The pitfalls of positive thinking

Has someone ever tried to cheer you up by saying, “Just think positive’? Or ever said that if you ‘Just think positive’ you’ll overcome an illness or stressful situation? Maybe you’ve told yourself you need to ‘Just think positive’ to achieve success and happiness.

Well if so, how did that work out? Were you easily able to ‘just think positive’ despite your sadness, worry or distress? And did positive thinking bring the change you expected?

Positive thinking is not as easy as it sounds, and in fact, the magical benefits of positive thinking are a myth.

It is true that research tells us people who are naturally optimistic generally feel happier and confront challenges more openly. Studies also tell us that when people try to think positively it can influence their mood in a positive way for a while.

But it is a myth that positive thinking alone can get to you to your goals, cure illness, improve relationships, bring wealth and success, or any of the other grand claims that are often made about positive thinking.

What’s more, our society’s focus on the ‘power of positive thinking’ has some pitfalls:

1) Believing that you must think positive at all times can actually leave you feeling guilty or like a failure.

If you are a human being, it is normal to feel the whole range of human emotions, from happiness and joy through to anger and sadness. It is also normal for humans to have a wide range of thoughts, from the positive and affirming through to the negative and self-critical. It simply isn’t realistic to think positive at all times. But if you believe you should, then you are setting yourself up for disappointment and feelings of guilt and failure if you are unable to do so.

2) Positive thinking can set up unrealistic expectations.

If you buy into the idea that positive thinking alone will bring happiness, health or success and those things do not manifest, you will be disappointed and perhaps feel resentful.

Thinking doesn’t make it so. Thoughts are just thoughts. Thinking positively in and of itself will not manifest your goals or desires. You still have to set realistic goals, work within your means, take active steps toward change and have the knowledge, skills and motivation to do so.

3) The notion of positive thinking essentially blames people for their suffering, illness or difficulties.

Stressful life events can happen out of our control and all the positive thinking in the world won’t prevent that. So the suggestion that people can control their lives through the power of positive thought, even in the face of uncontrollable stressful events, seems unfair and unkind. No-one invites illness, trauma, loss or any challenges into their lives by not thinking positively enough.

4) Trying to control the type of thoughts you have is futile, if not impossible.

Have you ever tried not to think about something upsetting or unpleasant? How did you go? Not too great? That’s right, because deliberately trying not to have certain thoughts (in this case, negative thoughts) just draws our attention to them and helps them grow.

5) Positive thinking can act as a band-aid.

People can use positive thinking as a band-aid that helps them avoid the underlying issues in their life. Positive thinking can work briefly to help us feel better, but the band-aid either falls off or needs to be ripped off eventually, leaving behind the problem.

6) Positive thinking can prevent us feeling difficult emotions and miss opportunities for change.

Sometimes we need to feel despair, anger or worry to help us notice the things that aren’t working in our lives. Our emotions and difficult thoughts can point us in the direction of change, and be a catalyst to move toward a more full and meaningful life.

So next time you tell yourself to ‘Just think positive’, or a well-meaning friend suggests the same, be kind to yourself if you find it hard to do. You are a human after all.

Remember, there are some negatives to thinking positive, and maybe it’s okay to make some space for your difficult thoughts and feelings.

Nicole Ferrar
Clinical Psychologist

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