Dangerous Extremes of Positive Thinking
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | December 2018 (rewritten 2-16-2021)
The explosion of positive psychology has given life to overly positive expectations. Overly positive beliefs are a disservice to emotional health and intimate relationships.
I am a fan of the positive thinking. Positive thoughts have been proven to affect action, improving relationships, and boosting health. With the weight of science, one might carelessly jump into forced positive thoughts, reciting mantras and condemning anything resembling negativity. We need caution—even with positivity; our thoughts must to be monitored for long-term effectiveness. The feeling affects stimulated by stimulus in the environment have purpose. Sorrow, grief, guilt, and even anger contribute to our survival. Our momentary well-being (comfort) sometimes must be shaken for a greater future.
Overly positive thinking is positivity to an extreme. When we recite mantras that persuade avoidance of difficulties and maximizing pleasure in the moment, we often neglect challenging opportunities to grow.
Positive Thinking is a Belief System
Positive thinking is a belief system. We create a framework to interpret the big outside world. We gently soften corners, disguise threats, and magnify our power to protect our vulnerability to reality. The diversity of beliefs and thoughts processes we utilize often perform unnoticed in the unconscious realms of the mind. They flow uninhibited and unnoticed, filtering the world to fit our belief system.
We have a proclivity to embrace beliefs that relieve anxiety in the moment; we accept teachings not grounded in reality if they grant immediate satisfaction. Some strategies have nasty side-affects—stagnation, discouragement, and depression. When futures are harmed in interest of the moment, later on when life imposes its harsh truths, opposing our fragile beliefs of how life “should” be, we crumble or worse, we create greater deceptions to compensate.
The world frightens, producing constant anxiety. We seek escape from the anxiety, changing patterns, and environments; but the fear continues. I thought retirement would solve my anxiety woes. It hasn’t. New worries graciously fill the empty spaces that work stress once occupied. We must live with some stress, utilizing effective strategies to keep life manageable.
Life creates a constant barrage of obstacles that create friction and fear. Hans Selye wrote, “there are two roads to survival: fight and adaptation. And most often adaptation is the most successful” (1974). Positive thinking is an adaptation, twisting the negative, giving the difficulty a brighter color. Positivity protects against overwhelm—a healthy belief system and adaptation. Overly positive takes a beneficial adaptation to prevent overwhelm and magnifies it into an unrealistic, life stagnating expectation of ease by pretending difficulty shouldn't even exist. This self deception is an unhealthy adaptation.
Developing a More Comprehensive Belief System
For a young child in an abusive environment, creating a simple framework allows them to experience the world without paralyzing fear. As we mature, we see more of the realities. We begin to see a world full of rich and rewarding experiences but also many potential dangers that hurt.
Hopefully, we become confident in our abilities to deal with the world with its riches and curses. Adulthood adaptations is a process of letting go of protective childhood beliefs and adopting a more comprehensive schema. Most of us stumble some, drifting between different frameworks while navigating new paths in adulthood; but we eventually make it with enough skills to survive in our communities, financial systems and intimate relationships.
As part of development, we encounter instructors and established thinking styles to assist. Positive thinking is one of these thinking styles. Unfortunately, under the umbrella of positivity contains some toxic beliefs (overly positive), unsupported by evidence but alluring to wounded souls.
The Psychology Group in Fort Lauderdale created a helpful chart of overly positive statements and a healthy accepting replacement. While the chart is directed towards listeners, we should recognize and replace overly positive self statements.
Overly Positive Attitudes as a Defense Mechanism
Long standing defense mechanisms, once only a product of the unconscious mind, are now seen as blatant proclamations of how to think. We see these proclamations go viral in cute banners with calming imagery. They appeal to us; attractive because they serve a protecting purpose, shielding us from fear.
See Defense Mechanisms for more on this topic
Overly positive mantras typically require little personal work, only offering momentary peace. But underneath the immediate “feel good,” there is a costly trade-off. Faulty beliefs can interfere with sustainable growth, discouraging emotions essential to surmount challenges and nurture creativity.
In a mindless quest for positivity, we are encouraged to purge our lives from everyone and everything that brings us down. In essence such doctrine suggests that anyone who challenges our magical thinking are bad for our happiness.
I find such statements wrong on many levels.
Empathy draws from our resources. Friends, lovers and family occasionally are taxing. We must weigh our ability to regulate our emotions. However, we don't run from them because of an emotional toll. We develop our regulations skills and manage our resources.
See Shared Emotions for more on this topic
Overly positive statements such as these add to the loneliness epidemic. Personally, I don’t need friends that quietly slip away when my complaints are mildly taxing to their sensitive emotional systems. I, in turn, don't turn away from them when they need to draw from my emotional well of resources.
Barbara Ehrenreich discusses this relational ailment in her wonderful book Bright-Sided, “There seems to be a massive empathy deficit, which people respond to by withdrawing their own. No one has the time or patience for anyone else’s problems” (2010).
We Grow by Challenging Our Limits
Embarking on challenging and meaningful adventures stimulate our senses, challenge our resolve, and frustrate when we fail. We gain from the precarious position of challenging our abilities and resources.
We should acknowledge the magical wonders of the moment, looking for silver linings during difficulties; but don’t be discouraged when all is not rosy. Often a positive reason behind a troubling incident isn’t readily apparent.
Feeling discomfort is not always “wrong.” Sometimes pain is appropriate. We can feel angry, sad, frustrated and even disappointed. We may find that some difficult emotions may be softened by overly positive beliefs. Yet, reality continues knocking at our door.
Sometimes, instead of fleeing difficult we need to confront it, existing in the challenge, suffering momentary defeats. Instead of dodging challenges, running from relationships, we develop resilience through improving emotional regulation skills.
See Three Emotional Regulation Techniques for more on this topic
Today may or may not be wonderful, but if we reach beyond our comfort, we likely will have an array of experiences to savor, adding to our rich and developing life. We can appreciate our variety of experiences, understanding that some days are difficult, presenting seemingly impassable pinnacles. A leisurely walk through a manicured flower garden is nice, but not every hour of every day. We need more. Each day presents an opportunity to live, a gift to embrace with curiosity, kindness and acceptance.
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Ehrenreich, B (2010) Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Picador; Kindle Edition
Selye, H. (1974) Stress without Distress. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins; 1st edition