You could be forgiven for assuming that as a mental health professional I would be whole-heartedly promoting the virtues of positive thinking. But to be honest, some of the inspirational memes that pop up on my social media really, really cheese me off.
This is not born out of cynicism or intellectual snobbery, but rather from the fact that I have seen attempts at positive thinking backfire disastrously for so many people.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that negative thinking is the answer. Some aspects of positive thinking, such as seeking a sense of meaning, focusing on our strengths and cultivating gratitude can be terrific assets for our mental health. But here are some cases where positive thinking can be unhelpful or even harmful:
When it is blatantly untrue
I can do anything! Can you fly unassisted? Well, no. Can you calculate quantum physics equations? Um, not really. Can you sing like Celine Dion? Nope, not even close.
If I can dream it, I can do it! No amount of dreaming is going to make me a Broadway musical star in the 1920s. Or the owner of a unicorn. Or a mutant with mind-control powers.
Obviously we can’t do or have everything. We all have talents but we also have limitations. Some dreams are realistic and others are fantasies. Telling ourselves otherwise is delusional and setting ourselves up for disappointment. The audition episodes of any talent quest show provide abundant evidence of this.
Additionally, the world is too complex to kid ourselves that willpower alone can open every door and overcome every obstacle. Wishful thinking is neither a planning strategy nor a guarantee of success.
The healthier version: You can do some things! And some things you’ll be lousy at. Play to your strengths and manage your flaws as best you can. If it is a realistic goal, give it a shot!
When it feels untrue
I’m a great person and I deserve every good thing in life!
When I’m talking about self-esteem with a therapy group, I sometimes get them to close their eyes and repeat the following statements to themselves: “I’m an average person…I’m a good person…I’m a really good person…I’m a fabulous person…I’m a perfect person” Then I ask them to tell me at what point their mind started to ‘push back’ against the statements. Most report that their mind starts to squirm when they get to “I’m a really good person” and that by “I’m a fabulous person” their mind is just flat-out refusing to agree.
When the statements we tell ourselves are too far removed from what we really believe in our heart-of-hearts, we risk setting up an internal debate. “I’m a great person!” “Yeah, but what about all those times you are lazy and selfish. What about that time you kept quiet when the shop assistant gave you too much change. What about….” Once commenced, this debate can be endless, draining and demoralising.
The healthier version: I’m a complex human being, and I can work on improving myself and my situation.
When it tells us how to feel
I am brave and strong – fear is the enemy!
When we try to tell ourselves that we should feel positive emotions (confidence, self-love, enthusiasm) we risk a sense of failure when we can’t conjure them up on demand. Similarly, when we label other feelings as bad (anxiety, self-doubt, fatigue) we may interpret their appearance as a failure on our part, or try to ignore, suppress or denigrate them.
Now, here is the thing I’ve noticed about emotions – the more we try to squash them down, they more they fight to get our attention. Often these emotions are trying to give us important information or warn us of problems, and if we ignore them they will raise the volume to try to get the message through.
However our emotions are a bit like a over-enthusiastic guard dog – diligently trying to help but often miscalculating a situation or over-reacting to it. The trick is to learn to listen to the message of the emotions, while balancing that against a rational calculation of the situation and an eye to the long-term goal.
The healthier version: I can't control the emotions that show up, but I don't need to be controlled by them either.
When it negates our difficulties
Replace every negative thought with a positive one!
There is a lot to be said for looking on the bright side. But some situations just are frustrating or frightening or heartbreaking, and trying to convince ourselves otherwise can be an exhausting drain on our precious resources, which are far better spent finding effective ways to deal with the reality we face.
What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
There is no doubt that facing challenges and making it through difficult patches can help us to develop resilience. But some events in life can also leave us feeling bewildered, weakened or vulnerable. Telling ourselves that we should be able to bounce back from every challenge or trauma feeling stronger can easily feed into a sense of failure when we are struggling or needing time to recover.
The healthier alternative: Some things feel difficult because they are difficult. What doesn't kill you can still knock you about - be kind to yourself while you recover.
When it locks us into a destructive path
Never, never, never give up!
As an addiction therapist I’m obviously going to disagree with this one. Sometimes stopping what you are doing is absolutely the right choice. And this doesn’t just relate to substance use. It can be equally true of a miserable relationship, a career that is burning you out, a business venture that miscalculated the market or a training schedule that is causing injuries.
The healthier version: Persevere…but know when to stop.
When it contains delusional ideas of control
I attract into my life what I focus on!
When we decide that something is important or relevant to us, our reticular activitating system ‘screens’ incoming information so that we are more likely to notice the presence of that thing. Like when you are shopping for a red shirt and suddenly you see red shirts everywhere. So having a focus on a goal or positive change can help you to notice and take advantage of opportunities for action. This is also why practicing gratitude is helpful – by actively looking for positives in our life, we notice more of them.
However this phenomenon of noticing and grasping opportunities that already exist in our environment is very different to the concept that thinking about something magically makes it appear in our environment.
My beef with this magical-thinking approach is twofold. Firstly, the idea that wishing/focusing/visualising is enough to guarantee results is frankly bonkers. Visualising a wallet full of money won’t make cash suddenly appear, any more than fantasising about George Clooney will make him turn up on your doorstep.
Visualing an outcome can sometimes be helpful when it relates to our own performance. Visualising ourself walking confidently into a job interview and answering questions in a calm, articulate way can provide a mental rehearsal and increase the likelihood that we will act in that way. However it still doesn't guarantee that we won't get a wave of anxiety or that we'll remember that terrific response we had planned. Additionally, visualising a scenario doesn’t give us magical control over external factors. Visualising can't control the questions that we'll be asked or the personalities of the interviewers or the quality of the other candidates. (What if the other candidates are visualising that they get the job? Does it become some sort of cosmic visualisation wrestling match – “I visualised longer!” “Ha ha, but I visualised more vividly!!”)
However the aspect of this approach that really gets me fuming stems from years of working with people facing devastating circumstances. That man with motor neurone disease, facing the prospect of a progressive loss of function and death within two years – was he just not thinking positively enough? The women whose daughter was murdered – how exactly did she 'attract' the loss of a child she adored? The family facing bankruptcy because the father was injured in a car accident and the mother can’t work because she cares for her disabled child and her dementing father – do they just suck at visualising?
Because I don't think you can have it both ways: you can't claim that our circumstances are determined by our mindset without implying that hardship or misfortune are somehow the fault of those that suffer them. The harsh reality is that life isn't always fair. Sometimes terrible things happen to good people. And no amount of positive thinking or cheesy affirmations can change that.
The healthier version: I can focus on what I can control…but there are lots of things that I can’t.