The Hidden Dangers in Positive Thinking


The positive thinking movement provokes very mixed feelings for me. On the one hand, I appreciate the value inherent in positive thinking practices like gratitude, appreciation, and so on. On the other, I feel wary of any approach that attempts to mould our natural thinking in a certain way.I know that many people have found positive thinking and positive psychology life-changing; I've definitely picked up some helpful practises from them too, especially around gratitude and appreciation.But I still feel wary. Not about the positive psychology movement per se, but about this pressure to 'think positive' that permeates our culture - the kind that results in people saying "Smile, it might never happen!" or "Children in Africa have nothing to eat so you should be grateful for whatever you're given" and other equally patronising don't-give-a-&*^%-about-your-feelings statements.

Why I Love Positive Thinking

If we want something to change, we either need to change ourselves, change our external situation, or both.When we realise that we need to change something inside ourselves, that realisation lands as a hard truth. We are all human, so we're totally capable of overlooking the things that are going well in our lives, we are capable of being grumpy to people we love, and we're capable of focusing on everything that feeds our negative beliefs about ourselves (while filtering out the stuff that shows those beliefs to be wrong).I see the value in gratitude practises and I see the value in having an optimistic outlook on life. It's important to me to criticise through creation, and focus on using the good in the world, rather than focusing on trying to change the bad.Consciously using gratitude and appreciation in my own life has had a massive impact on my sense of fulfilment. I make an effort to be mindful of what I have to be grateful for in my life every day. My partner and I also have a daily appreciation practise, where we tell each other all the things we appreciate about the other person from the last 24 hours. These things, and more, have improved the overall quality of my life and the quality of my relationships.

The Hidden Dangers in Positive Thinking

So positive thinking has benefits; I totally agree with that. At the same time, I'm aware of a subtle yet important difference between gaining benefits from this way of thinking, and self-identifying with this way of thinking.When we subscribe to a certain movement or way of life, what happens when we want to do something that is true to ourselves but steps outside that way of life?For several years until October 2012, I identified as a vegetarian. Then, last autumn, I started having strange desires. I would take a second look at chicken dishes on menus, I thought about trying lasagne and, oh my god, did I crave hoisin duck. Wanting these things totally jarred with my self-concept of being a vegetarian, and I realised that I was staying vegetarian because I was attached to the label of being vegetarian, not because I actually wanted to be vegetarian.When we attach ourselves to the idea of positive thinking, or any way of living, we risk denying our true experience of what we really feel and want. One of the potential pit-falls with positive thinking is that we cross the line between using it as a helpful tool, and thinking of it as a "should".When we put pressure on ourselves to think positive all the time, we're not being real.Rhonda Byrne and other Law of Attraction enthusiasts promote the idea that it's all about attitude, and a lot of it is. As humans, we're perfectly capable of self-sabotaging our experience of life by dwelling on what is going, or might go, wrong, rather than what's going right.Changing our attitudes, however, will only get us so far: to be able to reallymake that shift and respect all parts of ourselves in the process, we need to spend time understanding and identifying why we're catastrophising in the first place.Here's the hidden danger in positive thinking: when we become attached to 'thinking positively', we risk lose our genuine experience, we lose touch with ourselves, and we give the 'shoulds' and the 'oughts' an opportunity to pop up and start criticising us for not thinking positively.All parts of our internal dialogue exist to protect or help us in some way - even if they have a funny way of showing it. When we can understand and empathise with how our 'negative' emotions, catastrophising or 'negative' thinking might be trying to help us, we can shift our thinking from self-defeating spirals to self-supporting structures.

When life gives you lemons...

Think of it this way: When life gives us lemons, we have several options.We can just sit and look at the lemons: yep, there they are - big, juicy, sour lemons (dwelling on the negative)We can ignore the lemons in the room and pretend that nothing happened (dissociation/repression/avoidance)We can say: "Getting lemons is hard and testing but I'm so glad it happened because these lemons remind me of all the good things in my life" - all great, except at the end of the day we still have those lemons (positive thinking)We can notice that life has given us lemons, spend some time understanding what the lemons are for, and eventually realise we can add a little sugar and use them to make lemonade (empathising with our internal dialogue and processing our experiences)

How I use positive thinking

I've gained most benefit from positive thinking when things have been going well, not when they haven't. Positive thinking is a prevention, not a cure. When we're meeting our needs and feeling fulfilled, that's the time to engage in positive thinking and take stock of all that is joyous, spectacular and celebration-worthy in life. As we practise positive thinking, we might find that those times increase in frequency and volume.And there will be other times when it's compassion, not positive thinking, that will help us the most.I experience times when it feels impossible to think positively. Even when I see all the good things in my life on an intellectual level, I find it hard to feel them. In the past, I've experienced periods of depression, I've gone about as low as I think (and hope) it's possible for me to go.Positive thinking didn't help during those periods, because at that time it wasn't real. Yes, I can force myself to think positively (and I've tried) but it didn't help because I wasn't meeting my needs by doing that.What did help was taking a step back from being in the feeling and thinking "I notice that I'm feeling very low right now and that's OK; this is where I'm at."No trying to change it, no trying to tell myself to snap out of it, just awareness, understanding and the seeds of self-compassion.I'll leave you with this question: Do you want to be positive, or do you want to be real?Photo Credit: © 2006-2013 Pink Sherbet Photography via Compfightcc