The problem with positive thinking and how to fix it
We need to talk about positive thinking. And not for the reason you think.
How many of you, reading this right now, have had an experience where you were really struggling with a situation and feeling low? Maybe you were worried about something, or feeling disappointed or sad. Maybe you felt angry, or hurt. Perhaps you had lost something or someone important to you, or you were feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
And so you tried to talk to someone about how you were feeling, right? You turned to a friend or a family member for some support. You reached out, hoping to connect with someone, have a bit of a vent, and get things off your chest. Maybe get some help with your problem. And they said something along the lines of: “You just need to think positively!!”
How did that make you feel? I’m guessing…not so great.
What’s the problem with positive thinking?
Well for starters, not everything IS positive! Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. And sometimes we struggle. We feel sad. Disappointed. Angry. Frustrated. And all of that is a normal, and unavoidable part of life. Sometimes life sucks. And thinking positively about it is not going to make a damn shred of difference.
But you know what? That’s ok. It’s ok to feel sad, and disappointed and angry and frustrated. Just as it’s ok to feel happy, and joyful and excited and hopeful. ALL emotions are ok. Got it? Repeat it with me: ALL emotions are ok.
Does that mean we want to encourage people to wallow in disappointment? Or to focus only on what’s going wrong, and to never help them see the positives? Should we leave people floundering in despair and feeling overwhelmed? Of course not! But there is a difference between offering support and pushing positive thinking down someone’s throat. One is validating and helpful and one is very, very invalidating and unhelpful.
Toxic Positivity: An invalidating response
The term “Toxic Positivity” is a great way of explaining the invalidating nature of positive thinking. I’ve seen the concept of toxic positivity on social media a lot in recent months. Reflected in ‘inspiring’ quotes on Twitter and Instagram, like “Good vibes only”, or “Happiness is a choice”. You’ve seen those right?
Let’s return to the example above to investigate why these are so unhelpful. You feel sad. You talk to someone about how you’re feeling. And they tell you it’s not so bad and to just “Look on the bright side!”. Or they say, “Stop being so negative!”. How do you feel?
Maybe their response makes you feel ashamed or guilty for feeling the way you do. Like your feelings about the situation are somehow wrong. Maybe you feel like the other person wasn’t really listening, or doesn’t really care about how you feel at all. Or worse, they don’t care about you.
And so, next time you’re struggling, will you turn to that same person for support? Or will you find help elsewhere? Perhaps you won’t actually reach out at all next time. Perhaps you’re afraid you’ll be made to feel like your emotions are somehow not ok again, and so instead, you push your emotions away and ignore them. And that, right there, is the problem with “positive thinking”. It causes people to feel unsafe to express “negative” emotions. And that’s a big problem.
Emotions are messages
Why is that a big problem? Because when we label and view emotions as positive or negative, then we tend to struggle against our “negative” emotions. We attempt to push them away, because they don’t feel as nice as the “positive” ones. And we miss a vital part of the message.
And that’s exactly what emotions are. They are not good or bad. Nor do they have the power to hurt us. They are simply messages that are designed to inspire action. Yes, some emotions feel uncomfortable. They are supposed to – we need to pay attention to them.
For example, if you’re feeling scared, this is a message that something in your environment might be dangerous. You need to keep yourself safe from the threat. Feeling frustrated? This is a message that your current approach is ineffective, or something is in your way. You need to change your strategy. Feeling angry? This is a message that a boundary has been overstepped. You need to protect yourself emotionally or physically.
When we ignore the messages that our emotions send us, and instead focus entirely on positive thinking and positive feelings, we actually risk being hurt. These so called “negative” emotions are usually the ones that keep us safe. Connected to others. Supported. They encourage us to reach out for help. When we ignore them, we isolate ourselves. And when we feel isolated, we feel even worse.
Support: A validating response
So what can we do instead? How do we support a friend or loved one who is feeling down? Because yes, all feelings are ok. But sometimes, those feelings take over, and then it can be hard to see anything else. Strong feelings lead to strong thoughts that get twisted and warped in our minds. They distort our view of the world and of ourselves so that we become incapable of seeing the positives. And that is also toxic. So what can we do for our friend then?
Well, all anyone really wants is to be seen. To feel understood and accepted. So we can offer empathy. Understanding. Validation. But we can also offer hope. And sometimes hope simply looks like a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes hope is just knowing that someone is there to listen and sit with you while you cry. Hope is knowing you’re not alone. Often in life, just showing up and being with someone while they feel sad, is enough.
And for those times when it’s not enough, we can respond with empathy, and we can validate how our friend feels. What does that sound like? “This is really hard for you. There’s a lot for you to feel sad about right now. It’s normal to feel anxious in a situation like this. I’d feel worried too if it was me.” Comments like this help people to feel heard. It helps them understand that how they’re feeling is ok. And it helps them feel connected.
Connection helps our brain feel safe, and then it can allow hope in. What does hope sound like? “I know this is hard. But you’ve done hard things before, I believe in you. I know you’re feeling down right now. What has helped you when you’ve felt like this in the past? I know you’re feeling sad right now, but you’re not alone. I’m right here with you.”
So am I saying we should do away with positive thinking altogether? No! Re-shifting our focus towards the positive aspects of our lives is a helpful strategy for overcoming things like depression and anxiety. People who are naturally optimists tend to suffer from these illnesses less. Practices like gratitude are effective because they help us to focus on the positives in our lives.
But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We need to allow people to reach a place of positivity on their own. And while they’re getting there, we need to allow them to also acknowledge the not-so-positives. Because we can do both. It is possible for life to be both exciting AND disappointing. AT THE SAME TIME. It is possible for us as human beings, to feel sad about something, but grateful for something else. AT THE SAME TIME. This is realistic thinking. And this is real life.
Real life is a crazy mixture of ups and downs, negatives and positives, good times and not so good times. And when we focus on only one type of experience, or one type of emotion, we miss out on a whole lot of life. We rob ourselves of the opportunity to experience everything that life has to offer us. We need to be able to experience the full range of human emotions, to experience life.
So the best way to support our loved ones is by validating and accepting ALL of their emotions and letting them know we understand how they feel. When we offer empathy and connection to someone who is hurting, we allow space for positivity to grow. We give them the courage they need to find their own way out of their negative thinking. We allow realistic thinking to bloom and life to occur. That is the best gift we could give our loved ones. And that is true, unconditional support.
Positive thinking and our kids
Now, if you got to the end of this, I have a little challenge for you. Up until now, we’ve kinda been talking about grown ups, right?! But this is a blog about kids. So, good news. Erm, ok, not so good news actually. We do this to kids all. the. time.
Here are just a few things I’ve heard adults tell children in the past: “Cheer up, it’s not the end of the world. You’re a child, what do you have to be upset about? Go to your room if you’re going to keep crying. Smile. Why can’t you just be happy? Don’t cry. Stop pouting. I don’t want to see any more tears. Just let it go, its not a big deal.”
Yikes, right?! But it’s fixable! This week, I want you to pay attention. Just notice what messages you’re sending to your child when it comes to emotions. Are there things you might be saying or doing that are actually invalidating for your child? Are you accidentally encouraging your child to hide their “negative” emotions from you by encouraging positive thinking without acknowledging how they feel?
Well, let’s fix that! If you need some support, feel free to stop by our free mindful parenting Facebook group, the Mindful Little Minds Community. I know the idea of change can be overwhelming. I know it seems hard. But you’ve done hard things before. I believe in you, and I’m right here with you. (See what I did there?)
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.