Positive thinking is everywhere! You can’t have a coffee, go on Facebook or buy a journal without seeing messages to “think positively” and “be happy”. In our modern culture of busyness, stress and overwhelm, staying positive has become ever more popular as a way to keep focused on what we want to achieve and how we want to feel. But is positive thinking good for you, or could it have hidden drawbacks? Here’s a take you might not have thought of – and some important aspects to watch out for.
How can positive thinking help?
Many people are familiar with the saying that we ‘create what we think about’, and from this perspective positive thinking makes sense.
- When we focus on something positive, such as going for a promotion that we want with a constructive outlook, we will create pleasant feelings which will influence how we act in the interview.
- If we tell ourselves that we will never get the promotion, are not good enough and that nothing good ever happens to us, then we are likely to create a negative mood which will cause us to show up as anything but our best in the interview.
In this way, what we tell ourselves has a very real impact on our experience and results. However, this is not the only effect of positive thinking. Sometimes it can have some downsides too!
3 downsides of positive thinking
1. It can lead us to ignore our instincts
If we constantly need to change our thoughts from negative to positive, we may be ignoring what those so-called negative thoughts are trying to tell us.
I have met quite a few ‘deluded optimists’ in my time, who insist on putting a positive spin on situations that are clearly really unpleasant or upsetting.
There is a wonderful book by the philosopher Voltaire called ‘Candide’ in which the hero is taught that ‘everything is the best in this best of all possible worlds’. He is told to keep seeing life this way even though life is throwing him disaster after disaster.
By not listening to our thoughts that tell us ‘this is not ok’ we can risk ignoring warnings that could actually help us.
2. It gives power to the negative thoughts
If we constantly need to change our thoughts from positive to negative, we don’t learn how to deal with thoughts as a whole. Think of it this way: The mind is a machine that churns out thoughts. Some are useful and many are not.
However, if we don’t learn how to interact with the mind in a more mindful way, then we are always believing the negative thoughts, not liking them and then needing to turn them into positive ones.
Mindfulness gives us the ability to neutrally observe all types of thoughts, so that we are less affected by their content and don’t automatically believe them, just because they are in our head.
Let’s face it, the mind will always churn out thoughts, so having to always change negative thoughts to positive is quite a task! Mindfulness allows us to accept thoughts just as ‘mental events’ rather than the truth. As such we can engage or disengage from individual thoughts at will which allows us a great degree of autonomy from the mind.
3. It drains your energy
As we discussed earlier, negative thoughts create negative emotions. Positive thoughts create positive emotions. So, therefore, I hear you say, we just need to keep thinking positive thoughts so that we will feel happy!
Well, it’s not quite that simple.
If we insist on thinking positively, we run the very real risk of avoiding the negative feelings inside us. These may be from the past, or from current events. You may think that is a good thing! But research shows that when we avoid or suppress any of our emotions, it has a significant effect in lowering our levels of wellbeing.
Emotions are designed to be felt and released. For example, crying releases oxytocin and endorphins in tears which helps you to feel better. Emotions don’t cause us problems, but avoiding them does. If we suppress our emotions, they don’t go away, but just create a backlog inside us.
This can cause us to be overreactive to small triggers, to develop addictions to substances that make us feel better and can eventually negatively impact our health.
It is therefore important to keep releasing our emotions when they arise so that we fully process our reactions to our daily life. Many of us also have a big backlog from past events that we didn’t process completely, often because we didn’t like the feelings we had. These can turn into what I call ‘emotional allergies’ which we will do anything to avoid. That can include avoiding relationships so that we don’t feel hurt, not going for a promotion so that we don’t feel rejected or not taking our business to the next level in case we feel failure. These emotional allergies can run many of our behaviours – and therefore results – without us knowing about them.
What emotional balance looks like
Developing emotional equity, on the other hand, allows us to feel and welcome all emotions equally. There aren’t actually any negative emotions. Only ones that we find comfortable and those that we find uncomfortable.
Mindfulness gives us the skills to allow, welcome and accept all our emotions with kindness and compassion towards ourselves. This can enable us to both clear the backlog from the past effectively and deal with emotions in the present much more easily.
So, in summary, yes – positive thinking helps us feel positive! But it can also sometimes cause us to either avoid reality as it is, or our emotions as they are.
Bringing mindful awareness to your external life and your internal experience can give you a sense of peace no matter what is going on.
About Annie Stoker
Psychotherapist. Author. Property Investor. Dog-Lover. Chilled-Out Friend.
Annie Stoker is perhaps the UK’s most educated coach and trainer in what it takes to be happy. She has distilled 27 years experience in diverse psychological and spiritual perspectives into a simple but profound manual for the mind: The Personal Development Handbook.” She has coached influential figures, and been featured widely on TV, radio and in print.
Having experienced not just health and sickness, but also success and failure, marriage and divorce, wealth and poverty, Annie now knows that real growth is not another ‘let’s make it all ok’ campaign. It’s about finding the truth at the core of ourselves so that we have the inner freedom to deal with whatever life throws at us.