Go to Top

WARNING: Positive Thinking May Be Harmful to Your Health

Jar of "positivity pills"Are the Feelings Police controlling your mind? You know who they are; whenever you start to feel blue, they show up with their heavy belts and authoritarian attitudes and shout, “Hey, you! Turn that frown upside-down!”

It’s a relentless fact of life in these United States of Happiness: Must. Be. Happy. All the time. Most Americans get to take three whole days off work if an immediate family member dies, but that’s it. Then you need to figure out how to be happy again as  soon as possible.

I don’t want to talk about the whole pursuit of happiness; I’ll leave that to Penelope Trunk, Dr. Andrew Weil and others. I want to talk about the dangers of positive thinking. This one’s for you, Barbara Ehrenreich.

Positive thinking is like alcohol or marijuana or other feel-good drugs. It’s an attempt to avoid pain. Why do some people drink or smoke pot every day? Because it feels better than not doing it. Is it good for them in the long run? Indications are, not so much.

Drugs provide a temporary relief from the reality of one’s own pain. So does positive thinking.

Drugs separate a person not just from his pain, but from other aspects his life as well. So does positive thinking. It’s not like you can choose to turn off your pain but leave your zest for life, interest and motivation intact. It’s all or nothing when it comes to emotions, folks. Feel all feelings, both pleasant and painful, or feel none of them.

Like substances that aren’t good for you over time, positive thinking gives you a temporary high even while it chips away at your capacity for real joy.

If it’s bad for us, why do we embrace positive thinking, apart from obedience to our national happiness ethic? Because it feels good. Temporarily. Just like drugs.

But guess what? The pain you’re ignoring doesn’t vacate when you force yourself to look on the bright side, any more than it does when you drink. It’s always just a temporary reprieve. The pain waits for you patiently. It’s there when the liquor, or the cocaine, or the positive thinking wears off.

What’s the solution? “Just say no” to positive thinking. Doesn’t mean you have to be a  Debbie or Donny Downer. Just keep it real. Sometimes it rains, sometimes the sun is out. It’s okay to notice when the weather changes.

This is the heart of what I call constructive wallowing. I’ve written a whole book about this topic. If you’re interested, stay connected. Get on my mailing list or follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
,

0 Responses to "WARNING: Positive Thinking May Be Harmful to Your Health"

  • multnoma
    May 19, 2012 - 11:03 am Reply

    positive thinking = denial ?

    • Tina Gilbertson
      May 20, 2012 - 1:19 pm Reply

      An interesting question, Multnoma; thank you for commenting.

      I wrote my post in broad strokes to make a point, but it’s not that black and white. I do think there’s a place for healthy optimism; that’s not necessarily denial. The 2 questions to ask might be,

      1) Am I avoiding difficult feelings by trying to find the silver lining?

      And, if so,

      2) How often do I attempt to avoid my feelings this way?

      If the answers are “Yes,” and “Usually,” positive thinking is probably being used as a tool to facilitate denial.

  • timethief
    September 21, 2012 - 9:00 am Reply

    I’ve learned the hard way not to deny my feelings. I acknowledge them and even invest my time in feeling them fully. I observe where they come from and I pacify the me within. Though I’m aware of the the old negative tapes running in the background I don’t deliberately generate positive thoughts.I focus on simply being with who I am, feeling what I feel and mostly just being. And when I’m at peace I naturally generate optimistic thoughts.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      September 21, 2012 - 12:24 pm Reply

      That’s a great observation, Timethief. I have the same experience. I *do* tend to think optimistically when I’m not forced to do so.
      There’s a school of therapy called “motivational interviewing” in which the therapist upholds the “negative” from the client’s point of view (e.g., “It would really SUCK to have to give up taking drugs when they bring you such joy!”). With the downside of change being validated and held by the therapist, the client has room to explore the upside.
      So attending to the negative actually creates space for the positive.

Leave a Reply