The Myth of Positive Thinking (And Why It's So Dangerous)

The Myth of Positive Thinking (and why it’s so dangerous)

Positive Thinking paints such a nice picture, doesn't it? “Positive thoughts lead to positive outcomes.” “Positive thinking can achieve the impossible.” Blah blah blah.

Don't worry. I am, by and large, a far more positive person than I am a negative person. I choose to see the good in most people, I choose to cling to the bright side of most situations. I give the benefit of the doubt much more often than I probably should. However, positive thinking has very little to do with whether or not you're a positive person.

And as a writer, someone who is more susceptible to poor self care, I've found that the difference between being a positive person and being a positive thinker is very important. I talk about self-care a lot on this blog. And understanding the subtlety of positive thinking and what that entails plays a large part in self care for writers.

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Positive Thinking, In a Nutshell

Positive thinking is, essentially, maintaining focused optimism. Positive thinkers are believed to be more successful in their businesses and relationships and happier overall. And it's not necessarily because they are living in a fantasy world or that they don't acknowledge the negativities surrounding them — they simply choose not to focus on those things.

But it also goes much deeper than that. Positive thinkers tend to be more confident and take more risks. If these risks don't pan out, the positive thinker coughs it up to a learning experience: I know not to try that again. But if that risk does pay off, it affirms the positive thinker's beliefs. Either way, the positive thinker is more likely to take even more risks and, naturally, see better results than people who don't take as many risks.

Positive thinking is also believed to help lower stress and strengthen the body's immune system, having a direct impact on a positive thinker's physical health and well being.

So, if positive thinking does all this amazing stuff, I'm sure you're wondering why I'm calling it a myth, right?

Positive Thinking Simply isn't Enough

You can train yourself to think on the positive side of just about anything. You can also force yourself to look at the bright side of just about everything. But looking at the bright side doesn't get rid of the negative things that may be going on around you. All it does is shift your focus away from those negative things.

In some cases, a shift in focus away from the negative is a good thing. Some people get so focused on the negative things happening that they become almost stuck — they can't see the positive so they can't believe in it.

It's Okay to Acknowledge the Negative

If you are in a car accident (knock on wood) and afterward you think “at least I am alive” — that is positive thinking. As your friends and family come to check on you, and you share this thought with each of them, that is all looking at the bright side. Yes, you're alive. Yes, it could have gone so much worse. But…

  • Your car is still wrecked.
  • You're still in pain.
  • There may still be a financial backlash.

Your positive thinking doesn't get rid of these things. And it doesn't mean you can't be upset about these things. These are not good things to have happen. It does not make you a negative person to be angry or upset when they do happen. In fact, often ignoring or suppressing your feelings of anger over these things is unhealthy.

A Problem is a Problem, No Matter How Small

One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone has a legitimate complaint and they try to lighten it up or make it less important. “I know it's a first world problem, but…my cable is out again.” Or, even worse, when someone complains about something and someone else tells them they shouldn't be upset because there are bigger problems in the world.

You know what? The majority of my work is done online and when my cable goes out I can't get paid. That is a problem.

The fact that other people are starving in other parts of the world doesn't mean that my problem isn't a problem; or that I shouldn't be upset about my problem. Nor am I trying to say that my problem is on scale with their problem. However, at that moment in time, the more relevant problem to me is my cable and my resulting paycheck.

And getting upset about my problem doesn't make me a negative person.

And it won't make you a negative person either.

So-Called Positive Thinkers are often the Most Negative Toward Others

My number one problem with this popular psychology that all it takes is positive thinking to make your dreams come true is that it comes with a terrible dark side: positive thinkers often see everyone else as the problem.

I'm sure you've seen these phrases all over the place. “Get out of your own way.” “Where there's a will there's a way.” “If you really want it, you'll find a way to make it work.”

Positive thinking has led to people honestly believing that anyone else who is struggling is only doing so because they are thinking negative.

Let me tell you a story. Roughly 18 months ago, I signed up for a webinar. Part of the perks of paying for this webinar was access to an exclusive group on Facebook where we could ask questions and just hang out with the host of this webinar. All was good until someone asked whether or not there would be a replay available. The answer was no. My jaw dropped. What does she mean no? How could there not be a replay?

Now, at the time, I had a lot of stuff going on in my life. My husband and our then-two-year-old had just moved out of a shelter and were renting a small trailer out in the middle of the desert. Internet was nonexistent; I had to use my cellphone as a hotspot if I wanted to get online. Which meant carefully watching my data because the plan I had at the time only gave me so much data I could use. We were still clawing our way back from homelessness and we still had very little to eat, had to get gas in the car so he could get to work — needless to say we were watching every penny.

And that meant trying to head out to the library so I could use their wifi for things like webinars. The only problem was: her webinar was at the same time my husband had to work. Which meant no Internet for me. I was counting on being able to see the replay.

Yet, when I asked why and tried to explain my situation, the host callously said: “if you really want it, you'll find a way to make it happen.”

What? Somehow this woman had made up her mind that if I couldn't make it to the live webinar that I had paid for, that it meant I simply didn't want it bad enough. Nevermind the bills and the issues, the lack of Internet, or anything else. She called those things excuses.

Last I checked, needing to buy food to feed a two-year-old was not an excuse.

Needless to say, I asked for my money back. And she refused — it was written on her lead page that the cost of the webinar was nonrefundable — something else she said was tied to thinking: “If people have to pay for it, they're more likely to come. If you offer a refund, they'll just flake.”

Unfortunately, she's not alone in this way of thinking. People become so caught up in this positive thinking vs negativity mindtrap that they blame people who aren't successful for their own hurdles. Their positive thinking has, essentially, turned them into a negative person. Or at the very least a person whom I don't want to be around. Because now on top of a person's struggle, there's a layer of blame and a side of criticism to go along with it.

“You're struggling, and it's your fault. And if you can't see that, then you're thinking about it all wrong.”

Doesn't sound very positive, does it?

(Also, no, I never did get my money back. Nor was I able to make it to her live. And though I appealed several times, the author of this workshop continued to call me a problem hiding behind my excuses).

Mindset is far more Powerful than Positive Thinking will Ever Be

Mindset is all about your relationship with your mind.

And let me tell you something — it is far more powerful than positive thinking will ever be. Don't get me wrong, I do think that positive thinking is powerful. And I do believe that positive thinking can get you pretty far. But not nearly as far as mindset. And mindset will get you there without all those negative side effects.

Positive thinking relies on your power to control your own thoughts — which requires conscious effort. That's why advocates of positive thinking recommend daily affirmations and purposely turning away from the negative.

Mindset allows you to focus inwardly on more than just your thoughts. Our minds are constantly on the go — constantly producing more thoughts. It's impossible to control every single one of them. Not only that but trying to police them can be, as I said earlier, unhealthy. Having a healthy mindset allows you to recognize and acknowledge the negative, but remain positive in your strength to get through it.

Mindset isn't about ignoring the negative or trying to wish it away with positive thoughts. Rather, it's about seeing the hurdle for what it is, and being positive that you'll have the strength to jump over it when it's time. And you will jump that hurdle because of the planning, strategy, and effort you pull forth.

And if you do happen to miss the first time you jump and don't quite make it over? It doesn't mean you jumped wrong, or that you jumped bad. It just means underestimated that hurdle. Take a deep breath, regroup, strategize, and try again. I promise you, one of these times you will make it over that hurdle.
I'm positive.

Did you enjoy this article? Here are some more posts about self care you may like:

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3 thoughts on “The Myth of Positive Thinking (and why it’s so dangerous)”

  1. Good article. I agree with it. Some people even blame homeless folk for being homeless because they were bad in a past life. Maybe there is a cult of positive thinking. Nothing wrong with being realistic. .

    1. There is a group on Facebook by that name or similar: The Cult of Positive Thinking, IIRC. Now, if the real cult members would recognize themselves…

  2. Many phony prophets need to read this. The power of positive thinking seems to many to be a magical solution for all problems. “You gotta be positve or else…”
    A positive attitude accompanied by skills needed is a better combination for success.

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