Why Positive Thinking Is Bad for You
Many people swear by positive thinking, but in some cases, it can be harmful.
Posted April 7, 2010 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Positive thinking is so firmly enshrined in our culture that knocking it is a little like attacking motherhood or apple pie. Many persons swear by positive thinking and quite a few have been helped by it. Nevertheless, it is not a very effective tool and can be downright harmful in some cases. There are much better ways to get the benefits that positive thinking allegedly provides.
Perhaps the statement that best exemplifies positive thinking is "When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade." It seems so self-evident that this is a good thing that we never question the wisdom of the adage. But it does not take a whole lot of digging to unearth the flaws in this reasoning.
First, did fate really hand you a lemon or was this merely your initial, unthinking response? Second, is a lemon really a bad thing, something that you would rather not have, but now that you do have it you will somehow salvage something by making lemonade? Finally, it is quite stressful to be handed a lemon until such time as you figure out how to make lemonade. Do you really have to go through this phase?
No matter what happens to us in life we tend to think of it as "good" or "bad." And most of us tend to use the "bad" label 3 to 10 times as often as the "good" label. And when we say something is bad, the odds grow overwhelming that we will experience it as such. And that is when we need positive thinking. We have been given something bad, a real lemon, and we better scramble and make some lemonade out of it and salvage something out of this "bad" situation.
How tiring and tiresome!
Now think back on your own life. Can you recall instances of something that you initially thought was a bad thing that turned out to be not so bad after all or perhaps even a spectacularly good thing? Like the time you just missed a train and had to wait a whole hour for the next one and it was horrible — except that your neighbor also missed it, so you talked for the first time and a beautiful friendship developed? You will find many instances in your life, some of them very significant such as the job you desperately wanted but didn't get, only to find that a much better one came by and you would not have been able to accept it if not for the earlier rejection.
Now let's propose something radical and revolutionary. Let's propose that, no matter what happens to you, you do not stick a bad thing label on it. No matter what. You are fired from your job... your mortgage lender sends you a foreclosure notice... your spouse files for divorce... or whatever. This seems so far-fetched as to be laughable. Of course, these are horrible tragedies and terrible things to happen. Or are they? Is it possible, just possible, that you have been conditioned to think of these happenings as unspeakable tragedies and hence experience them as such?
Viktor Frankl, in his book Man's Search for Meaning, narrates the tale of the beautiful girl of privilege who was grateful to be in a concentration camp because she was able to connect with a spiritual side of her that she never knew existed. Observations like this led Frankl into his life's work of determining why, when faced with extreme adversity, some persons positively flourish while others disintegrate.
Many who rise so triumphantly never label what they go through as bad and lament over it. They simply take it as a given as if they were a civil engineer surveying the landscape through which a road is to be built. In this view, a swamp is not a bad thing. It is merely something that has to be addressed in the construction plan.
And if you never label something as bad, then you don't need positive thinking and all of the stress associated with getting something bad and experiencing it as such till you figure out how to make lemonade out of it simply goes away.
That is the huge pebble in the positive thinking shoe. "This is bad. Really bad. It's a lemon. But somehow I will make some lemonade out of it and then perhaps it won't be so bad." First, you think it's bad, and then you think you will somehow make it less bad, and there is a strong undercurrent that you are playing games and kidding yourself. Some people succeed. Many don't. And those who don't are devastated that the model they were trying so hard to build caved in on them. That's why positive thinking can sometimes be harmful.
Can you actually go through life without labeling what happens to you as good or bad? Sure you can. You have to train yourself to do this. You have been conditioned to think of things as bad or good. You can de-condition yourself. It is neither easy nor fast but it is possible.
Let's say you break your leg. There is stuff you have to do like go to an orthopedist and get it set and go to therapy when the cast comes off. But all the rest of the stuff you pick up ("Why did this have to happen to me? Bad things always come my way. I am in such pain. Who will hold the world up now that I am disabled?") is simply baggage. You don't have to pick up this load and the only reason you do is because you were never told that you didn't have to.
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I am telling you now. Don't pick up that useless burden. Don't label what happens to you as bad. Then you won't need positive thinking and much of the stress in your life will simply disappear. Poof! Just like that.
© 2010 Srikumar S. Rao, author of Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful — No Matter What.