Have you noticed when the phrase “positive thinking” pops up, the phrase often triggers a range of reactions?

If you scoff at “positive thinking” or if you accept that having a positive mindset is a powerful and authentic tool for success, but not one you’ve managed to actually develop, then I can relate to you.

My experience with “positive thinking” has followed a winding path characterized by extremes and then the proverbial middle way where I found an authentic power that belies the extremes of pessimism and optimism.

Three Phases of a Positive Thinking Journey

Phase #1: Positive Mindset—Shut Up!

Most of my adult life I scoffed at advocates of positive thinking. “That’s nonsense for the naïve and gullible or those who can’t see the world for what it is.” Positive thinking as a solution to challenges seemed unrealistic, akin to wishful thinking, and overly simplistic.

Maybe positive thinking worked for those who were lucky enough to be born with an optimistic nature, I imagined. But my glass was always half-empty. Sure, I knew happiness was possible, and I experienced happiness. But I was convinced such momentary pleasures came and went according to the degree of my success, the whims and moods of other people in my life, and the current status of my circumstances.

Phase #2: Positive Mindset—Fantastic!

In the last decade my understanding of and openness to positive thinking shifted significantly! I embraced these ideas as powerful, evidence-based, inspiring, my aspiration, my practice, the secret to success as well as the source of daily satisfaction! Wow, wow, wow!!

I took a deep dive into positive psychology, Carol Dweck’s research on Growth Mindset, and the many new insights emerging from neuroscience research regarding mindset and happiness. This research was far more sophisticated than the simplistic, positive thinking I’d previously rejected! I noticed positive thinking worked for real people, people I’d met. What was not to love about the power of the mind to generate positive emotions with positive thoughts?

Could I make this work? Yes, with greater knowledge, determination, and effort I could become an optimistic, positive person!! Hey—I am becoming an optimistic positive person, aren’t I?

Why is it that KNOWING something intellectually does NOT make the knowledge real in your life? I KNEW positive thinking was powerful. I’d experienced glimpses of it. But I shamefully knew I often fell back to my fixed mindset of seeing and believing more powerfully in the obstacles than the possibilities.

Phase #3: Positive Mindset—The Middle Way

In the last few years, my middle way of thinking emerged as I understood the nuances better and deepened my own practice of positive thinking. Less reading and more doing! This middle way feels authentic, fully aligned with how I understand the human experience, and even more powerful than my big whole-hearted embrace of positive thinking.

This middle way sheds light on why accepting the knowledge that a positive mindset is powerful, if not essential, isn’t enough to actually develop a positive mindset that habitually looks to find a positive perspective. Plus, the middle way allowed me to accept my longer-term pessimistic perspective with deeper understanding, compassion, and less judgment.

Finding the Middle Way Necessitated Understanding That:

  1. My negative thinking, fixed mindset, excessive analyzing of the problem’s source, and emphasis on obstacles to every solution were rooted in my conditioned mind, which automatically generated a REACTION. Learn more in the Brain’s Two Systems: FAST & SLOW
  2. If I noticed my REACTION, I could then choose a RESPONSE that was not rooted in my conditioning; a RESPONSE that created possibilities rather than obstacles; a RESPONSE that generated positive emotions; a RESPONSE that would create new neural pathways that could yield new, more positive REACTIONS in the future.

The KEY insight for me was growing to appreciate the Space between my (1) REACTION and (2) RESPONSE. 

Something powerful can happen in that space between my REACTION and RESPONSE. Without that powerful experience I’m not able authentically to embrace positive thoughts that generate authentically positive emotions. I’m growing to understand that I can invite the possibility of that powerful shift when I become:

  • Aware that I’m experiencing thoughts filled with conditioned reactions
  • Aware of what those thoughts are
  • Aware that those thoughts about the situation are generating the feelings I’m experiencing not the actual situation
  • Aware that some of those thoughts aren’t terribly rational
  • Aware that the power those thoughts have is the power I give them
  • Aware that I have a strong tendency to defend the thought and beliefs embedded in that initial REACTION
  • Aware that I can a choose NOT to stay trapped in the REACTION even though that’s my familiar, go-to default choice
  • Aware that I can shift my attention, find a different perspective, and nurture my growing positive mindset

Awareness: The Authentic Power

Awareness is what brings the knowledge about a positive mindset to life. Something powerful happens in allowing that Awareness to develop. Once the Awareness reveals the REACTION for what it really is, I have room to doubt it. Once I can see that REACTION with some distance, with some skepticism, and with some compassion, I’m then able, with much greater ease, to shift my attention to thoughts that create possibilities rather than obstacles. Awareness creates an environment for a positive mindset to take root and grow!


If you haven’t yet experienced the power a positive mindset can provide, shift your focus away from looking for the power in the positive mindset. Look instead at the thoughts that emerge the next time you have a negative emotional reaction. Look with curiosity and skepticism at those thoughts. Look without judgment or expectation. Just look and see what Awareness might emerge.

Photo by Peter Boccia on Unsplash