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How to Balance Positive and Negative Thinking

Each way of thinking can be productive for goals and circumstances.

Key points

  • Meeting our personal and professional goals requires a combination of negative and positive thinking.
  • Negative thinking prepares us for distressing events; positive thinking welcomes possibilities for success.
  • Negative thinking prepares us for misfortune by revealing the unpleasant consequences of particular choices.

Negative thinking considers the weaknesses of human nature, the disadvantages of change, and how things can go wrong. Positive thinking considers the goodness of people, the advantages of change, and how things can turn out right.

We can engage in negative thinking to prepare for potentially distressing events or positive thinking to create opportunities. Each way of thinking is productive and necessary, depending on our goals and our circumstances.

Negative thinking encourages skepticism, healthy doubt, caution, and seeing aspects of the world to fix. Positive thinking encourages optimism, proactivity, taking chances, and finding novel solutions.

Yan Krukau/Pexels
Source: Yan Krukau/Pexels

When Negative Thinking Is Beneficial

Negative thinking prepares us for misfortune and danger by revealing the unpleasant consequences of particular choices and behaviors. Wishful thinking does not.

1. Social Media Attacks. It’s unfortunate, but social media are well designed for attacking people. When we are in public view, a social media assault can expand quickly, threatening our livelihood, privacy, and safety. These assaults can distort facts in order to shame, intimidate, and silence. Digital vigilantes can get people fired, expelled from a college or university, or ejected from organizations.

Negative thinking about the potential tactics used by attackers can help preempt the spread of an attack and prepare us for whatever damage is perpetrated. Negative thinking supports constructing specific plans of action, including discretion and restraint.

If serious social media troubles don’t materialize, all we’ve lost is the time spent preparing.

2. Revealing Personal Limitations. By focusing on what we have difficulty doing, negative thinking allows us to see our limitations more realistically. In doing so, we understand ourselves better, and we appreciate the ways we’ve compensated over the years. In the process, we may decide to forego unrealized ambitions and devote our efforts to new endeavors.

3. Moving Past Romantic Breakups. Negative thinking provides one effective strategy for managing the aftermath of a broken relationship. If we are missing our former partner and longing for the impossibility of getting back together, we can think of a distinctive memory of an unpleasant interaction. Thinking about one vivid and troubling memory can effectively remind us of why the relationship ended.

Werner Pfennig/Pexels
Source: Werner Pfennig/Pexels

4. Bringing About Social Change. Social change begins with negative thinking—considering what’s wrong in our society. If we don’t reflect on what’s wrong, we can’t make it right.

Negative thinking has been necessary in bringing about improvements in such areas as civil rights, environmental matters, and patient advocacy.

Finland is a national exemplar of the power of negative thinking. During World War II, Finland was cut off from imports and suffered considerable material deprivation. After the war, a government commission was set up to imagine everything that could go wrong. The commission meets monthly to do their imagining and to plan and prepare for the identified disasters. This national negative thinking has led to successful preparation for fuel shortages, drought, widespread fires, floods, internet outages, and Covid.

5. Making Daily Life Lighter. On a personal and specific level, we can use negative thinking to identify and resolve many small problems in our daily lives. We do that by constructing a “bug list”—a collection of what bothers us on a regular basis—and then acting upon the listed bugs.

When Positive Thinking Is Beneficial

Positive thinking can lead to new ideas, unforeseen opportunities, and a resilient approach to the various slings and arrows in our lives.

1. Face-to-Face Discussions. Before a difficult face-to-face meeting, focusing on the most favorable interactions increases the chances of a productive discussion. This positive focus makes us more receptive to different perspectives, which in turn encourages the other participants to reciprocate. If we prepare for the best and don’t get it, we are still open to hearing people out. However, if we prepare for the worst and don’t get it, we may respond to our original negative expectations and exacerbate any existing difficulties by overreacting.

2. Shedding Unnecessary Cautions. Positive thinking frees us from unnecessary constraints and cautions in our lives. It does so by reducing our concerns for unlikely difficulties. If we once ran out of gas many years ago, positive thinking tells us we don’t need to fill the tank every time it falls just below half-empty.

George Pak/Pexels
Source: George Pak/Pexels

3. Interactions With People We Don’t Know. When interacting with unfamiliar people, especially in unexpected encounters, positive thinking encourages happier exchanges. Expecting the best in these casual interactions—without suspicion or low expectations—brings out the best in these interactions. People are more open, less defensive, and more willing to be generous.

4. Reframing. The cognitive act of reframing involves re-viewing a shortcoming or a problem from a perspective we can appreciate and learn from. Once, while playing racquetball against a superior opponent, I reframed the match as an opportunity to try out new shots—since I was going to lose anyway. I did lose, but I also ended up expanding my offensive repertoire.

A larger, historic example of reframing occurred many years ago when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. This ominous and tragic event was reframed as a call to sustained action for detoxifying the river—and more broadly, to work on eliminating pollutants from all our major waterways.

When Balance Is Beneficial

1. Difficult Decisions. Effective decision-making involves both positive and negative thinking, as exemplified by the time-honored approach of listing pros and cons. More generally, negative thinking encourages stepping back and pausing before a complex decision, allowing time for gathering information and reducing uncertainty. After a while, however, there are diminishing (or no) returns, and information gathering simply becomes a delaying tactic. At this point, positive thinking is necessary for taking a leap and deciding. Positive thinking speeds up our decisions, permitting intuition to guide us and avoiding second-guessing.

2. Chronic Illness. With chronic illness, negative thinking prepares us for a life with new limitations and difficult challenges. Positive thinking balances this preparation by telling us not to dwell on what hasn’t yet occurred and to be open to new and different activities.

3. Achieving Our Goals. Positive thinking lets us envision our goals, giving us hope and encouragement. But imagining a better future does not actually motivate us. It takes negative thinking to provide motivation for achieving our goals—by identifying obstacles and planning how to overcome them.

More from Robert N. Kraft Ph.D.
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