Road sign featuring the words, 'Positive Mindset'

Can Positive Thinking Be Harmful?

Take a moment to look at the image below.Black dot on white page

What do you notice first?

The dot or the blank expanse?

Education consultant, Dr Bill Rogers, posed this very question many years ago. He was making the point that what you focus on affects your perception of the situation. The more you pay attention to the difficulties in your life and/or the flaws in yourself or others, the more space they take up in your mind. This, in turn, affects how you perceive the situation, skewing your view even more towards the negative.

Since today is International What you Think Upon Grows Day, it seemed fitting to explore this phenomenon. The theory goes that the more we cultivate positive thoughts, the more they grow, thus, crowding out the negative thoughts. Another way of thinking about this is how planting lots of flowers, fruit and vegetables in the garden means there is less room for weeds to spring up.

But does this always work? And is it healthy to deny our negative feelings?

Studies show that when we focus on the things we’re grateful for, our brains released dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals enhance optimism, empathy and self-esteem. Once in this mindset, we are more likely to notice other positive things in our life, and so the cycle continues.

But what happens to the ‘bad’ thoughts and feelings? Do they just go away? And are we hurting ourselves by pretending they’re not there?

Toxic Positivity

Much has been written about toxic positivity – the idea that regardless of circumstance, an individual must endeavour to remain positive. This approach can, unfortunately, lead to repression, numbing and denial.

Emotions are with us for a reason. Simply put, they are data sent to us by our inner self to alert us when something is in need of attention. Emotions may be temporarily crushed, but they don’t go away unless they are processed. Processing an emotion is completely different from over-expression (e.g. losing your temper), suppression (e.g. saying ‘I’m fine’ when you know you’re not) or repression (automatically pushing your feelings down so quickly, you don’t even realise you’ve done it.)

But what happens when the emotions seem unbearable? Who wants to drown in grief? Lie awake at night feeling enraged? Be consumed by jealousy?

Positivity versus Authenticity

Perhaps the answer isn’t to aim for positivity so much as aim for authenticity. This involves allowing yourself to experience your emotions without crushing or feeding them. It requires encountering them, listening to what they have to say, sometimes taking action, and then letting them go. By going through this process, we are able to see more clearly, which means we’re more likely to notice the positive in our lives going forward.

Yes, but …

What if my emotions are too big, too daunting, too overwhelming to deal with?

This is where techniques such as EFT come into their own. Tapping helps to calm the nervous system so that you can safely experience your emotions, address your negative thoughts patterns and come to a new understanding about yourself and the world.

Coming back to the image above, is it better to notice the blank expanse or the dot? I suggest we acknowledge the dot on page while viewing it in the context of the blank expanse. In other words, we neither obsess over the dot nor pretend it isn’t there. We simply see it for what it is and then address it, but without its taking up all of our attention. This is part of what it means to live the authentic life.

Image credits: Positive Mindset by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
Dot on page by Marianne Vreugdenhil.
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