I was in the middle of a plant medicine ceremony.
I had—prematurely to the guidance of the shaman—tied up my healing experience in an exultant bow and was proclaiming that I’d gotten what I was there for and was now healed.
Over the previous few hours, the plant had run through my body trailing a stream of light, healing the physical imprints of past trauma. I’d ventured into glorious trippy visions of forgiveness with people who’ve hurt me. I experienced my physical body bundled up in protective crystal and sent back out into the world, all perfect and reborn, with a bonus flurry of heart emojis bursting in front of my eyes.
Yet as much as I thought journey that night was done, the plant and the shaman had other ideas.
‘You’re missing something’. I was told. 'There’s something that wants you to forgive it but you’re not acknowledging it. You’re the writer. You want this perfect ending, but life isn’t like that.’
So, I swallowed my pride along with another round of medicine, and went back in to rewrite my ending with more honesty.
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” ― C.G. Jung
And this is how I came to understand that positive thinking doesn’t work.
You know the kind, lauded internet-wide; the quotes, affirmations and practices we’re directed to live by when life gets hard and we would really just rather cry:
"Look on the bright side!"
"This will help you grow!"
"Train your mind to see the good in every situation!"
"Remember how blessed you are!"
Despite the current movement that encourages, with the greatest of intentions, turning away from supposed negativity in favour of joyful affirmations, positive thinking quotes and tight smiles, positivity is not a fast track to unwavering happiness and it will never stop the less happy feelings from existing.
Positivity is wasted energy for something that won’t ever work because it’s not getting to the emotional root.
Affirmation Pacification: Ignoring Truth to Look on the ‘Bright Side’
Despite how it might appear, spirituality isn’t all fluffy self care and relentless positivity to the detriment of reality.
We can paste on a smile, finger mala beads and meditate all day but if our minds outside of that time are terrorising us or if our subconscious is in turmoil, it’s just a distraction.
Telling yourself in your mind that you feel fine and happy, when in your heart you feel anything but, is dangerously duplicitous.
It is duality working against neutrality, it is distinctly unspiritual, and renders the practice of positivity inauthentic.
On the contrary, being spiritual and awakened is about taking responsibility for our own reality, acknowledging what hurts us, where we’ve hurt others, where we’re holding onto pain, where we’re ignoring how we really feel, accepting when something actually isn’t okay, and being honest about it.
We can’t bypass our way to inner peace and harmony.
We get there by working through all of our feelings honestly and fully. This is the concept Carl Jung termed ‘shadow work’.
The Problem With Positive Thinking: It Relies on Thought
Positive thinking means thought—that thing we're trying not to be controlled by. If we’re telling ourselves we’re worthy, grateful and happy while guilt, shame, fear, anger, and sadness run in the background then positive thinking only operates at surface level consciousness.
Forced positivity covers up our needs, and adds another layer of artifice to the heavy load of other constructs we’re already carrying around life with us.
To make any kind of enduring change, we need to tune into feeling instead.
If you’re not feeling it, you’re feeding it.
We favour happiness and joy as pleasure-seeking humans, but we’re not here for a perfect time—we’re here to learn from the full spectrum of emotion that makes us human.
We can manipulate our thoughts and berate our emotions into submission so we can pretend we feel differently, but if we can let go of the mind instead, relieve it from the job of silencing how we actually feel, we’ll be able to actually feel.
When we feel without the influence of our mind, our feelings don’t lie. They’re right there, our truthful radar alerting us to when things aren’t okay so we can take actions, set boundaries and make adjustments so that they are okay again.
Ignoring our feelings is escapism. Only allowing ourselves to feel the ‘positive’ things is living half a life. It’s a pseudo human experience.
On a superficial level, of course having a sunny outlook is going to serve us better in life than pessimism. Gratitude and optimism are essential tools for a fulfilling life. But we can’t use them to mask pain and expect to heal. Learning to live truthfully isn’t about being a pessimist versus being an optimist, it’s about acknowledging the truth.
Notably, we don’t want to be wallowers in our own issues either. There is a difference between worrying, blaming and being a victim to our traumas; and feeling the pain but responsibly imagining ourselves on the other side to optimistically work towards healing.
A positive mindset can help us shape our futures but it won’t heal our pasts.
Instead, I’m suggesting it might be better to let our true feelings breathe and move through us so we can return to a baseline, stable state of positivity.
I find it easy to be positive, it’s usually my default state—but it comes with its own problems. In looking on the bright side, I had been overlooking (or sometimes deliberately ignoring) the less-good things, the feelings that needed my attention.
I spent years packing positivity on top of positivity. Shoving the sadness so far down that it couldn't even escape as tears.
During a difficult three years of my life, when a lot of other people would have been overwhelmed with emotion, my eyes stayed dry and I regarded their barrenness for a long time as some kind of strength.
I didn’t feel sad or depressed, because my mind told me we were all good. I saw the positive in my situations and was grateful for everything in my life.
What I didn’t realise was that while I stayed strong and distracted on the outside thanks to such optimism, the structure of my internal world was covertly toppling.
At the hands of a brutal narrative, I learnt the biting implications of this inability to face my shadow during that plant medicine ceremony.
When I took that next dose of medicine and went back in to acknowledge the things the shaman knew I had been hiding, I was shown, cryptically and savagely, how my tendency to skim over life’s less cosy aspects was only leading to the growth of the unhappy memories I was so good at hiding.
It conspired that I was silencing a whole side of myself that deserved as much attention as the positive parts.
So I got in and shone light on what I was ignoring.
And as it turned out, what I was being ‘brave’ against wasn’t even so bad. Yet the memory had grown in the dark into an aggressive monster that was causing me physical pain and fatigue—when all it wanted was to be seen.
Once I acknowledged it, I could let it go free.
Feel It to Heal It
The word ‘depression’ is derived from ‘depressing’; burying feeling into subconscious. When you push a thing down, even just a prickle of a tear—it becomes even bigger and more painful over time.
Like everything, emotions are energy, and so by the very nature of energy our hidden emotions will never just go away. Instead, they are relegated to our unconscious—where we act unknowingly according to how they still, unconsciously, make us feel.
Indeed, every time we ignore a ‘bad’ emotion (or try to turn it into something positive instead) it grows. The bigger it grows, the more we need to feed our mind to distract us from the thing we’ve suppressed. These distractions come in many forms, including positivity and positive quotes, media, consumerism, drugs and alcohol, and exercise.
Holding onto such emotions therefore traps parts of us in time, meaning we can’t be fully present. Instead, we become entangled in the past, tied to timelines which pull us out of the now. If the present moment is all there is, which we know to be true—what are we, what is there, if we’re stuck in the past?
Accordingly, these ties to the emotions we’re hiding from form our behaviours and reactions in our present relationships with ourselves and other people. We are subconsciously reacting from fear, sadness, hurt, guilt, shame and anger without even knowing it.
In its distracting nature, unhealed trauma also stifles our natural radars that guide our inner brilliance. It’s like a stopper on our creativity, a hand on our throat, a hoarder of our peace.
If these fragmented parts are never consciously recovered, they will likely either find a way to express themselves as emotional erraticism, mental health issues, addictions or physical manifestations of pain or illness. The heaviness has to come out in some way, one day, but by then it can be near impossible to know what it is that’s manifesting.
If the energy of repressed feelings isn’t released, it can be passed down generationally --- either in cellular memory or in the behaviours and relationship patterns we model for our children and family.
What to Do When Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work
‘Shadow work’ means openly exploring the memories and parts of ourselves we otherwise deny; the parts we find shameful and embarrassing; the anger, guilt, lust we try to pretend we don’t feel.
The word ‘emotion’ means energy in motion; our feelings aren’t designed to be pushed down into stagnancy. They are born demanding dynamcy, with a need to move through us.
In feeling honestly instead of thinking positively we can transmute the energy into forgiveness, love, light, and compassion, so it can be liberated from entangled time and we can return fully to the present moment.
So, this is a call to honour our darkness—to bravely dive into our rejected depths to reclaim the forgotten and fragmented parts of ourselves.
Let’s relearn to give up the fight for eternal blazing summers and succumb to our personal winters. Let’s gift ourselves with introspective times of reflection to feel how we really feel.
Let’s vow to take an overdue break from buoying ourselves up with the blinding brightness of positivity and instead, sink inward. To look with honest eyes and understand ourselves in our messy, un-positive human entirety.
The unseen, the shadow is innately feminine—it’s the yin, the darker, softer, vulnerable complement to yang. It’s not a coincidence, in this patriarchal society, that repressing the shadow side silences the feminine within us, it prevents the necessary rebalancing work that is so needed right now.
We spend so much of our time in yang energy, in the bright, firey light of doing, in being strong and tough and not crying and mentally constructing ourselves a protective wall of positivity. But, like the seasons, we can’t live in harmony without both sides of totality. Light can’t exist without dark.
Shall we see what happens if we welcome back the yin?
If we give ourselves permission to relax into our hardened parts and meet them with softness, we can learn to accept ourselves in our honest totality.
Admitting to our less socially favourable side can be hard and uncomfortable, but it’s far easier than dealing with the addiction, mental health issues, fatigue and potential illness caused by hiding it.
So let’s get down in there, find the way into the darkness and liberate the emotions we’ve been too scared, proud, and ashamed to feel.
It’s time to stop hiding ourselves from ourselves. How awakened can we be if we are half repressed by our own minds? If we have unlearned lessons and unresolved hurts sucking energy from us at our very roots?
By giving all of our feelings the attention they need, we can clear them out of our heart, out of our tissues, and understand why we felt them in the first place. Then we can forgive everyone involved and move on, freer, lighter, unburdened and with valuable lessons learned.
There are so many lessons waiting in our lower vibrating emotions for our bravery. Life’s lessons don’t lie in those times we feel happy—they exist in our difficult emotions and in working through them.
Once we’ve excavated our internal worlds, we’ll find our positive mindset arises magically from within and we’ll no longer need to seek external affirmations.
The ability to think positively will come naturally and can be maintained once the work is done, once balance is restored. But it needs to be built on strong foundations of inner work, not on binge consuming positivity quotes on Instagram.
We need to traverse through the pain, the shame, the guilt, the embarrassment to claim our positivity on the other side. Positivity achieved through personal pilgrimage comes with the added prize, the birthright, of an open heart and total acceptance of ourselves.
It's a rite of passage.
So let’s own our stories, and be brave enough to liberate ourselves from the heaviness we’re carrying inside us so we can release the life and soul lessons they hold within them.
It’s time to root down into wholeness and transmute the dark before we rise up in true light.