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The pitfalls of positive thinking

Have you ever had someone try and cheer you up when you are down by telling you ‘Just be positive’ ?

How did that work out for you? Did you instantly stop feeling sad? Did the tears magically disappear from your eyes? Probably not.

Contrary to popular belief, positive thinking alone does not help you achieve your goals, improve relationships or overcome difficulties. It is true that optimism and positive thinking have been linked to improved mood and motivation, but this is only one part of the picture.

In fact the term ‘positive thinking’ itself has been misconstrued over the years. Towards the end of the 20th century, the humanistic psychology movement and later the positive psychology movement originated. These approaches emphasise that rather than focusing purely on what is ‘wrong’ with mental health (the ‘disease model’), we should also emphasise people’s strengths, inner resources and capacity for resilience.

The trouble began when, in response to these approaches, a whole self-help culture evolved around the idea that an optimistic mindset could transform lives. The whole idea behind Positive Psychology became reduced to just ‘positive thinking’.

Positive thinking has its benefits, but not in the all-encompassing way that self-help books talk about. Furthermore, there may be times where positive thinking does more harm than good.

Here are some ways in which positive thinking could go wrong:

  • When it fosters denial: Positive thinking may contribute to denial of problems or failure to look at the very real cons to making a decision or taking some action. It may act as a temporary relief from discomfort but often results in us ignoring the deep-rooted issues underlying our problems.

  • When it is used as a ‘cure-all’ : Positive thinking is often marketed as a quick-fix for any and all problems an individual may face. This is obviously not the case, optimism and faith aren’t the only tools we need to work through a problem.

  • When it shames and blames: Positive thinking has become so deeply embedded in our culture that phrases like ‘be positive’ and ‘all is well’ have become a go-to response to anyone who opens up about their struggles. This reflects the idea that you should be able to control negative thoughts and if you’re unable to do so you are responsible for your own suffering. This perspective overlooks the very real painful and traumatic experiences that individuals have had. It’s one thing to celebrate the resilience and resources that helped someone survive a trauma but it’s quite another to shame a person for experiencing the symptoms of these traumas.

  • When it disconnects us from our emotions : Part of being human is being able to feel all our emotions, ranging from joy and happiness to sadness, anger or fear. Each of these emotions help us function on a daily basis. Positive thinking may restrict us to just the happy or comfortable emotions which can deprive us of an important tool for survival.

  • When it creates unrealistic expectations: Believing that positive thinking alone will bring success and happiness will inevitably lead to disappointment. In addition to positive thinking, effective goal setting, gathering resources and making active efforts towards change are also important.

  • When it prevents change and growth : Painful thoughts and feelings tell us when things aren’t working out the way we want. This can motivate us to change and grow instead of being stuck in a life that’s not fulfilling.

  • When it stops people from getting help : Hearing phrases such as ‘stay positive’, ‘it’s all in your thinking’ can discourage people from opening up about their struggles and getting help which could have negative effects in the long run.

Recent research has worked on refining the narrative on ‘positive thinking’. One such study conducted in 2011 had college students fantasise about a goal (e.g. getting an A on a test) and measured how it affected their actual behaviour. They found that those who had realistic or even pessimistic fantasies were more motivated to work towards actualising these goals than those with positive fantasies. They concluded that when we have a positive fantasy of achieving a goal, our minds get tricked into thinking we actually achieved it which removes the incentive to work towards them in real life.

So how can we use positive thinking effectively? We find a more balanced way of thinking. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is an evidence-based approach to therapy that emphasises examining our thought patterns in an objective and realistic manner. One CBT exercise involves identifying the extremes of negative and positive thoughts about a given situation and finding a balanced thought, one that falls between these two extremes. Another way to address the pitfalls of positive thinking is to find an alternative. One of these could be self-compassion or the practice of loving kindness towards the self. Rather than denying the existence of pain and suffering, this approach involves offering warmth, care and understanding to yourself in these difficult moments. This means that instead of ignoring negative feelings, you stop and tell yourself ‘This is really difficult right now, how can I take care of myself at this moment?’

The bottom line is that ‘positive thinking’ while helpful, can be easily misused and misconstrued. And it’s important not to deny the role of negative thoughts and emotions. They are appropriate responses when bad things happen. Additionally, they can also motivate us to make changes and live life based on our values.

Written By - Riea Enok (Psychotherapist at The Mood Space)

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