The Pitfalls of Positive Thinking

Juli Walchuk, MHC-LP December 7, 2022

Positive thinking may not always be so…positive. Learn about five pitfalls of positive thinking and how you can combat them.

“Look on the bright side!”

“The glass is half full, not half empty!”

“Don’t worry, be happy!” 

You’ve likely been on the receiving end of one of these clichés at some point. While often well-intentioned, colloquial phrases like these can give us the wrong message about positive thinking. Maintaining an overall positive outlook on life has many physical and mental benefits, but there are some serious pitfalls to positive thinking when taken to an extreme. The term “toxic positivity” refers to an overemphasis on maintaining a happy and positive outlook, no matter the circumstances. This often includes denial or minimization of negative feelings, even in response to genuinely sad, scary and terrible situations. Let’s talk about five positive thinking traps you could fall into and how you can combat them.

  1. Myth: Negative emotions are bad→  

Reality: Negative emotions are important and valid, as well

Toxic positivity doesn’t magically disappear the negative emotions. They may be temporarily buried or denied, but these repressed feelings tend to make their way to the surface eventually. For example, unaddressed anger can manifest in insidious ways, such as being misdirected towards an innocent source or sabotaging relationships. Ignoring or repressing negative emotions is not sustainable in the long term. While many of us were not taught how to deal with negative emotions, learning to acknowledge and accept them can be powerful (and therapy is a great place for this!). Be authentic in your full range of emotions. 

  1. Myth: You ALWAYS need to look on the brightside→

Reality: Sometimes things are devastating or infuriating, and we can acknowledge that

Feeling like you need to find the silver lining, no matter the situation, can lead to guilt or shame for having any negative emotions. This pressure to be positive can come from external sources (insert the cliché lines from the top!) or an internal source. Work on accepting a bad situation for what it is, rather than denying or minimizing it. Not every situation has an upside and that’s OK. 

  1. Myth: You can simply will things into existence, with minimal effort on your part→ 

Reality: Success requires a combination of positive thinking and action

Assuming “all will work out in the end” can be a bit of a cop-out if it leads to inaction on your part. Be aware of unrealistic expectations or underestimating your agency. For example, say you are dissatisfied at work and want to change jobs. An extreme form of positive thinking may lead you to think that a new opportunity will soon fall into your lap. As lovely as this may sound, making changes in our lives often requires planning and effort. If you are not actively applying to other positions, interviewing, etc., then a job change is unlikely. This is not to say that manifesting, or envisioning what you want, is harmful, but simply picturing what you want is usually not enough. This is where goal-setting can help. Achieving goals or making changes requires a combination of hard work and a positive attitude. 

  1. Myth: You can do ANYTHING if you just believe→

Reality: Aim for a healthy balance of optimism and realism to avoid excessive risk-taking

In excess, positive thinking can lead to a feeling of invincibility, or an extreme version of “I can do anything I set my mind to!” This might ignore real risks or potential repercussions. Say you have a business idea that you feel cannot fail so you pour all of your life savings into the idea. A big risk, right? While positivity and confidence are important, remember to remain realistic and acknowledge risks.

  1. Myth: People have complete power over their futures through positive thinking→ 

Reality: Be conscious of factors outside of people’s control and lead with empathy

You may believe that people can manifest their success, health and joy through the power of positive thinking. But when this thinking is taken to an extreme, you may actually end up being less compassionate and blame others for their misfortunes or struggles. You might ignore the structural barriers and inequalities people face. Remember, circumstances like poverty, illness, trauma and other challenges cannot be evaded by positive thinking. Catch yourself in such judgements and instead lean into empathy. 

Positive thinking can be a wonderful tool in improving your life satisfaction! This is by no means an argument for adopting a pessimistic worldview. However, when taken to an extreme or applied in inappropriate situations, there can be some legitimate downsides. Your full range of emotions is valid and you don’t need to “think happy thoughts” 100 percent of the time. We can break beyond toxic positivity to become more authentic and compassionate with ourselves and others. 

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