve been taught that men don’t show their feelings?

Well, if any of that resonates, join the club – because as a man, I get it.

To help us explore all of this more, we’re going to talk about a client I once worked with name Rusty, an Army veteran who needed help because positive self-talk had failed him. In fact, it made his situation worse.

So, there’s that.

We’ll also explore a listener email from man who describes himself as overweight and can’t have sexual intercourse unless he’s wearing a t-shirt.

As you can see, we’ve got a lot going on. Stick around!

BLOCK B: What if positive thinking doesn’t work?

Right now, I’d like you to go ahead and take a deep breath to clear your mind.

Allow yourself to imagine that you’re standing alone on a quiet beach, at that magical place where the sea meets the shore.

It’s a bright, sunny day and the water is crystal blue.

Everything seems so perfect.

But as you cast your awareness on the horizon – you spot a giant wave cresting in the distance.

As time passes and the wave draws closer, you start to realize that it’s growing taller – so tall in fact that the horizon itself soon disappears.

As the seconds tick by, the wave gets even closer, gathering energy with each passing moment.

Instinctively, you raise both arms and use your palms to make the stop gesture. And it is at this time that you tap into your secret superpower – the ability to project a massive, gold energy shield made of pure light.

Suddenly, the wave is upon you, crashing onto your security screen with enormous power. And for a minute, it seems like you’re able to repel the water back.

“It’s working – it’s working” you say to yourself.

But as time goes on, the wave’s energy continues to build up. In the blink of an eye, it has transformed into a tsunami.

Overcome with exhaustion, your arms give out – and your shield drops.

And that’s when the water engulfs you – and everything goes black.

So, how’s that for story telling?

Look, I shared this mental imagery with you as a metaphor and its one that I regularly tell my clients.

In the symbolic sense, that wave represents something painful from your past.

Examples might be a trauma or loss – or deep feelings of shame that you might be holding.

So, that’s the wave.

The shield symbolizes your ability to keep away the pain – to repel against the bad – which may work for a while – until it doesn’t.

And can I level with you? Many of us have learned to craft our shields with positive thinking.

In other words, we’ve told ourselves that by simply focusing on the positive, we can keep depression and sadness at bay. Maybe you can relate?

I’m thinking now of all the memes you see on social media that say things like: “If you find things to be grateful for, everything will be OK” and “Try looking at the bright side”.

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Now hey -don’t me wrong – I’m all about having a positive mindset. In fact, I regularly encourage my patients to lean into gratitude as a coping strategy.

But when it comes to something deeper, like complex trauma and loss, trying to force yourself into happy talk can actually make you feel worse.

Know what I mean?

So, you may be wondering – what are the alternatives? What are the other options?

To help get to the answers, I’m going to tell you the story of Rusty. He was a patient of mine from several years ago who came to me because he felt disconnected from life. He was in his late 30’s, married with two kids and worked as a welder.

And you know, as I talk about this now, I can still remember the first time he walked through my office door. The guy was all smiles.

As we got to know one another, I discovered that he had spent time in the Army, serving several tours of combat duty in the Middle East.

During his enlistment, he told me about a friend of his that had been killed in an explosion – something he apparently saw happen up close and personal.

Just so you know, I’m purposely not giving a lot of detail here because I want to protect this patient’s confidentiality.

But I will tell you that when I asked Rusty if he had ever talked to anyone about what happened, he shook his head and said, “Nope – not really. What good would it do? I’d rather focus on the positive.”

And so, at least for a while – I left the topic alone.

In the weeks that followed, I came to learn things about his childhood, like growing up in a house where men didn’t talk about their feelings and the women didn’t ask about them.

In fact, whenever something uncomfortable did come up, it was usually glossed over with happy talk – comments that only touched the surface.

But then one day during a session, I asked Rusty if he could draw a link between his early childhood experiences with emotions and his inability to touch anything related to pain, like the death of his friend.

As he sat with that question for a minute, something came over him – something clicked. And it was then he began to cry.

And guys when I tell you he cried, it was raw and powerful.

But something else happened in that moment – Rusty began to heal.

You see rather than deny his emotions happy talk, Rusty started to accept his loss and trauma, realizing how much had been bottled up – deep inside.

And I say accepted because it is his first step in something called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT for short.

Developed by Dr. Steven Hayes in the 1980’s, ACT contains six core processes – and I’m quickly to quickly tick off each one, but know everything that I’m about to say is on the Guy Counseling website and I’ve linked to this in show notes.

The first is acceptance. That’s what’s Rusty did when he allowed himself to be vulnerable in my office.

The second is cognitive diffusion, where a person learns how to lower the emotional intensity of a memory of a feeling so that it doesn’t overwhelm.

The third is being present, which means being aware of your emotions without going for a “quick fix” to make them go away.

The fourth is self as context – meaning the person doesn’t allow one experience or one event to define them.

The fifth is values. For Rusty this meant valuing his own pain and joining a support group for military veterans.

The sixth is being committed to action. And Rusty did this by owning his emotions and not by wanding them away with denial.

So, that’s ACT in a nutshell.

Now folks, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that any of this was easy for him or that he didn’t hit snags along the way. He absolutely did.

But I will say that over the course of time, the man began to heal. His marriage became stronger, and he began to feel more connected to life.

And that wasn’t because of anything I did.

Instead, it was ALL Rusty – because he’s the one who chose to be vulnerable and eventually share his experiences with other men.

If you’ve found yourself in a place positive thinking alone has stopped working OR if you are interested in living a more authentic life, I’d like to share a powerful resource with you.

It’s a book called Reclaim Your Life: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 7 weeks. It was authored by Dr. Carissa Gustafason and I’ve linked to it in Show Notes.

Folks, this is a book I’ve used with many of my patients over the years and can tell you right now it’s a game changer. I truly hope you consider.

As we close out this block, I’d like to leave you with a few questions:

What painful events from your past have you been keeping at bay? How might your life change if you started dealing with them by standing in your truth?

Block C: Promotion

Listeners are told about a special offer with Better Help. Get ten percent off first month of sessions using this special link.

BLOCK D: Listener Email Men Body Image

This week’s listener email comes to us from a man living in New Mexico. I’ll just cut to the chase and read what he sent me and after that, I’ll reveal to you what I sent back to him.

Are you ready – let’s jump right in!

“Hi, Dr. John – My name is Danny I’m really loving your podcast. In a weird kind of way, it feels like I’m getting a sense of what counseling might be like.

[well, thank you for that Danny – OK – he goes on to say]

Here’s some background. I’m 27 years old and have struggled with weight my entire life. Over the past few months, I’ve managed to drop ten pounds and keep the weight off by working with a trainer. So, I’m good there.

But my real problem has more to do with having sex with my girlfriend. It’s not like I don’t want to or that we never get it on because we do. But whenever it does happen, I need to be wearing some type of t-shirt – even when the lights are off.

I realize this is completely messed up, but the truth is I’m embarrassed at the way my upper body looks, like my stomach and man-boobs. But oddly enough, I’m OK with my lower body.  

What advise can you give me about this? I’m willing to try anything, no matter how “woo woo” as you sometimes say.



So, there’s Danny’s note. And as you digest what some of what he said, I’m wondering how many of you listening right now struggle with something like this – or at least a variation of it.

Before I share with you my response to this listener’s note, well, the essence of it – I just want to say now that body image issues are a frequent focus of conversation in the counseling office. For real.

And to be real with you, it’s become even more of an issue in recent weeks with things opening up – post-COVID.

Maybe some of you can relate?

At any rate, he’s what I sent to Danny – and keep in mind I am paraphrasing a bit here.

“Hi, Danny,

First, let me say thanks for hitting the follow button and listening to the podcast. Second, congratulations for making the decision to work with a trainer and investing in your health. It sounds like you are on the right track!

So, let’s talk for a moment about this problem you are having around intimacy and body image issues. While you didn’t come right out and say it, my sense is this has been causing you a great deal of pain and I just want to acknowledge and validate that right now.

And look – I get this. As men, we put a lot of emphasis around the upper body, like the chest and midsection, because so much of this is tied to masculinity. I’m not saying I agree with this, but I am acknowledging the reality of the world we live in. And it doesn’t help when we see app-driven filtered and slenderized photos of other guys on social media, replete with bodies that seem too perfect to be true.

With all of that said, you mentioned that while you don’t like your upper body, you’re good with your lower body. That’s important to know for what I’m going to ask you to do next, provided that you are willing.

And what I am talking about is mirror work. Yep, that’s right, mirror work.

The next time you have some privacy, I’d like you to get undressed and stand in front of a mirror, preferably a wall mirror. This could happen when you get out of the shower, for example.

As you notice yourself in the mirror, focus your awareness on your lower parts. I know this may be hard because the natural tendency is to look at what we don’t like. But just stay with me for a minute.

As you scan yourself from your feet going upward, towards your legs, say to yourself, “I’ like my calves and accept them just as they are” or “I like my thighs and accept them just as they are”.

Don’t rush this part. Instead, spend a good two minutes staying in this space and absorbing the positive energy.

Afterward, it’s time to shift the focus of your awareness to your midsection, starting with your stomach. As you do this, say to yourself: “I’m creating change around my stomach and accept what I see, just as it is.” Let me repeat that again: “I am creating change around my stomach and accept what I see just as it is.”

Now move upward to your chest area and take the same approach: “I’m creating change around my chest and accept what I see, just as it is.”

Finally, I’d like you to end by looking at your face in the mirror and make eye-contact with yourself and say three times:

“I am exactly who I need to be in this moment.

Try doing this activity each day for a week and when you are done, imagine yourself being with your girlfriend free and uninhibited. In your mind’s eye, rehearse letting her see you just as you are during those moments of closeness.

Finally, Danny, I’d like to recommend a resource called The Body Image Workbook by Thomas Cash – and I’ve included a link. It’s therapist recommended and has been helpful to many people, including men.

Thanks so much for reaching out – let us know how things go in the future.

Well, there’s my response to this listener. Do you struggle with body image issues? If the answer is yes, what are you going to do about it?

BLOCK E: Closeout

Did you find the topics we explored today helpful? Just look at the ground we covered – we talked about how positive thinking can somethings be a cover up for what’s going on, deep inside. We also touched on acceptance and commitment therapy as a pathway to change.

But that wasn’t all – the topic of body image came up and doing mirror work can help boost confidence.

Haha, there were even some metaphors used in the show. Did you catch them?

If you loved this episode or have ever found this show helpful, I’d really appreciate it if you hit that subscribe button using whatever you use to hear the show. This way, you’ll never miss an episode.

And here’s the thing – I need your help with getting this podcast in front of other men – and the best way to do that is to leave a review on Apple Podcasts or whatever app you are using. Apparently, the more reviews I get, the more it influences its visibility and rankings.

Plus, I love reading your feedback because it keeps me so motivated to keep making these pods. And folks, it’s just me. I don’t have production crew or anyone writing out the scripts.

You know, there’s lots of ways to reach me. You can stop by my Instagram page on Instagram at Guy Counseling. And you can also find me on Facebook and Twitter at the same handle.

Speaking of Instagram, I have pledged that during the month of August, I promise to post one thing a day, everyday, that somehow relates to health and wellness. It could be a meme, it could be a quote – who knows – there may even be a silly picture of me. So, I’d love it if you stop by and follow.

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I’m on the web at Guycounseling.com, and there, you’ll find tons of blog posts related to topics men care about. Information about my book is there, confusing love with obsession, and you can also sign up for my newsletter on the sidebar. I promise I don’t send out emails frequently and whatever I send will be short and sweet. I promise.

Do you have a question you’d like read on the show or have some feedback? If so, feel free to shoot me a note at: [mentioned on podcast].

Anything you send me will be held in the strictest of confidence and I won’t share it with anyone unless you give me permission. Now keep in mind that if you do reach out, it may take a few days to get back to you because I’m teaching classes or am in session with clients.

Well, that’s it – another show. I’d like to thank our show’s sponsor, Better Help – and also give a shout out to my sound engineer, Joel, with East Coast Studio.

Be aware of your feelings and try not judge them. Find ways to appreciate your body, just as it is. Remember the process of change is a journey.

Take very good care. I’m Dr. John, and this has been, another episode of the Men’s Self-Help Podcast.

About John D. Moore 391 Articles
Dr. John Moore is a licensed counselor and Editor-in-Chief of Guy Counseling. A journalist and blogger, he writes about a variety of topics related to wellness. His interests include technology, outdoor activities, science, and men's health. Check out his show --> The Men's Self Help Podcast