What do I have against positive thinking?

Let me caveat this by saying some of my friends love positive thinking. It clearly helps them to stay optimistic, look on the bright side, count their blessings, and make the most of things. I wouldn’t dream of trying to take it away from them or argue with them about it. People come from different places, react against different things and find different ideas helpful. But for me – I hate it. Positive thinking and I have a painful history.

When I was young several of my role models were great believers in positive thinking. I admired their attitude and absorbed all of their ideas about how to best live life. I took copious notes during talks, about overcoming adversity, always finding the silver lining, looking for the best in people, never giving up, and always remaining positive no matter what.

I fervently believed these ideas and lived by them. This had a number of unforeseen outcomes. I was incapable of believing ill of anyone, and therefore incapable of protecting myself from the school bullies. I behaved in a painfully naive manner, always looking for the best in people and frequently being taken advantage of. Never giving up meant I was unable to walk away from anything, any project, any relationship. If I failed at something it simply showed I had not tried hard enough. If a relationship died it evidenced my lack of extraordinary effort.

Having to be positive all the time left me incapable of expressing anything ‘negative’ without guilt. To cry, feel overwhelmed or afraid was to be weak. I never considered that my ‘dark moods’ may have a kernel of insight to them, whereas my ‘sunny days’ may be more about self-delusion than reality. I ignored every uncomfortable feeling, all those instincts that say ‘this worries me’, ‘they seem scary’, ‘I don’t like this’. I hoped for the best, forgave, turned the other cheek. I didn’t know that sometimes you need to be shrewd, cautious, un-trusting, and self-protective.

I’ve come through things that made me reject the ideas of positive thinking. I’ve been in situations where my best efforts were not enough. I’ve loved and risked and dreamed and been broken when I lost everything. I’ve learned there are many things I cannot control, and that running from pain strips me of all feeling. I’ve learned that we call it a risk because you may lose. I’ve learned that that point in the movie, where you appeal to their better nature and they melt, they just cannot treat you that badly after all – that there are people who reach that point and merely laugh at your naiveté. The world can be a very unkind place to people with Pollyanna ideals. And people with Pollyanna ideals may ignore all evidence of pain or abuse for someone else because they are too busy looking on the bright side and believing the best of people. It’s been hard for me to come to terms with that. It’s hard when nice people don’t want to know what’s really happening.

In my teen years I gravitated towards the goth subculture, because there I found people who ignored the conventions and expressed pain. When they felt bound and trapped they wore chains. I could not escape but I could at least protest. I could reject the conventions that silenced me, and find other ways to have a voice, and to speak my own truths instead of the scripts given to me.

My personal philosophy is oriented more to the idea of trying to be authentic than to be positive. I gravitate more to the idea of telling myself the truth than trying to believe affirmations that deep down, I simply reject. I don’t like fighting myself like that, and I don’t like feeling that I’m building castles in the air, that while I’m hopeful I can believe all these wonderful things but there may or may not be any reality to them. So when I’m exhausted, frightened or depressed, all my foundations disappear. I like to hold onto things I can still half believe when I’m in a black place. I also crave the freedom to be honest about how I’m feeling.

I think most people who are unwell feel the pressure to be positive. Children dying of cancer who are still cheerful are held up to us as examples. This burns in me. It feels like being silenced. One more time when I have to pretend the bad things aren’t happening, that I’m not in pain, not afraid, not dying inside. I’m scared by how many times I hear after someone has killed themselves – we didn’t know anything was wrong. I’m scared and angry that people in pain feel they have to keep it secret. I’m tired of making a secret of suffering.   I’m tired of being cheered up when what I want is connection, when I want are relationships that make it easy for me to be honest and hard for me to tell even sweet lies – instead of the opposite.

So for me, I’m always trying to hold onto my voice, to accept what I really feel, what I really think, or fear, or hope. I crave authenticity. I crave the strength to be honest. I want to speak the truth, even when the truth is horrific. I am a very positive person, I have a deep love of life and a dogged pursuit of hope. But I reach this almost by going in the opposite direction, by going down into black places, into bleakness, rage, despair, loss. I embrace these things rather than run from them. I want to be able to be real to the people around me. I want not to have to lie, not to wear a smiling mask over pain or emptiness. I want for people to be able to trust my smile and my tears. I want to be known. Somehow my journey brings me towards hope, joy, self compassion, and so many of the things I know those who love to think positive are also seeking. I just need to take a different road.

6 thoughts on “What do I have against positive thinking?

  1. Hi Kristy, thanks for the article. (you can see the link by clicking on Kristy's name) It's a fascinating area in psychology at the moment – that what we think and feel dramatically affects us, but unpicking the how and why of this is a lot more complicated. Thanks for your comments. 🙂

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  2. Great article. The positive thinking philosophy has always made me uneasy, and as you and others have said above often seems to be about glossing over reality and suppressing valid feelings of grief, pain, anger and discomfort. I also like Jane's comment about 'undigested pain' and your Bradbury quote Sarah.

    I've linked to another article in my sig that questions the value of positive thinking. Looks like there is research evidence to back up that not only can it be unhelpful but it can also sometimes be harmful.

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  3. Jane, such wonderful comments. Your words remind me of a quote from Bradbury “we are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam… somehow we think we can grow, feeding on flowers…without completing the cycle back to reality.”

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  4. Another very insightful article. I couldn't agree with your words more.

    To not be able to have and express feelings, whether they be pleasant, or unpleasant and difficult to bear, is to stifle and deny them. (I prefer, if possible, not to use the words positive and negative, as those words so often come with the assumption/judgement of good and bad/right and wrong.)

    By trying to “look on the bright side” we can deny our true feelings and for me that does more harm than good. Someone who I highly regard as a skilled therapist once said to me that undigested grief/fear/anger/pain/hurt (the difficult feelings) can sit like a lump of rotting meat in the pit of your stomach and poison your whole system. At the time I very much resonated with those words as that is how I felt – poisoned. I needed to learn to have and express those difficult feelings and not deny them by 'positive thinking'. So crumb by crumb I digested the feelings by experiencing them and exploring and understanding their origins and once digested, for me, they lost their poisoning power and left me with greater wisdom.

    I am not against trying to find meaning, and learning and gaining insight from life experiences, but for me that involves acceptance of what is – that to me is positive. Somehow the postive thinking culture seems to want to deny realty and only focus on the pleasant. My thinking is that to deny the difficulties in life is to invalidate people's experiences and that in turn invalidates the person themself. It is helpful for me to face the reality of my life, and learn to understand it – very difficult to do if I am continually encouraged to embrace the concept of postive thinking in the format that it is currently being put forward by many in the mental health professions.

    My experience of moving to a better place came about after exploring the difficult places, not supressing and denying them further. Could it be that many in the mental health profession are unable to bear witness to the difficulties that many people experience, and as such the positive thinking approach is more for the benefit of the workers rather than the benefit of the consumers???

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  5. Hi Stephen,
    I think you've put your finger on a good point – that sometimes we don't pay enough attention to the positive. It makes sense to me that people who find themselves leaning to the negative and focusing on things they are unhappy about, I guess the ideas of positive thinking might help provide some balance. In my case, I was already pretty positive and these ideas dangerously unbalanced me. It's also been distressing to have grief, sadness, pain, or loneliness interpreted as pessimism by some people. I don't think you have to lie to yourself to find something good about yourself, and I do think that there are things in life we might be able to turn around and make something amazing grow from – but that in and of themselves have no silver lining. Thanks for your comments, I feel sure the quality of my writing is going to dip with everything going on this year!!

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  6. Sorry to hear that doing your best to adopt these highly praised principles was so costly to you.
    I like the humanity displayed in this entry. I personally would rather hear an unpleasant truth than a pleasant lie, as do many other people, although I don't know if they're in the majority.

    As a natural cynic I've never been able to truly take positive thinking seriously. Although there is merit in trying to see the positive in life rather than ignoring it. I did a short “Positive Psychology” course, there was an exercise where we had to think of 3 good things that happened during the day, sometimes what I thought was a rubbish day turned out to be not so bad a day upon reflection.

    I have always had a deep distrust of inauthenticity (eg. someone telling you what they think you want to hear) although there's a subset of people who seem to see it as a valid way of getting along with people. I like that you're an advocate of truth and honesty.

    Well done for cranking out another quality entry under your current circumstances.

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