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Why your positive self-talk fails

Updated: Jun 18

Black and white image of hand trying to catch rain. Positive self-talk runs through your fingers like water when you're stressed.

Have you ever tried focusing on positive thoughts as a way to calm yourself only to find yourself sucked into a vortex of cynicism and negativity? It might sound something like this:


  • I’m glad to have a good job that keeps food on the table even if I never get the credit I deserve for my hard work.

  • I’m a strong, brave individual who is making a difference in the world whether I ever amount to something worthwhile or not.


This is the primary reason I hate gratitude journals so much. No one can turn gratitude into a sour experience faster than I can. And the same is true for positive affirmations, compassionate self-talk and just about any other “top-down” healing method – even therapy (and especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).


When I’m caught in an emotional spiral, I don’t find myself credible enough to believe anything I tell myself. This is a natural, adaptive reaction under stress. In emergency situations, the “thinking brain” gets cut out from the decision-making process because the instinctual, “primitive brain” takes over: You don’t have time to think things through; you just need to act.


The trouble happens when we’re perceiving threat unconsciously and no threat is actually present. There’s no emergency but we’re overwhelmed with a sense that we’re at risk. That’s where the thinking brain gets utterly rejected because the primitive brain is half a mile down the road to “action” before the thinking brain even knows what’s going on.


When you’re in a high-stress state, positivity can be perceived as an enormous threat to your nervous system. 

It creates immediate cognitive dissonance – while your thinking mind saying everything is great, your body is already in a protective stance, and your primitive brain is unwilling to pass along conflicting information.


  • You can’t think your heartrate into slowing down once it’s at a gallop.

  • You can’t convince your hands to stop sweating or your muscles to relax.

  • Maybe you can unclench your fist, but then your toes curl to carry the tension instead.


The only way to communicate so that your body will hear you is to speak its own language, and that’s what I mean by taking a “bottom-up” approach to create safety in your nervous system.


What language does it speak? The language of sensations.


  • The feeling of a deep and relaxing exhale, like a sigh.

  • The relief from releasing some tears.

  • The comfort that comes from a beloved scent.

  • The calm that comes from a soft blanket or smooth stone.


But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Did you know you can also gently bounce yourself up and down like mothers do to calm an infant? Just stand up, bend slightly at the knees, and bob up and down at a nice pace for 30 seconds. Feel how your entire system comes into equilibrium!


Once your nervous system feels safe enough to relax, then it will start entertaining the top-down information you want to give it. That’s why your positivity practice works some days but completely abandons you when you’re overwhelmed with worry or flattened with exhaustion.


Give it a try: Next time you’re struggling to feel even a hint of positivity in a flood of stress, speak the language of your nervous system and go “bottom-up” to make it feel safe enough to trust yourself again.

Want to learn more simple tools like bouncing? Check out my available video courses here.

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