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What’s Wrong With “Positive” Thinking?

March 29, 2018

You don’t have to look far to read something or have someone tell you to think positive.

But is this really such a good idea?

It may seem surprising, but positive thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Let’s look at why.

Perhaps I’m trying to get fit and I repeat to myself the following positive message: “I am an excellent athlete”. The first problem with this is that my brain doesn’t buy it! I have other strengths, but this isn’t one of them! So, although it’s positive, it’s just not true, and my brain knows it. So instead of feeling better, I am reminded of what I am not.

Secondly, if my brain actually did buy this lie, would it help me? If I did believe I was the best athlete, I may rest on my laurels and not feel the need to get moving. So, my goal to increase my fitness is actually less likely to happen.

“But all this talk about thinking positive, it can’t all be wrong,” I hear you say. You’re right, there is a very important reason to understand why we are often told to ‘think positively’. Our brains have an inherent negative bias. The survival instinct is strong and our brains are almost hard wired to look for problems and search out possible dangers, both physical and social, to keep us safe. We need to be aware of this habitual bias and seek a more balanced (and therefore more positive) view.

The alternative

So where does that leave us? The alternative is to aim for “helpful” thinking. This is thinking that is realistic, balanced and will drive us towards our valued goals. When you notice your brain playing its survival messages, acknowledge that it is doing its job, but then engage that conscious brain to choose a more specific, balanced and helpful message. “I can get fitter if I stick to my exercise plan” or “I will feel better if I do that yoga session with my daughter today”. Yes, they are longer, but they are actually more powerful in creating the life you value.

What about with children?

This same concept of helpful thinking is what we can choose to model to our children. They are quick to absorb the styles of thinking we use when talking with them. Try modelling helpful thinking that is balanced, believable and includes useful actions and coping attitudes. This can be a very powerful tool to support your child’s emotional well-being.

How does it look?

Instead of “You’re the best at drawing!” it might be “wow look at all those colours!

The more you draw, the better it gets” (this encourages a growth mindset).

Or for a nervous child heading to school on the first day, rather than “you’ll have a great day, everyone will like you!” which can feel like pressure, you could say instead, “You can meet some new people, I’m sure the teacher has lots of activities planned. I wonder which ones you will like?”

So next time someone tells you to “just think positive,” use this small but powerful tweak. Check if your thinking is balanced and helping you to take actions towards your valued goals. Remember, change takes practice so give yourself time to try this out.

If you would like to explore the idea further, please contact me or another mental health professional.

As an Occupational Therapist, I work with both individuals and families to help them develop the skills and confidence to overcome life’s everyday challenges. Whether it’s helping a child improve their social skills, assisting parents in supporting their child’s development, or helping adults better manage their life balance, I provide both child and adult occupational therapy services that are individually tailored to my client’s unique needs. Visit my website today to find out more about my Perth occupational therapy services.