Why “Be Positive” Isn’t the Best Advice When You’re Down

By Michael James

“Learn the alchemy true human beings know. The moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given, the door will open.” ~Rumi

As much as I tried to apply personal development ideas in my life, I failed big time.

All the affirmations in the world couldn’t make me love myself.

The more I tried to “be present,” the more all-over-the-place my mind became, getting lost in overthinking.

Mindfulness didn’t work for me either. Observing my thoughts got me to chase each and every thought and analyze it. When I tried “letting go,” I just held on tighter.

This was my experience from reading hundreds of popular self-help books over a ten-year period. I studied intensely as if for a PhD, experimenting with the techniques several hundred such books suggested, but still my life wasn’t working very well, to say the least.

My mind was a storm of thoughts and emotions. Sometimes I had panic attacks, which caused me to spend hours in bed, making me unable to work for stretches of time. I tried various drugs (medical and recreational) and other compulsive behaviors in an attempt to get over my depression that descended on me like storm clouds.

Through my job at that time as a journalist, I interviewed some of my favorite personal development authors of the time, in a bid to overcome the low feelings and anxiety that were ruining my life. But little helped.

At first I thought it was just me experiencing such problems—that there was something wrong with my mind—but when I spoke to other people in a support group I started at the time, I realized many people were experiencing the same frustrations as I had with some of the books out there, which made it all sound so easy.

Although they knew they “should” be positive and focus only on what they wanted, they couldn’t do it. And then they felt bad about themselves that they couldn’t do it.

Positive Thinking Pressure

Positive thinking is everywhere these days, and yet it’s not helping the depression statistics—which are going up, not down.

“Be positive” has become the new way of telling someone to “cheer up.” It didn’t work then and it doesn’t work now. It’s hardly like you need to be told that you should feel better. Of course you already know that. Of course you’ve heard it a million times before. And it’s downright annoying and useless to be told it again.

Like Instagram and other forms of social media, this “positive thinking” movement seems to be about living up to an ideal standard of perceived perfection all the time. Not satisfied with looking “perfect,” now you’ve got to think perfectly, too.

It’s like something out of the film The Stepford Wives, where real people are replaced with robots. Denying our emotions is an insult to the journey of what it means to be a human being, and it does nothing to help people feel better.

Why It’s Okay to Be Down

Even the great saints and mystics weren’t this perfect. They had bad days, and they were open about it. Buddhism, for example, teaches in the Noble Truths that pain is universal and inevitable. Of course, there is a difference between “feeling down” and dealing with major depression, but for many of us the former evolves into the latter because we compound our feelings with self-judgment.

Unlike certain dubious New Age “teachings,” these authentic masters understood that negative thinking is part of the human journey, and that it’s okay to feel less than your best sometimes. And they also knew that it’s a quick route to self-hatred to expect any more of yourself.

Without going into the low emotions, we would not feel and appreciate the high emotions. And another thing: it’s the challenges that actually evolve the best times and bring the best out of us by strengthening our “mind” muscles.

Think of going to the gym and telling the trainer you want the ideal body but you don’t want any tension on your muscles. It’s the same with experiencing challenges. The tension of life evolves us. 

What to Do When You’re Feeling Low

When you’re feeling low, the mind races into overthinking and you start trying to figure out a way to get out of the mood. Although doing this makes sense, this is exactly what keeps you stuck there. Like fighting with a giant spider’s web, the more you try to escape, the more trapped you get.

Your Choice: To Fight or Relax

In the middle of a bad mood you think your option is to feel good or not—to “be positive” or “be negative.” But it isn’t. Your two choices are seemingly more limited than this: to be okay with the where you are, or fight against it.

The frightened mind really wants to overthink and so trying to “be positive” becomes near impossible Trying to “be positive” is actually self-criticism; it is sending the message that you “shouldn’t” feel bad. We look for books to help us—suggestions to help us get out of the mood—all the while anchoring deeper into the darkness.

Instead, you want to turn and face where you are. So in other words, you want to go with the anxietyrather than fight against it (and against yourself).

You may not want to be there, but that’s beside the point. Making peace with somewhere you don’t want to be seems illogical, but it’s a necessary step in moving to where you want to be.

Accepting All Parts of Life

Now, whenever I feel low, I know it’s not the end of the world; it’s part of life. When I feel this way, I also know that positive change is on its way. I know that my life is evolving; that new ideas are on their way.

Just as I don’t have a nervous breakdown at the gym when I feel tension in my muscles as I workout, I no longer fall apart when I feel the tension of life evolving me. I welcome it. I accept the process. And I accept myself even when I can’t accept the process in any moment. After all, I’m human.

Nothing has gone wrong if we find ourselves feeling less than our best sometimes, despite what we may have read.

Negative thinking will not make your world fall apart—quite the opposite. It is the source of our evolution. And the first step to feeling better is realizing it’s part of the process, and it’s okay. Just as what we resist, persists, it is only in acceptance that we can let go and move on to better feelings and better experiences.


Forget rearranging thoughts; trying to sift the positive from the negative. Those “new age” gimmicks will get you nowhere, kind of like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. To shift your life, a more “serious” approach is necessary. And that’s where meditation comes in. It’s something that’s been proven for centuries through all faiths and philosophies. In short: it works.

Through meditation, we come into the present moment and foster a sense of inner calm. It’s not about changing our thoughts. It’s about learning not to attach to them and diminishing their power over us.

Once you’ve made friends with exactly where you are, even with your negativity, a regular practice of meditation will make you less likely to be taken by those storms of negativity in the first place. But if they do take you down occasionally—and they probably will because that’s the journey of being human—you now know what to do about it.

If you are suffering from depression or anxiety I recommend that you find a professional to support you and not do this journey alone.

Michael James is one of the UK’s most revolutionary personal development teachers who shares ideas to help people empower themselves and live their best life. His book LIGHTHOUSE: Navigate the emotional storms and discover the power within you deals with what to do when you feel low – and is available through his website www.michaeljames.be.This site is not intended to provide and does not constitute medical, legal, or other professional advice. The content on Tiny Buddha is designed to support, not replace, medical or psychiatric treatment. Please seek professional care if you believe you may have a condition.Copyright © 2017
Tiny Buddha, LLC

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