Don't think positive, think possible

Like Comment

Pop psychology has long advocated that we should think positive.  The problem is, this can be difficult advice to follow, and it perhaps may not actually do you any good.  If you are suffering with depression or anxiety, positive thinking can be nigh on impossible.  Not being able to do it can then contribute to your symptoms by provoking feelings of inadequacy and a sense you are not doing it right.

Far more useful advice comes from O’Hanlan and Bertolino* who encourage a focus on thinking possible.  When you are feeling stuck, patterns from the past are often running the show, determining your actions here and now, and keeping you from moving on.  Orientating to possibilities begins to open up ways of thinking that can lead to change, without putting you under undue pressure or provoking a performance anxiety.

It’s important to notice that with any internal experience that is not working for you, it’s OK to change, and at the same time you don’t have to.  Having permission to do what is good to do, for you, right now, is crucial.  Otherwise, the requirement to address things can be just another stick to beat yourself with.

So what does thinking possible involve?  There are three simple suggestions O’Hanlan and Bertolino put forward, and my experience of solution oriented therapy is that they all work well.

  • Create light at the end of the tunnel for yourself by using words like yet and so far when you are talking about what is limiting you.  So, instead of ‘I’m always anxious’ you might say ‘I haven’t found a way to be relaxed yet’ or instead of ‘I can’t do anything right’ you might think ‘So far I I haven’t found a way to notice my achievements.’  Even though things feel stuck at the moment, these kinds of words can open up the idea that at some point in the future things can change.
  • Give yourself a sense of momentum by fleshing out what will be happening as change and progress begin to happen.  So, instead of ‘I’d like to stop drinking alcohol every day’  you might say ‘When I have control over my alcohol intake, I’ll feel better’ or ‘I’ll never get rid of this low mood’ might turn into ‘When my mood begins to lift I’ll know I’m making progress.’  These ways of thinking are not about pretending or fooling yourself into something, they just focus on possibilities and their consequences, rather than sticking with what you don’t want.
  • Lastly, you can recast your thought about the problem into a statement about what you want.  The unconscious mind moves towards what you think about, and its not so hot at recognising negatives, so stating things in the positive can be really helpful.  ‘I’m all over the place’ might become ‘I’d like to feel steady and stable’ and ‘Life is pointless, I’ve had enough of living’ might become ‘I want to find a way to know its OK to be alive and stay alive.

Changing patterns of thinking can be tough, and a kick start is often useful.  If you’d like to explore the language of possibilities and trigger change in your life, then get in touch.

To sign up for a monthly digest of mental health self-help material, go to

*O’Hanlan and Bertolino (2002) Even from a Broken Web

Fe Robinson, Psychotherapist

Hi. I'm Fe, and I'm here to help you thrive, whatever life brings. I believe every client is unique, I work with you to help you explore, discover and grow in whatever ways are right for you. I work with a wide range of clients, both long and short term. I offer Psychotherapy, EMDR therapy and Couples Counselling to UK clients online and in Gainford, Co.Durham in North-East England. I am UKCP Accredited and an EMDR Europe Practitioner, and offer Clinical Supervision to counsellors and psychotherapists online and in person. Following a career in Organisation Development I became a therapist because it's my heart work. Before having my family and starting my private practice I worked in the NHS and mental health charities.