The ‘Tyranny’ of Positive Thinking

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A friend posted this article about the pitfalls of positive psychology on Facebook this morning, and gosh– it resonated.

I’ve honestly been annoyed by the concept of positive thinking for a long time. It seems like most of the time, when someone tells urges you to be more “positive,” what they really mean is that they’re tired of listening to you.

The whole idea of trying to “block out” negative thoughts never made sense to me. If you have a problem, shouldn’t you try to solve it? Pretending the problem doesn’t exist isn’t going to make it go away. You have these feelings for a reason. It’s gut instinct trying to tell you that something is wrong and needs to change.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time battling health issues that appeared to many people to be “in her head,” I’ve probably been accused of dwelling on the negative more than the average person. (But probably not more than most of my fellow health bloggers– I know you guys will know what I mean!).

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I had never really considered how that mindset might be unique to where I live (the Northeastern US) until I spoke with my friend M., who is from Costa Rica. She told me that, since moving to the US several years ago, she feels a definite pressure to sweep problems under the rug and always appear cheerful– a pressure that was not there back home.

In Costa Rica, M. says, people have more of an understanding that problems are part of life, and that we all need to find someone else to listen once in a while. When you’re experiencing a crisis, it’s not so much a reflection on you as a person, like it is in the US. It’s more that it’s your turn to go through an aspect of life that everyone experiences occasionally.

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Well, this Newsweek article totally backs M. and me up.

The author, Morgan Mitchell, cites several studies that have demonstrated that there are drawbacks, and even potential dangers, of positive psychology (and its less-nuanced cousin, positive thinking).

For example, Mitchell cites a recent study by Karen Coifman et al., which found that “when people acknowledge and address negative emotions toward their relationships or chronic illnesses, it helps them adjust their behavior and have more appropriate responses. Those negative emotions, in turn, benefit their overall psychological health. ”

That’s exactly what I’ve been saying. You need to fully experience the negative emotions you have, so that you can process them and then get to a better place emotionally.

Mitchell also references a study by Elizabeth Kneeland and colleagues, which “concluded that people who think emotions are easily influenced and changeable are more likely to blame themselves for the negative emotions they feel than people who think emotions are fixed and out of their control.”

In other words, people who view their own negative response to a given situation as a reflection of their own shortcomings are most likely to feel badly about themselves. To me this seems like a complete waste of energy– instead of judging yourself for your emotional response to something, wouldn’t it be better to focus on doing whatever it takes to create a better situation?

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As much as I know “positive thinking” annoys me on principle, this is still something I’m struggling with. To let myself experience a difficult situation and, instead of judging myself for the way I react, to recognize that there is actually some wisdom in that reaction. My truest and deepest self is letting me know that this situation is not okay for me, and I need to take steps to change it.

It’s okay if things don’t always work out. It’s okay if something you thought was going to be great turns out not to be.

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One of my favorite bloggers, Beauty Beyond Bones, wrote a post about a similar situation the other day. She found herself in a professional situation where she did not feel respected, and was not being compensated adequately. After some time, she made the difficult decision to stand up for herself, despite the potential consequences it could have for her career. She wrote,

“Our actions, whether consciously or unconsciously, communicate messages to ourselves. What do we think we’re worth? Do I allow someone to walk all over me? Am I completely upending my life to meet the needs of someone who doesn’t even respect my time when I’m there?

I am worth respect. I am worth honesty. I am worth dignity.”

This is what I believe. Sometimes, when you really just feel awful about a certain situation, and the feelings don’t go away– those feelings are there for a reason. Instead of wasting time judging ourselves, or fearing others will judge us for our response, we need to trust that inner voice that tells us where we need to be.

Trust Your Nervous System photo courtesy of Cliph

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5 thoughts on “The ‘Tyranny’ of Positive Thinking

  1. I respectfully disagree on some parts, although I do agree that when dealing with depression and anxiety, the whole just be positive movement is shaming bullshit and unhelpful. But “positive psychology” is also technically cognitive behavioral therapy, which is about changing dysfunctional emotions. For me, positive thinking means to not dwell/ruminate on the bad things (not ignore or sweep under a rug) and try to remember to spend energy thinking about the good things I have in my life.

    Specifically with my chronic illness, I don’t want to allow my thoughts to fall into a hole of “why me-s”. I am not pushing away a helpful thought process, I am stepping away from an unproductive one. I do agree with what you are saying, that we have our feelings for a reason and we should move through them and resolve them…but for me, sometimes positive thinking helps me do that.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rene! You raise some really good points. I don’t think I made this very clear in my post, but my issue is more with the pressure to be positive in our culture as a whole. The article talks about the differences between positive psychology, which I think can be really helpful when applied in a thoughtful manner, and the general “positive thinking” movement, which can sometimes have the effect of causing people to think there’s something wrong with them if they can’t be cheerful all the time. I agree that CBT can be really helpful for giving people a way to restructure their thoughts.

      I’m so glad you’ve found something that is helpful to you!

  2. I agree Christy! There’s too much emphasis on positive thinking in the U.S. In other cultures this makes no sense, as you’ve already pointed out. There’s a lot of fake smiling in the U.S as a result of this “tyranny of positive thinking”. I think this is closely interrelated with the self-esteem movement, which claims that children who struggle in school would do better if they got a self-esteem boost. Studies indicate that academic success has little to do with self-esteem.

  3. The method is only really applicable to the first world, where people often have so little actual problems, and those they do have are so small, that they can just ignore them and get by fine. Which is fine. But people who’ve gotten by on that, are usually useless when a real problem comes – more often than not, getting in the way with their fanciful suggestions to “be positive”.

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