Cup with positive thinking message

Positive thinking fails creative success

It is becoming more and more accepted that the placebo effect is scientifically supported and yet there is recent evidence that the power of positive thinking is actually reducing the likelihood of succeeding. So how can the fundamental driver that makes placebo’s work, miss the mark when it matters to our businesses in an industry under pressure?

Sadly, none of this is an exact science that works across the board, and none of us can predict the future either – as frustrating as that may be! I don’t have all the answers, but I can share with you my thoughts and my own experience to decipher what is going on here and where that sweet spot is more likely to be.

Fantasising or visualising the future used to be encouraged by the self help community to help us to achieve our goals. For those of us in an industry that is highly skilled at visualising and even capable of fully immersing ourselves in an imagined reality complete with sound, texture, and motion it can be particularly vivid. Where this technique is failing is when we start to believe and feel like we have achieved the goal already and we therefore lack the energy and momentum to move forward – either on a conscious or unconscious level. So, if our community are especially good at this process then we’re more likely to fail at achieving success it seems given the conflict in data.

There are two ways that people can be motivated – either by forward movement (heading towards a goal) or by moving away (avoiding a problem). We are predisposed to one or the other naturally, or combinations of both.  I know for myself I am more motivated by moving away from a problem in the short term but do well to keep in mind the long term goals in the process – a combination of both. So, for me the best thing we can do is to fully understand ourselves, understand when positive thinking works for us and when it doesn’t in order for us to find our own ‘sweet spot’.

Some people define themselves as ‘realists’ yet at the same time there is enough understanding of success that being ‘realistic’ can also be a strategy to limit ourselves from our best potential. ‘Realists’ can be the first ones to say ‘I’ll never make it because….’, ‘that wont work because…’, or ‘that never works because….’ and those reasons are totally unfounded and self imposed brakes on success. The signal to ourselves when we have these metaphoric brakes on is by the use of the words ‘never’, ‘wont’, ‘always’, ‘too’, ‘I am’, ‘they are’ and other absolutes. Usually these limitations are representative of some ideas or beliefs that we have created or in some cases taken on from others such as our parents, bosses or those around us. These beliefs are actually not real, we’ve simply made these experiences or ideas become real – we make them mean something to us personally that becomes a truth in our own mind. When we strongly believe something we can begin to see evidence around us that supports our view also; much like when we buy a new car, we keep seeing them everywhere! So, what I think is going on here is these people are more inclined to avoid a problem, one that they perceive or have created and will see ‘evidence’ they think supports that view that ultimately holds them back. A self-fulfilling prophecy. These people could serve themselves by questioning those beliefs and checking in if they are actually real or not – looking for ways to succeed, for solutions. What could serve them is a more positive attitude to open up their mind to possibility, yet in proportion with some sound rational thinking in the process.

Visualising our future goal as done, as already achieved, can have some short term benefits by taking the pressure off us emotionally when we’re feeling panicked about the work not coming in, or concerned about some other achievement we’re missing.  In some ways it is tempting to do, as it makes our life less stressful and it is well known that being less stressed can have some health benefits. There are times when this type of positive thinking does serve us. Take for example the situation where my son, a type 1 diabetic was undergoing a cutting edge test to indicate if he was one of the rare few who could be treated with tablets rather than 5 injections and up to 7 blood tests daily. The test results took 3 months for results to come through as they had to go via the UK to a special medical unit experimenting in this rare discovery. I had the choice to spend the three months stressing over the outcome and fearing he was not going to be one of the lucky few, or to believe the results would come back successful and feel comfortable and relaxed – to positively visualise the end result and fully immerse myself in that future. My idea was that if he wasn’t one of the lucky few then when results did come through I’d have just one day of disappointment versus 3 months feeling on edge. As it turned out he wasn’t one of the lucky few and indeed there was some disappointment, but as predicted it passed quickly. Looking back I was so happy that I could have that, perhaps delusional, thought for those three months because it made the time travel so much easier and without stress. In this case the outcome was completely out of my control and it was only up to my state of mind as to how I spent the time while I waited. This is a time where positive thinking serves us.

Taking more of my own experiences to help make sense of the conflicting research I can also say there are times in my life, too, where I’ve been overly optimistic and expected the best of people and situations and it hasn’t served me. I’ve hung on too long in job roles that were not right for me because I expected I could improve things, I’ve stayed in relationships too long because I expected a new day to bring a new result or that I could overcome the issues; ‘if only’… In the end this type of thinking has actually turned out to be wishful thinking or even denial. In each case they are a version of positive visualisation whether it is done as a spiritual meditation (as it is for some), or if it is just an underlying wish or belief we carry every day. What we need if this is a pattern we follow in life is a way to step outside of our own circumstances and see the bigger picture in order to see through the positive thinking hue, colouring the reality of the situation. Look at the data, look at the facts of the situation to make better decisions.

As a child I was given placebo medication and it worked for me, despite at some point asking for a definition of the word placebo and understanding on a conscious level that it was all a fake (Ok, I was only about 10). Additionally, positive thinking for me has cured ailments doctors said should only be managed with surgery. I don’t quite understand it fully but I have asked doctors to delay surgery just that little bit longer in case things improve and I’ve miraculously diverted surgery altogether. Positive thinking has also helped me to achieve more than the average person because I’ve stayed focused and positive, making sure that the pressure didn’t overwhelm me or my own circumstances feel too heavy and get on top of me (Ok, well most of the time).

What I’ve learned is we need to understand ourselves in order to find the sweet spot that works for each of us as individuals – what do we stand for, what are our values, how do we want to be seen? Where the challenge lays is in knowing when to draw that line in the sand and only we can figure that out – often by trial and error. For those of us that don’t like the error part this is a big challenge to accept! Our values and long term goals are a barometer of sorts.

We need to be mindful of when our beliefs are working for us (like with my son’s test results) and when they are working against us (like staying too long in situations that didn’t serve me). Despite the exciting prospect of a placebo that cures all our ailments there is no magic pill with an instant solution for us, but we can learn from it to steer and navigate our way forward knowing that there are times when positive thinking works for us and times when it doesn’t. When we can’t change the outcome and we need to manage our stress there is certainly a place for positive visualisation. When we need our subconscious mind to believe there is a solution or a cure then completely immerse in that. When we are staying too long or in denial then we need to be aware it isn’t working for us, by contrast.

I know for myself I am more motivated to move away from a problem than I am to move towards a goal, but at the same time it serves me well to have some kind of bigger vision that I’m ultimately aiming for. Perhaps the sweet spot for us all is to judge the present moment with just the right amount of moving away thinking or moving toward thinking, but keeping that bigger vision in our mind as we adjust and tweak our decisions – so that somehow we end up with some results.

I do know one thing – and that is that the amount of stress we feel is not the measure of whether we succeed or not, but it is what we do with it that defines our true successes. The ultimate test I’ve learned above all else is if we are getting forward movement, then it is working. If not, change something – testing and measuring all the time until you find your own sweet spot.