What Everyone Gets Wrong About Positive Thinking

Photo: Miss Rein

Many of us are aware of the current cultural emphasis on "being positive" and the idea that "happiness is a choice." Positive psychology is a new and important concept, which includes studies on happiness, gratitude journals, and emphasizing strengths rather than weaknesses.

But this belief can be emotionally and psychologically harmful. It can even lead to shame for simply being our human selves and can cause us to deny the very important outcomes of painful and negative experiences. Positive psychology emphasizes a dualistic mentality—that we must be one way or the other— rather than helping us with the most important task of being human and accepting what is, including our responses.

Finally, it is actually a misrepresentation of the work in positive psychology, which does not deny the very real troubles or mental conditions that cause pain and suffering but claims we need to study and embrace the other side as well. In other words, we need to acknowledge both sides of our experience.

Here are five points to remember when you are working hard to "stay positive."

1. Sometimes the darkest of times help us see things more clearly.

Many of us remember such times in our own lives: tragedy, illness, and devastating experiences that opened us to connections and kindness we would have never experienced otherwise. Sometimes, these hard times can lead to knowing the depth of our own inner resources like nothing else. Leonard Cohen captures this perfectly in his popular line from the song "Anthem." "Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/that's how the light gets in."

2. "Accepting what is" is a key quality of resilience.

Your relationship is over. You did not get the promotion you were counting on. Your best friend is moving away. These experiences of disappointment and suffering happen to all of us. Grieving is a real and necessary part of feeling loss, and ongoing suffering is often tied to not allowing the feelings that lead to letting go. Resilience means we let these feelings move through us, which allows us to begin to recover rather than staying stuck.

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3. "Trying to be positive" when you need to cry, be angry, or feel sad can make everything seem worse.

Our feelings are like the strings of a musical instrument: We need them all. Together they create the full experience of being human. The trouble comes not from feeling what some call "the darker emotions" but from getting stuck in these emotions so we start thinking they are who we are. Making space for our feelings is what allows them to change. Shaming ourselves for what we are feeling creates a new cycle of distress. We feel the first (and very normal) painful feelings, then, we feel bad because we are not "being positive."

Our feelings are like the strings of a violin. Playing only the high notes would make for a boring concerto. We need to allow each of them and not get stuck on any one type. For example, anger is a 30-second emotion—it is there to give us information and is often a call to some type of action. When we ignore it or obsess over it, it becomes a problem. If we listen to what our anger is telling us, we can use it to make essential life changes.

4. The most important thing you can do is be in the moment.

The labels of "positive thinking" and "negative thinking" contain spin and judgment rather than accepting what the present moment brings and allowing it to move through us. When we call something "bad" and try to deny, minimize, or get rid of it, this exaggerates the pain it brings. When we call something "good," we try to capture it and hold on to it, and this creates grasping and fear that bring us pain.

Being human means that we feel everything; putting on a happy face or calling our grief, irritation, or anger "negative" only discounts one of the most essential parts of our human self.

5. Remember that life is full of surprises.

In the long term, sometimes the things that seem bad turn out to be valuable. Can you think of something in your life that felt devastating when it happened, but years later you saw differently? Perhaps it was a great teacher, the place where you began to learn compassion for others, or you were actually so grateful for how it turned out, once you moved through the loss and disappointment.

So the next time someone tells you, "It’s all good," remember this shuts down the kind of open communication that allows us to hear, connect, and comfort one another. It stops the natural flow of using our feelings to move into action, to go through the process of grieving. In other words, it keeps us stuck.

Julie Norem, a psychology professor at Wellesley College, studies the troubling impact of too many positive psychology interventions. "It's OK not to be positive all the time, and it’s unrealistic to believe that you can be happy every moment," Norem says. "That’s not a character failing; that’s a full, emotional life."

Want to understand positivity better? Here are five affirmations to inspire positivity every day.

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