The Problem with Positive Thinking

I had a nice conversation on a plane the other day with a woman who told me that she learned about the importance of positive thinking from reading self-help books.

When I asked if she found this advice useful, she said, “not really.” We both laughed, but I think this is true for a lot of people. And yet, we keep hearing about the power of positive thinking. Why?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that negative beliefs about the self, the world, and the future can lead to anger, anxiety, and depression. And to feel better, it seems reasonable to turn to “optimistic” or “positive” thinking.

But this strategy can backfire if our new ideas aren’t believable, realistic, or confirmed by our experiences.

When positive thinking goes wrong

Have you ever tried to convince yourself that you’d ace the job interview and get hired immediately?

That you’d stand up in front of an audience and deliver a perfect presentation?

That you’d start up a conversation with a stranger who would see your greatness and be thrilled to chat with you?

That you’d be able to stick to your diet because this time you’re truly motivated?

Sometimes beliefs like these are supported by the data–pleasant reactions from other people, consistently healthy behavior, and other successful outcomes.

But sometimes we experience disappointing outcomes that don’t match our predictions. If we try to guide ourselves through life with positive thoughts, what happens when things don’t work out so well?

When beliefs and experiences don’t match, we become confused, frustrated, and disappointed. This is why positive thinking is so limited. It often seems forced or inauthentic and it only works when we have the experiences we desire.

What’s the alternative?

A better bet is to practice replacing negative beliefs with ideas that are more accurate and useful.

For example, when you catch yourself thinking in unreasonable ways, begin to assess accuracy. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s the evidence to support this belief?
  • Is there any evidence to reject it?
  • Is there a more accurate way to think about this situation?

Next, consider the usefulness of the belief and whether it would benefit you to change it. Some questions to ask yourself:

  • What’s the likely effect of thinking this way?
  • How does it affect my emotions? My behavior?
  • What would happen if I changed my belief?

Using exercises like these to move toward more accurate and useful beliefs can have a huge impact on the intensity of unpleasant emotions.

For more information on developing accurate and useful beliefs, and for other coping strategies based on the principles of cognitive behavior therapy, take a look at these self-help books.

You can also read more about cognitive behavior therapy and my services if you prefer to work directly with a licensed clinical psychologist.


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