Think on the Bright Side and Be Positive, Said No CBT Therapist Ever

May 9, 2019

Most of us have heard of the expression of seeing the glass as half-full or half-empty, meaning a positive or negative outlook. Growing up, my dad often told me the glass wasn’t half-full or half-empty – it was both. This idea stayed in my head until graduate school, when I learned about cognitive appraisal/reappraisal. This “both” theory is at the core of cognitive behavioral therapy.

It’s common to have some unhelpful thinking patterns, such as all-or-nothing thinking, catastrophizing, and fortunetelling. At times, these can cause frustration or a short-term change of emotions. However, when thinking traps become more the rule than the exception, our view of our lives as well as the world and people around us becomes clouded and negatively impacts our emotions and behaviors. Although some might notice these patterns in others and encourage the “glass half-full” perspective, the reality is, not only is that unhelpful but it’s not easy to accomplish. If “thinking on the bright side” were so easy, it would make sense that people suffering would have already tried this – many times over. These unsuccessful attempts might result in the person feeling not only upset about the original problem but defeated for these “failed” attempts at thinking positively.

If looking on the bright side isn’t a realistic choice, and continuing as-is isn’t a pleasant prospect, what other options are there?

A more realistic and accurate approach.

The first step is to learn how to self-identify unhelpful thinking patterns, and correct problematic thinking by challenging thoughts and examining thoughts from a different perspective. Again, not a “positive” perspective or “looking on the bright side,” but exploring what else might be going on or what other possible outcomes exist.

Using an example of little importance, consider ordering a dinner at a new restaurant. A glass-half-full person might think, “This is going to be the best meal of my life,” while a glass-half-empty patron might think, “This restaurant is new, so the chef and staff are new, so the meal will be terrible.” Realistically, the meal is unlikely to be either the best or worst the customer has ever had. There might be some positives as well as some pitfalls, as the restaurant is finding its footing. Entering the situation with this realistic perspective allows for a more accurate and open-minded opinion of the restaurant’s actual performance.

In some cases, the realistic perspective might be a negative one. If a person doesn’t care for country music but goes to a country music concert, it’s unlikely the concertgoer will love the show. Similarly, if someone is a fan of Nicolas Sparks, it’s likely the reader will enjoy his next book. However, both of these examples are shades of gray – likely or unlikely. Nothing is guaranteed.

Implementing this change in strategy is challenging for most. It takes time and effort. This might include tracking thoughts and subsequent emotions, and, after identifying patterns of situations or places where thinking errors were frequent, taking active steps to challenge thinking the next time a person is presented with such a situation.

Again, this isn’t easy, but the payoffs, in the forms of changed mood or how interactions with others unfold, are often worth the work. However, there are no guarantees. So, consider approaching this technique with the hope it will be effective, but the understanding that it’s challenging and doesn’t work for everyone. See? Realistic and accurate.