Positive Thinking! Rah! Rah! I was blown away when I attended a pricey event led by well-known motivational speaker, Tony Robbins. I had long admired his books including, Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement. I imagined the experience might deepen my work in strengthening emotional resilience. And after all, Oprah Winfrey had attended one of his seminars so his work must be amazing. Just to clarity, the event I attended did not include Robbins’ famous fire-walk. That probably cost big-time positive thinking bucks!
There was a palatable hype in the room—several hundred people yelling, jumping and hugging to the rhythm of deafening music. “Raise your hand and say, Aye! Come on guys! Say it!”
Some of my thoughts:
- He is amazing! He is inspiring!
- How comfortable do I feel hugging people I do not know?
- One in six females has experienced some kind of sexual assault. Shouldn’t we be asking people for permission to hug, first?
- But most people probably had some sense of what to expect.
- Dale Carnegie, positive thinking pioneer and author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, would be proud.
- Wow! Robbins’ positive lingo sounds aggressive.
Then on a recent road trip I read Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thoughts Has Undermined America by humanitarian, Barbara Ehrenreich. She gave context and substance to my stirring scepticism.
Positive Psychology, optimism and positivity have given the world a welcome breath of fresh air. But continual focus on the bright side can end up, as Ehrenreich points out, supporting narcissism, denial of problems, and the loss of compassion for those less fortunate. Some of those who are less upbeat can even be accused as being poor influences because their faces show stress, sadness or, heaven forbid, anger. Here are some Ehrenreich thoughts:
- Realism—to the point of defensive pessimism—is a prerequisite not only for human survival but for all animal species.
- We need to brace ourselves for struggle against terrifying obstacles, both of our own making, and imposed by the natural world. The first step is to recover from the mass delusion that is positive thinking.
- (Quoting motivation speaker, Jeffrey Gitomer) GET RID OF NEGATIVE PEOPLE IN YOUR LIFE! . . . They waste your time and bring you down. (Ehrenreich counters with) The challenge of family life, or group life of any kind, is to keep gauging the moods of others, accommodating to their insights, and offering comfort when needed.
- In the world of positive thinking, other people are not there to be nurtured or to provide unwelcome reality checks. They are there only to nourish, praise, and affirm … There seems to be a massive empathy deficit, which people respond to by withdrawing their own.
More Research on the Dangers of Over-doing Positive Thinking
While positivity and optimism can have many benefits for mental and emotional well-being, overdoing or excessive positivity can potentially have negative consequences.
- Suppression of Distressing Emotions:
- Research suggests that an excessive focus on positivity can lead individuals to suppress or deny their uncomfortable emotions. This emotional suppression can result in emotional distress and psychological discomfort.
- Source: “Emotion Regulation: Conceptual and Practical Issues” by Adrian Wells.
- Inauthenticity and Disconnection:
- Overemphasis on positivity may lead individuals to present a facade of constant happiness, which can make them feel inauthentic and disconnected from their true emotions and from others.
- Source: “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown and studies on authenticity.
- Unrealistic Expectations:
- Unrealistic expectations of constant positivity can set individuals up for disappointment and frustration when faced with normal life challenges and setbacks.
- Source: Research on positive psychology and resilience.
- Avoidance of Problems:
- Excessive positivity can lead individuals to avoid addressing real problems or seeking necessary solutions because they want to maintain a positive façade.
- Negative Impact on Relationships:
- Overly positive individuals may struggle in relationships when they fail to acknowledge and address issues, leading to misunderstandings and unresolved conflicts
- Bypassing Grief and Trauma:
- Overemphasis on positivity can lead individuals to avoid processing and healing from grief and trauma, which may have long-term negative effects on mental health.
- Unrealistic Self-Perception:
- Constantly striving for positivity can distort one’s self-perception, as individuals may feel pressured to maintain a facade of unwavering positivity even when they are not genuinely feeling that way.
- Source: “Self-Esteem” by Morris Rosenberg and research on self-concept.
- Cultural and Societal Pressures:
- Societal and cultural pressures to be positive all the time can contribute to stress and feelings of inadequacy, as individuals may feel compelled to conform to unrealistic standards.
It’s important to note that the harm of overdoing positivity may vary from person to person and depend on individual personality traits, cultural context, and life circumstances. Striking a balance between acknowledging and processing uncomfortable emotions and fostering positivity is often considered a healthier approach to emotional well-being.
However, research also supports aspects of positivity such as gratitude, contentment, and self-compassion can improve our mood and health. Yet it is worth considering if we have put ourselves at risk for financial, friendship, and caring bankruptcy by thinking in the positive to an extreme.
So, avoid getting carried away with insisting on an environment with only positive thinking. Make space for flaws, raw feelings, and the human condition. What do you think?