First, I am so sorry it took me so long to move this over here. I really had no idea I’d missed it. Second, it’s here now, so enjoy! (It was written sometime in early 2018, so some of the links might be weird.)
That might sound awfully ballsy coming from a site that advocates for self-healing, but seriously, do not fall into the trap of Positive Thinking.
We’re talking specifically about Positive Thinking the Movement. It focuses on eschewing all negative thought and embracing optimism, manifesting your desires and willing good outcomes into being, despite any evidence of shenanigans that might be going on. Positive Thinking is the foundation to countless corporate “personal improvement programs” and a billions-dollar industry to motivational thinking. It preaches that if you have enough self-confidence, vision, creativity, focus, and determination, you can accomplish literally anything in the world. You can’t allow yourself to feel bad about anything or let any kind of negativity contaminate your mind. Worst of all, it is supremely self-centered and almost pathologically unrealistic.
Given how the entire movement started, though, it’s not surprising that Positive Thinking is championed by a capitalistic economic culture dominated by sociopaths and psychopaths – and that’s not being judgmental. There are multiple studies that show a strong presence of clinically defined socio- and psychopaths in corporate and entrepreneurial leadership roles 1. Perhaps that’s because leadership roles attract those who desire to control others or maybe because both groups (‘paths and CEOs) thrive on making or breaking the rules with impunity. In both circumstances, there’s a strong resistance to learning from one’s mistakes, acknowledging personal flaws, or accurately drawing negative effects from personal misconduct.
The Positive Thinking movement originally stems from Napoleon Hill’s 1937 book Think and Grow Rich. It was allegedly the “culminated wisdom” of interviews with the “friends of Andrew Carnegie,” all moguls and tycoons who built monopolies from and sometimes with the bones of the Great Depression 2. Later, Vincent Peale would take a strong riff from Hill’s book with his 1952 tome, the Power of Positive Thinking, and one couldn’t forget to mention the obvious grandchild of that, Rhonda Byrne’s the Secret 3. In all these cases, if you somehow fail in achieving our desires, it just means you aren’t wishing hard enough. (Sorry, it’s not “wishing,” it’s “desiring,” because there’s a difference according to Hill’s “philosophy.”) You attract into your life whatever emotionally has the most power, they say, so if you’re failing, some part of you must really want to. (Sorry, yes, it’s bullshit 4.)
Anyone who’s read Hill’s book usually believes that what they find there is mind-blowingly good stuff – budget your time and money to get to your goals, take care of your body, foster self-discipline and a strong work ethic – but that’s all common sense. None of it holds any kind of mystical truth, because if it did, Hill wouldn’t have spent over 20 years basically dirt poor. He did build a significant reputation as a con man, though, defrauding a lumber company he worked for the students of his “automobile college.” Beyond that, though, if there were anything particularly magical about Hill’s “17 steps of achievement,” then there would be millions more millionaires in the world, based on the sales numbers for his books.
Positive Thinking Isn’t Necessarily Good
The primary principle of the Positive Thinking movement as it’s translated today is that your emotional state is flexible and changeable, and thus if you don’t like how you feel, you can consciously choose to change it. The unfortunate result of this is that while believing that you have control over your emotions may give you a significant edge in managing the surface reactions (called malleability), you are far more likely to fall into self-deprecation and a depressive cycle when those deeper emotions prove impervious to your stern talking-to (fixed emotional states) 5. When someone essentially blames themselves for “not feeling better” during the experience of a negative emotion – particularly after being told that they should be able to – an extra layer of guilt and shame is piled on top of the original legitimate state. This just makes it harder to resolve the issue effectively at all.
Malleability is best shown when you are faced with an immediate choice or challenge and exercise conscious control over your final reaction versus your immediate impulse. A homeless person approaches you on the street after leaving a restaurant and asks you for change. Your first impulse might be to immediately throw a big of money at them and hurry off, or maybe you ignore their presence completely. If, instead, you stop and consider the situation and couch it in compassion, you can overcome your first reaction and recognize that this is a human who has suffered enormous misfortune and deserves to be treated with some dignity and respect. Ask their name, offer whatever doggy bag you might’ve been taking home, and give them what aid you can. Your first emotion – revulsion or avoidance – is now replaced with compassion and happiness at having done a good thing.
This is in very sharp and severe contrast to what we often call the “Get Over It” reaction. Positive Thinkers would believe that they can plaster a smile on their faces and focus hard on all the good things and goals and dreams and
wishes desires, and that would resolve them from dealing with their abusive childhood, crippling poverty, or traumatic shadows. Don’t let it get you down, just Get Over It! Anyone who’s suffered from any of these things can tell you that “thinking yourself better” doesn’t happen, they are conditions that come and go of their own volition (fixed states). If you’ve bought into the idea that you’re supposed to be able to just will it all away, then when it doesn’t work, it’s going to compound your sense of helplessness even more.
When someone holds onto a positive attitude too aggressively – called maladaptive positivity – it can lead to all kinds of potentially dangerous behaviors. People in this boat tend to think too highly of themselves and overextend their capacities a great deal. They take far more dangerous risks, overestimate the value of their gains, and ignore the true costs of their losses 6. People with excessive “positive thinking” habits can also have problems with gambling because they don’t take losses seriously and misinterpret their results as “temporary bad luck” or “running out the bad rolls.”
Possibly the worst scenario are salespeople and entrepreneurs who are so focused on “visualizing their success” and “manifesting their will” that they do not recognize clear and obvious signs that their business deals or models are not all they’re cracked up to be 7. Then, the cycle of self-deprecation begins anew and additionally increases the likelihood of alcohol and substance abuse, using substances as a painkiller to avoid facing failure or as an alternate “reward” for “near success.” These are also noted behaviors among clinical psychopathic presentations and some personality disorders 8, which, frankly, the Positive Thinking movement emulates.
Directing Negativity, the Right Way
Humans are not designed to be able to control their emotions any more than they can easily control their thoughts. These things are the natural result of receiving input and consciously or subconsciously processing that input into a suitable reaction. As has been repeatedly discussed, emotions are gauges and signposts. They are reactions to any number of conditions in the world, but they are not meant to made decisions for us. They nudge us and incite us to find a possible action, but they do not get to choose what we do.
One review found studies consistently supported that “contextually sensitive negative emotions were adaptive” 9, which means first that natural emotional responses tend to occur in the proper context to a given situation, and feedback received from others in those situations directly affected how a person adapted to the situation. When natural and proper negative emotions were addressed in the moment, relationships had better outcomes, people in treatment stuck to their programs better, and called-out behaviors more easily when receiving constructive feedback. When a person is willing to tolerate experiencing a “negative emotion” such as shame, guilt, or grief, and then address it as feedback instead of judgment, amazing things can happen.
Imagine that a lady comes home from work to find that her boyfriend has done nothing all day but play video games and make a huge mess. If his emotional reaction is to decide that “it’s not that big of a deal” and that she’s “overreacting,” he is overestimating his positive worth in that moment and underestimating the impact of his negative actions – a classic “positive thinking” response. He is avoiding a personal negative response in relation to his behavior. If she presses the issue, he gets angry because she’s challenging his “positive self-concept.”
On the other hand, if he allows himself to feel guilty that he disrespected their space by making a huge mess and wasted his time by accomplishing nothing, then he has the correct motivation to correct the behavior. The follow-up to that situation is that guilt, like anger, is merely a signpost, and as soon as the thing it has been resolved, it should disappear.
In a more visceral sense, during the long-term treatment of a serious disease, the presence of negative emotion in relation to the disease itself (fear, anger, worry) positively correlated with the likeliness of person sticking with their treatments. Likewise, a positive response when talking about their personal coping mechanisms in relation to the disease increased adherence even more. However, people who were dismissive or appeared to use “positive thinking” in relation to the disease itself were not as likely to stick with their programs 10.
Overcoming Denial and Dishonesty
It’s difficult to prioritize whether dishonesty or denial is the greater power behind the dangers of Positive Thinking. In a way, they feed each other because there must be a rejection of reality in order to buy into either. Perhaps we should examine denial as a reflexive rejection of negative response due to fear of something outside of ourselves, while dishonesty might be rejecting something we see within ourselves. In our journey to embrace being wholly in the Now and conscious of ourselves, we must recognize that negative emotions, even about ourselves, are not “negative things.” Rather, being willing to acknowledge our imperfections and flaws is a critical part of growth. In the words of Osho, speaking with Ideapod in 2017, “The negative is as much part of life as the positive. They balance each other out.” 11
Think about it this way: we are all on the road to self-improvement, self-healing, and happiness. If you only focus on the “good things,” if you never let yourself feel “bad things,” how do you know what to improve if you don’t have any flaws in the first place? And don’t worry about running out of things to fix; the universe is designed in such a way that when you think you’ve got everything licked, newer challenges on a higher level open for you.
In the meantime, keep positive thoughts exactly where they belong and take a page from the folks in the difficult diseases study: Use all the vulgar words you want to describe the crappy things in your life, and use all the empowering words to describe the fierceness with which you will resolve those crappy things. When things go poorly, don’t try to justify it out of the gate and try to “find the silver lining.” Be honest with your feelings, and don’t feel pressured to justify them. Your feels are your feels, and you have a right to them.
Depression (situational or clinical) goes hand-in-glove with any kind of long-term or terminal illness, especially if there’s a great deal of pain or discomfort associated with it. As shown in the example with serious illnesses above, only indulging in negative emotion materially makes things much worse. When you exclusively focus on the negative, you miss the positive elements that could help you solve the problem, or at least get through.
Consider two people who have fibromyalgia 12. Person A focuses exclusively on the pain and fatigue – and there is a lot of it. Though they have some friends outside of the support communities, the only topics they ever discuss at length are issues surrounding their illness. When they do discuss things besides doctors (of whom they never speak highly), they describe enormous fault with their job, coworkers, neighbors, or other friends. Everything about their social presentation is negative and dark, and suggesting that maybe a change in their program or even surroundings might help is met with venom.
Person B also suffers from intense pain and fatigue, but they consciously pursue treatment of rather than diagnoses – which is to say, they seek out that which will improve their condition, regardless of what any part of it might be called. They try to stay up to date on the latest research, and they share these with their support community, engaging in dialogue to try to figure out the worthiness of proposed treatments. Their hobbies that honor their limitations and they practice tai chi when they are able 13. They try to change environments when they can and “give themselves a break from their illness” occasionally. Their illness may not be curable and isn’t going to just go away, and focusing on it exclusively can even make it worse.
It’s not hard to tell which of these two people is going to have a better outlook – and better prognosis – overall. The former has a tough time keeping even platonic relationships consistently, and the latter is married with a child and a great support system.
Person B, however, did not get where they were with Positive Thinking. They got there by being honest with themselves about their condition, respecting their limitations but challenging them at the same time, and appreciating the value of the resources in their life consciously and individually.
To give the TL; DR version: Positive thinking to the exclusion of everything else is bullshit. It’s based in bullshit, it’s steeped in bullshit, and it only perpetuates more bullshit. Yes, you are a shining star of awesome light and love, but you also sometimes have a little schmutz on your face. Pretending it’s not there isn’t a good look, and your true friends will point it out and help you take care of it.
Brown, L. (2017, May 12). “A Zen master explains why ‘positive thinking’ is terrible advice,” Ideapod. Retrieved from https://ideapod.com/zen-master-explains-positive-thinking-terrible-advice/
Carmichael, M. (Newsweek), Radford, B. (2007, March 29). “Secrets and Lies.” Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, Special Report. Retrieved from https://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/secrets_and_lies
Coifman, K.F., Flynn, J.J., Pinto, L.A. (2016, April 2). “When context matters: Negative emotions predict psychological health and adjustment.” Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 40, Issue 4, pp. 602-624. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11031-016-9553-y
Harvey, M.M., Coifman, K.G., Ross, G, Kleinert, D., Giardina, P. (2014, May 6). “Contextually appropriate emotional word use predicts adaptive health behavior: Emotion context sensitivity and treatment adherence.” Journal of Health Psychology, Vol. 21, Issue 5, pp. 579-589. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1359105314532152?journalCode=hpqa
Hauser, W., Albin, J., Fitzcharles, M-A., Littlejohn, G., Luciano, J.V., Usui, C., Walitt, B. (2015, August 13). “Fibromyalgia.” Nature Reviews: Disease Primers 1, Article number: 15022. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/articles/nrdp201522
James, G. (2013, April 22). “The Danger of Positive Thinking: Positive thinking is a powerful took but only if you use it the right way.” Inc.Com. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/the-danger-of-positive-thinking.html
Kapoor, D. (2011, October 1). “Are CEOs and Entrepreneurs psychopaths? Multiple studies say ‘yes’.” Patheos: Drishtikone. Retrieved from https://www.patheos.com/blogs/drishtikone/2013/10/are-ceos-and-entrepreneurs-psychopaths-multiple-studies-say-yes/
Kneeland, E.T., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Dovidio, J.F., Gruber, J. (2016, May 25). “Beliefs about emotion’s malleability influence state emotion regulation.” Motivation and Emotion, Oct 2016, Vol. 40, Issue 5, pp. 740-749. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11031-016-9566-6
Leahy, R.L. (2011, October 28). “The Dangers of Optimism.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/anxiety-files/201110/the-dangers-optimism
Novak, M. (2016, December 6). “All-American Huckster: The Untold Story of Napoleon Hill, the Greatest Self-Help Scammer of All Time.” Gizmodo: Paleofuture. Retrieved from https://paleofuture.gizmodo.com/the-untold-story-of-napoleon-hill-the-greatest-self-he-1789385645
Schein, M., (2017, February 14). “The Real Reason Napoleon Hill Grew Rich (Hint: It’s Not What You Think.” Inc.Com. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/michael-schein/brthe-real-reason-napoleon-hill-grew-rich-hint-its-not-what-you-think.html
Wang, C., Schmid, C.H., Fielding, R.A., Harvey, W.F., Reid, K.F., Price, L.L., Driban, J.B., Kalish, R., Rones, R., McAlindon, T. (2018, February 13). “Effect of tai chi versus aerobic exercise for fibromyalgia: comparative effectiveness randomized controlled trial.” The BMJ, 2018: 360. Retrieved from https://www.bmj.com/content/360/bmj.k851.full
Westermeyer, J., Thuras, P. (2005). “Association of antisocial personality disorder and substance disorder comorbidity in a clinical sample.” American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, Vol. 31, Issue 1, pp.93-110. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15768573
1 Kapoor, D. (2011, October 1). “Are CEOs and Entrepreneurs psychopaths? Multiple studies say ‘yes’.” Patheos
2 There is no record of Hill ever having met with Carnegie, even in passing, let alone any of his business associates. -Schein, M., Inc.Com.
3 Novak, M. (2016, December 6). “All American Huckster.” Gizmodo.
4 “The problem is that neither the film nor the book has any basis in scientific reality… the “Law of Attraction”: that similar things attract each other, so positive thoughts bring positive things and negative ones bring negative things. Of course, in physics, it is opposites that attract, but never mind that…” – Carmichael, Radford, 2007.
5 Kneeland, E.T., Nolen-Hoeksema, S., Dovidio, J.F., Gruber, J. (2016, May 25). “Beliefs about emotion’s malleability influence state emotion regulation.” Motivation and Emotion, Oct 2016, Vol. 40, Issue 5, pp. 740-749
6 Leahy, R.L. (2011, October 28). “The Dangers of Optimism.” Psychology Today.
7 James, G. (2013, April 22). “The Danger of Positive Thinking.” Inc.Com.
8 “According to researchers at Marquette University, fully 90 percent of all people with ASPD [possibly psychopathic/sociopathic] abuse drugs or alcohol… as many as 40 to 50 percent of all people in substance abuse treatment programs have enough ASPD symptoms to verify an antisocial personality diagnosis…” Report: Westermeyer, Thuras, 2005.
9 Coifman, K.F., Flynn, J.J., Pinto, L.A. (2016, April 2). “When context matters: Negative emotions predict psychological health and adjustment.” Motivation and Emotion, Vol. 40, Issue 4, pp. 602-624.
10 Harvey, M.M., Coifman, K.G., Ross, G, Kleinert, D., Giardina, P. (2014, May 6). “Contextually appropriate emotional word use predicts adaptive health behavior: Emotion context sensitivity and treatment adherence.” Journal of Health Psychology, Vol. 21, Issue 5, pp. 579-589.
11 Brown, L. (2017, May 12). “A Zen master explains why ‘positive thinking’ is terrible advice,” Ideapod.
12 Fibromyalgia is a common illness characterized by chronic widespread pain, sleep problems (including unrefreshing sleep), physical exhaustion and cognitive difficulties. – Hauser et al, 2015, Nature Reviews: Disease Primers.
13 “Tai chi mind-body treatment results in similar or greater improvement in symptoms than aerobic exercise, the current most commonly prescribed non-drug treatment, for a variety of outcomes for patients with fibromyalgia. Longer duration of tai chi showed greater improvement. This mind-body approach may be considered a therapeutic option in the multidisciplinary management of fibromyalgia.” – Wang et al, the BMJ Medical Journal.