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Elisa Goldstein, Ph.D.Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
A blog about mindfulness, stress-reduction, psychotherapy and mental health.

The Danger of Positive Thinking

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 16th 2010

There have been major movements off and on about the power of positive thinking for depression and success in life. I want to take a moment to flesh this out because I believe there's some confusion around the reality of this approach.

I just recently received an email from a reader who expressed this confusion and asked for help.

It's not a secret that when we're feeling depressed we become riddled with automatic negative thoughts  such as "who cares," "what's the point," or just seeing gloom and doom which is expressed very well in the Saturday Night Live skit of "Debbie Downer" (for a little comedy relief - click here).

So, here's the off and on big movement that says "if you just think positive, things will turn out great!" The problem is, if you actively choose to ignore pain in life, it tends to grow, making us more imbalanced in the end. This is not to say positive thinking is "negative," but it is to say that we need to be careful how we go about this.

In the Mindfulness-Based Treatment groups I run we give out pleasant and unpleasant events calendars to fill out over the course of two weeks.  On this calendar there is a space to write out what the event was (e.g., I heard my baby giggle today), a space to say what the physical sensations were in the body (e.g., expansion of the chest, a smile on my face), a place to note what the thoughts were (e.g., "I love her), a place to note the emotion (e.g., love, warmth) and a place to note what you noticed while writing this all down (e.g. the same feelings are coming up right now as I write this).

We then go ahead and have people do this for unpleasant events. The purpose of this is to get perspective and become more aware of the entire picture of experience, the event, physical feeling, emotion and thought.

It's very different to "just think positive" than to be aware of the potential pleasant things that are happening moment to moment. When we're depressed, there is a tendency to see the dark side and not notice the light.

Allowing ourselves to be present to the full experience of a moment and challenge ourselves to recollect pleasant experiences can build a more balanced attention toward life. But just pushing away the negative to look at the positive, for my money, isn't going to work. In fact, it creates an avoidance that eventually will only increase pain. As an extreme example, if we just reactively said, "things are wonderful" after getting bitten by a venomous snake, we may not have the perspective to go to the hospital.   

Someone once said, there is a fine line between being care-ful and care-less. This is worth chewing on.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below. Your interaction here provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.  

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice in West Los Angeles and is author of the upcoming book The Now Effect, co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook, Foreword by Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of the Mindful Solutions audio series, and the Mindfulness at Work™ program currently being adopted in multiple multinational corporations.

Check out Dr. Goldstein's acclaimed CD's on Mindful Solutions for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, Mindful Solutions for Addiction and RelapsePrevention, and Mindful Solutions for Success and Stress Reduction at Work. -- "They are so relevant, I have marked them as one of my favorites on a handout I give to all new clients" ~ Psychiatrist.

If you're wanting to integrate more mindfulness into your daily life, sign up for his Mindful Living Twitter Feed. Dr. Goldstein is also available for private psychotherapy.

    Reader Comments
    Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

    What I've tried to argue all along. - Mark Adams - Apr 5th 2010

    I tend to be one of the overly negative people and must admit that I need to be more positive on my overall outlook.  But I've always felt frustrated by people preaching the "magic pill" of positive thinking.  I've always felt life was a yin-yang experience and that experience was a matter of contrast.  Happiness could not be realized without sadness to contrast the emotion with.

    I once worked at a fast food establishment that sold hot wings.  The establishment was going to start selling "grilled" hot wings, so I made a comment to a supervisor that I didn't think the 'grilled' wings would sell any better than the "non-grilled" wings.  As a result of my comment, the supervisor called me a "Negative Nancy".  First of all, I don't know what her issue was with the name "Nancy" and second of all, I was glad she was not the owner, because she would run the establishment out of business if she refused to percieve the possibility of product doing poorly.

    I sometimes ponder if some of the more recent economic problems in the American economy were partially caused by individuals who refused to forsee that sometimes the worst "can" happen.

    hidden emotions - Geo - Mar 3rd 2010

    In addition, unacknowledge or hidden emotions cause problem and unhappiness. Accepting those emotions, although most of the time it is painful, can make us grow.

    personal feeling - geo - Mar 2nd 2010

    I agree that the acceptance of personal feeling is very important. Awareness of personal emotion for someone suffering is not an easy task.

    Like the Satir iceberg model, understanding and accepting  person feeling and to explore the inner mind is beneficial.

    DITTO - A passerby - Feb 21st 2010

    The thing I hate the most about positive thinking is how it can keep some people in blissful ignorance. I have a friend who spends her time professing not-well-thought wishes or plans and whenever you try to tell her that they're flawed, she says that you're negative and it's important to do some positive thinking. And eventually, her wishes always blow up in her face and she admits later that actually, she was full of doubts at the time she was making her wishful thinking. Positive thinking, uh? Leave that to realistic and pragmatic people who don't run away from the ugly reality.

    I think more of these life coaches or psychanalysts should explain to people what positive thinking REALLY is, what are its constraints, how should it be done, etc...

    having hope - Stuart A. Kaplowitz, MFT - Feb 19th 2010

    I guess for me, positive thinking is not about ignoring the issue but rather focusing on the ways to address it (the positives), including how I can/will.  Stuart

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