On the Dangers of Positive Thinking

October 24, 2017


From the time we are children, “positive thinking” is pounded into us. We are bombarded with sentiments like: “Look on the bright side. Don’t be sad. Stay positive. When life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”


The sentiment behind these pep-talks is admirable: A lot can be said about focusing on positive, empowering thoughts. 


But the truth is that forcing positive thoughts when you feel lousy doesn’t work. In fact, it can actually make you feel worse. In one study, subjects were told of an unhappy event, but then instructed not to feel sad about it. They were, in essence, told to stay positive.


Well, guess what happened? They ended up feeling worse than subjects who were told of the event, but given no instructions about how to feel.[1]


That’s right. If you are told to feel better when you aren’t ready to feel better, you end up feeling worse.


I call this the “tyranny of positive thinking.”


Sometimes, it can feel downright awful to search for that damn silver lining. When your emotions are trying to rise to the surface, you simply cannot force yourself to feel better. Nor should you try.


The truth is, your emotions exist for a reason. They have important messages for you, and trying to stuff them is akin to holding your breath after sprinting. It’s counter-productive. We have all had the experience of stuffing down anger, for example, only to have it explode in an overreaction the next time we’re triggered. Ignoring emotions almost always makes them bigger.


So, what should we do instead of ignoring negative emotions? We should embrace them. If we ask ourselves what they are trying to tell us, we can figure out exactly what we need to feel better.


Negative Emotions Aren’t Entirely “Negative.”


The thing is, so-called “negative” emotions are not actually bad. In fact, they can be good, if we use them to our advantage. We call them “negative” because they physically feel bad, but that is a good thing, because it gets our attention and tells us we need to take care of ourselves. Just like a sore throat is telling you something within your body is amiss and you need to take care of yourself physically, negative emotions are telling you that something you are experiencing feels amiss and you need to take care of yourself emotionally.


The way to take care of yourself when something feels wrong is to explore what the emotion is trying to tell you. This is a two-step process:


  1. Finish this sentence: I feel (emotion), because…

  2. Answer this question: What do I need to feel better... that is within my control?


For example, I feel angry, because John shouldn’t treat me that way.


This one sentence is all you need.


Now move on to the most important question of all: What do I need to feel better… that’s in my control?


For example, I need John to be more respectful.


When you remember that you cannot control someone else’s behavior, you realize you need to rethink that answer.


What do you need that is in your control? I need to surround myself with people who are respectful and make me feel supported and loved.




When you assume your negative emotions are telling you how you can take care of yourself, you start doing just that—taking care of yourself. You also move through your negative emotions more quickly.


If people realized that stuffing emotions makes them grow and embracing them makes them dissipate, the world would be a much gentler place.


This is the power of emotional intelligence. And this is why I am writing this blog.


The messages from our emotions are monumentally important, and they can only be heard when we allow ourselves to feel them. If you try to ignore them you lose your connection to one of your greatest tools for self-care: using emotions as a guidepost for making adjustments to your life.


Yet, no one is taught this—not in school, not on the job, and probably not at home. Instead, we are taught that anger, sadness, embarrassment, and all other “negative” emotions are ugly, and that we should tame them, stuff them, avoid them, and get them under control.


I am here to change all that. In a few days, I’ll give you more information about using negative emotions to your advantage. Today, lean in. When you feel lousy, just say it—or leave a comment here and let me know. I promise I won’t try to cheer you up.




[1] From Oliver Burkeman’s book, The Antidote: Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking.


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