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5 Ways positive thinking can hurt more than it helps

Posted by Karen M. Wyatt on April 10, 2012 at 1:20 PM

The power of positive thinking and the law of attraction have had a dramatic influence on our society in recent years as many have recognized that it is better to have a positive outlook on life and its occurrences than to dwell on the negative. And there is also evidence that the energy you put out into the world may come back to you in a similar form, making a strong case for focusing on the positive as much as possible.

But are there times when emphasizing the positive is not helpful?

I once worked with a patient named Lucy who was experiencing multiple difficulties in her life all at the same time. She was suffering with a medical condition that caused her to be very fatigued, she became unable to work and was having financial problems as a result, and her apartment had recently been robbed of some of her original artwork. Her best friend at the time had just attended a law of attraction workshop and was fervent about preaching the gospel of positivity. When Lucy tried to tell him what was happening in her life, he refused to listen because he didn’t want to be exposed to anything negative. His attitude became a new problem for her to deal with in her life as she felt rejected and unsupported by her friend.

Over the past few years I have been close to other people who have] experienced various degrees of suffering and have heard stories from them as well of painful encounters with well-meaning friends who just seemed to be too positive, too certain that everything is great and that all will be well. In fact, some people have actually been hurt by the overwhelming positive energy of their friends. Here are some of the ways that this type of positive thinking, which I call “reckless positivity” can be hurtful:  

  1. Demeans genuine suffering. When some believers in this model emphasize only the positive, they fail to consider that suffering is one of the common occurrences of life that is often beyond our control. For example, their belief system has no satisfactory explanation for why natural disasters occur, other than to blame them on the negativity of the victims, because they refuse to accept that suffering, loss and death are necessary parts of life. In addition, to ignore suffering is to miss out on all the potential learning and growth opportunities it can provide. 
  2. Encourages risky behavior. One person I know was convinced to participate in a strenuous activity even though she wasn’t feeling well physically because her friends encouraged her to stay positive and not give in to her “negative” symptoms. However, because she ignored her body’s wisdom and overexerted when she actually needed rest, this woman ended up becoming more seriously ill and required a longer time to regain her health.  
  3. Ignores reality. In Lucy’s situation, her unpaid bills, lack of employment and physical illness were real problems that needed thoughtful attention and a careful strategy to resolve. Her friend’s criticism and rejection implied that these issues would disappear if Lucy could just smile and be positive, but this behavior on his part was not at all helpful. Lucy really needed a friend who could listen without judgment and help her think through the best next steps for her life. 
  4. Leads to alienation. When Lucy was at a low point in her life she was unable to get support from her best friend because he rejected her so-called negativity. Thus she felt even more alone and isolated with her difficulties. But genuine spiritual growth leads us more and more in the direction of connectivity and collaboration rather than selfishness and isolation. A truly enlightened friend would have offered Lucy the calm and open presence she really needed to help get her life back together again. 
  5. Causes guilt. Because of her friend’s judgmentalism, Lucy also began to believe that she had caused all of her own problems and was somehow a bad person since misfortune had befallen her. While it was important for Lucy to take responsibility for her own behaviors that might have contributed to her problems, the guilt she felt actually interfered with her ability to move forward with confidence and find solutions for herself.

While these five symptoms of “reckless positivity” are distressing for those who experience them, there is an even more insidious problem that lurks behind the entire culture of positive thinking: the fact that it creates polarization. The very act of labeling thoughts and occurrences as positive or negative sets up a black-and-white dualistic view of life: that some things are “good” while others are “bad.” In the spiritual realm this type of polarity does not actually exist since everything is connected and works together as part of the whole. To focus only on what appears to be positive and reject what is thought to be negative is a fragmented approach to life that cannot result in true spiritual growth.

The truth is, from our limited human vantage point we really can’t tell what the future holds or why certain things happen as they do. And we certainly don’t have control over most of the events of our lives. The fantasy that we are in charge is comforting to us but soon falls apart when real life intervenes and things go wrong despite our positivity.

To truly evolve spirituality we must balance in equanimity between what appears to be positive or negative and surrender to the unfolding of life in all its glory. Growth occurs even in the midst of destruction; life flourishes in the face of death; love rises above the force of hatred. These are the tenets of genuine spiritual growth that will lead us toward enlightenment – and that’s something to feel positive about!

Categories: Psychology, Spirituality, Suffering

Copyright ©2010 Karen Wyatt, MD

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