By: Dr. Erica Wollerman
I know, I know, as a therapist I am supposed to be all about positive thinking. For a while, I even tried out the whole “positive thinking” thing and would just try to wash away my so-called negative thoughts with positive ones. It was certainly appealing to think that if I just think “positive,” I would feel better! Honestly, it did not work so well for me and I notice in my work with people that it often leads to people feeling worse. I’m sure many of you have had this experience too, where you are talking about something difficult in your life and someone says something like, “it’ll be okay, just think positive” or another offender, “it could always be worse, or that sounds like a first world problem.” How do you end up feeling after that kind of comment? Often, invalidated, judged, and like you are totally misunderstood. Or, you might then start trying to think positive and not be able to do it (because you are a person and feelings are a natural part of life but more on that later), and then you judge yourself for not being able to be a “better, more positive person.” Somehow we have begun deeming thinking only positive thoughts and feeling only positive feelings as a goal or judgment of our worth as a person in our society.
What I find to be really interesting is how often this message of “I should just think positive” comes into my therapy sessions with clients of all ages. This focus on “positivity” tells me a lot about our current culture and thoughts about coping and mental health. Unfortunately while I think positive thinking culture and the people who advocate for it mean very well, I think the message that “if we can just think positive, everything will go away and we'll feel great” is a real problem. This message tells us that unpleasant things, emotions, situations, or thoughts essentially just need to be suffocated with positivity and to go away. Some of you may wonder why that is a problem. Shouldn’t unpleasant things just go away? I would say no, they should not just go away at all for many reasons.
6 Reasons Why Positive Thinking Can be a Problem:
1. It is not realistic:
It is not possible to be positive all the time because that would mean that we avoid feelings we deem to be “negative.” However, ALL feelings are important, valuable, and necessary in life (even the uncomfortable and downright unpleasant ones). Our emotions are essential cues to our environments and we need all of them, even the ones we would rather avoid like shame, dread, jealousy, fear, or insecurity.
2. Avoiding unpleasant emotions does not make them go away:
Unfortunately, our emotions do not just go away because we avoid them or ignore them. They tend to build up inside and fester and grow, becoming more challenging to deal with in the long run, though this may feel good temporarily. The analogy I like to use is of a soda bottle being shaken up, that is exactly what it is like when we hold in unpleasant emotions, at some point they will come out or we will need to do more and more to keep our semblance of control over them. Unfortunately, this can lead to even more unhealthy coping patterns such as addictions, self-injury, or damage in our relationships.
3. Positive thinking can lead to denial of our challenges:
If we think that we are only supposed to think and feel positive things, we might glaze over the challenges we have had in our lives. This means that we would be less likely to share our struggles, integrate them into who we are now, and truly live authentic lives with meaningful connections with others. I believe that connecting with others in a meaningful, authentic, genuine way is not possible if we do not know how to discuss our challenges. This one actually leads right into my next reason…
4. If we avoid thinking deeply about our challenges we will also avoid getting to a place of learning from our challenges
As I mentioned above, not thinking about our struggles can lead to less authentic connections with others but it can also lead to less authentic connections with ourselves where we simply try to avoid the parts of ourselves or our lives that have been less than great. As a therapist, I believe that the most important thing we can do is to look at our struggles and challenges in detail to learn from them and understand ourselves better. If we just glaze over challenges though, this learning becomes impossible and we might even keep repeating unhealthy patterns or relationships in our lives.
5. It perpetuates our happiness, or problem free life infatuation
I notice that our culture seems to encourage an almost infatuation with “happiness” or not having problems. I think this is fascinating because I am of the belief that suffering and problems are inherent in being human. We are going to struggle but we are also going to have some amazing successes and you most likely can’t have one without the other. Positive thinking seems to tell you that if you just thought positively, everything in your life would be positive and you would have no problems or struggles at all. You would just be happy all the time.
The challenge is that happiness is not meant to be an ongoing, persistent feeling. Happiness, like all other emotions is a temporary state. All emotions are temporary the lovely ones, the not so lovely ones, and everything in between. Who wants to spend their life feeling jealous, insecure, shame, or guilt. No one. However, without the darker side of emotions we really wouldn't have capacity for the more pleasant ones. They are flipsides of the same coin and we really do need them both.
6. It perpetuates the stigma of mental illness
As a therapist, this is one of the most concerning effects of the positive thinking movement, that somehow depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive behaviors could somehow just be fixed by “positive thinking.” This grossly oversimplifies what people truly need to do to help themselves recover or manage these challenges and suggests that we can just magically think them away. As a therapist who witnesses the challenges of somebody with significant symptoms of any kind I find this to be deeply disturbing as well as deeply offensive.
In sum, while I do recognize some benefits of having a positive mindset (I’ll talk more about these in my next blog in this series), I believe that the incredible push towards only positive thinking has a lot of drawbacks and negative consequences in our ability to manage, cope with, and tolerate “negative” thoughts and feelings.
I'd like to propose something different and what I believe to be more effective actually. Realistic thinking. This is thinking that lives in the middle of completely negative thinking and completely positive thinking. Check out more in my next blog in this series where I discuss what Realistic Thinking looks like!
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