The Danger of Positive Thinking

Some of you’ve heard me talk about Positive Thinking before and how important it is to me, specifically to my journey through chemo. So you may wonder why I’d suggest ‘positive thinking’ is dangerous. I’d like to explain why I believe it’s dangerous as well as why things like positive affirmations and ‘support’ from friends and family are also harmful.

Really what it comes down to is a base misunderstanding of what real positive thinking looks like as well as how our brain responds to it.

Many people believe positive thinking (as well as positive affirmation) is as simple as telling yourself what you want. When a person offers support to a friend it often looks the same, “You’re doing a great job! Keep it up!”, “You’re an awesome mommy”. The problem with that is our friend knows the truth – and our friend’s truth is that they aren’t doing a good job, or they wouldn’t feel horrible!

When I was going through chemo I used positive thinking every single day to get me through, but I used the truth to lift me up, vs holding me back.

Here’s two different ways a person may use positive thinking over the course of two days.

  1. “I’ve got this! I’m strong! I’m gonna beat cancer!”
  2. “Wow. This is tough, it’s really hard to sit up today. But I did it! I’m so strong. I sat up even though it was so hard!”

The first way are empty words, they’re sugar pills, placebo words that may or may not help depending on the day and the person. The second acknowledges the work, but also acknowledges the success.

Day two:

  1. “I’ve got this! I’m strong! I’m gonna beat cancer!”
  2. “This is easier than yesterday. It’s still tough, but I actually climbed out of bed today! I’m getting stronger each day!”

The first one doesn’t acknowledge the work done or how the person is feeling. If the person has a bad day or a bad moment, it will quickly negate any positive thinking because confirmed truth is stronger than empty words every time. But the second example has confirmed truth built in, so even if a bad moment happens, it’s easy to see it for a moment and nothing more and continue to believe the positive thoughts.

When talking to our friends, the same holds true. For instance a friend is struggling with a situation, lets say a parenting situation. A friend complains about their child’s behaviour, or even just curses while talking about their child, or admits they’ve yelled or hit their child. I often see and hear others say something along the lines of, “We all make mistakes, don’t worry, they’ll survive. You’re the best mommy for you child.”AdobeStock_80739055.jpeg

On the surface these sound great, but they don’t acknowledge the truth of the situation, the feelings our friend is experiencing, nor does it acknowledge the subtle (or severe) damage caused to the child. They pretend the problem doesn’t exist. It hides from the complex emotions and buries them under ‘positive’ emotions. Of course we see they aren’t really positive, they’re just pretend!

Instead saying something like, “It sounds like you’re really struggling right now. You sound so upset about the situation/how you acted.”

Open a dialogue with your friend, allow the truth and emotion to pour out. As that happens, you can support your friend while she processes the situation. If your friend needs help, you can offer it, or you can offer to help her find help.

It doesn’t matter if the situation is about parenting, a job, losing weight, or any other aspect of life. The first step in offering support, is to listen. The second step is to acknowledge what your friend has said, and understand what that means. Ask questions if needed. Once you understand, then you can let your friend know you’re there. You don’t need to solve the problem.

When positive thinking is used as a bandaid to cover reality, it doesn’t help us move forward. What happens when we use positive thinking incorrectly is we leave ourselves feeling like we aren’t good enough. We may feel anxiety or anger surrounding the situation, or we may feel hopeless. Positive thinking is not a blind cheering section, but when we use it as such, we hurt ourselves.  Instead positive thinking is supposed to be used as a means of seeing the positive parts of reality as more important than the parts that leave us uncomfortable.

If I were to catch myself yelling at my children, I might say to myself, “Wow. I feel horrible right now, I bet they do to. Yelling isn’t a good parenting strategy. I can be more respectful. I’m going to apologize to them as soon as I have a solution to prevent yelling next time.” Then I’d think up a solution, a plan for the future, apologize, ask forgiveness, and then I’d use positive thinking like this, “I yelled, but I managed to stop myself from yelling longer. I walked away, and I apologized. It wasn’t a great moment, but it was better than yesterday. I’m becoming a more respectful parent each day. I can continue to improve, even when I make mistakes.”

It can be difficult to admit our mistakes, but when we do, we can focus on learning from them and growing. That growth is positive thinking. When we grow, we focus on the positive and learn from everything else.

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