How being “positive” can be bad for your mental health
It’s a phrase used in almost every area of life – and one that’s often cited as an invaluable tool to overcome adversity. “Be Positive”.
By Leanne Hall
Practical Parenting expert / June 13 2018
While having a general positive outlook on life is certainly not a bad thing, the term or phrase “thinking or being positive” can in fact have a detrimental impact on our mental health. And it’s everywhere. “Being positive” has almost become a social and cultural movement in its own right, permeating all aspects of business and social media. And while we often have the best of intentions when we use this phrase, it’s important to understand the potential negative impact of these powerful words. And here is why……
It assumes that something “bad” has happened. Human beings have a tendency to throw labels on things that happen to them. It’s our way of making sense of our environment. The problem is, life is not black and white and instead it’s often our perception of things that’s the issue. If we label something as “bad” then a negative (and often predictable) emotional reaction will follow. Hence, the need to “think positive” in order to overcome/manage these emotions. Instead, it can be much more helpful to perceive these events as hurdles or speed humps. If we refrain from using negative labels, then we remove the pressure associated with trying to “think positive”.
It puts way too much pressure on people, by assuming that emotions can simply be changed. Emotions are complex reactions which we cannot simply control with a single phrase. It’s like telling someone who is sad and upset to “cheer up”. It’s just not that simple, and in fact it can have the opposite effect by causing the person to feel judged. And when we feel judged, guilt often follows. This can make the person feel much worse. Emotions are transient. They don’t last forever, so instead it can much more helpful to acknowledge how the person is feeling, be empathic and non-judgemental and simply sit with them through the discomfort until it passes.
It encourages black and white thinking. Dichotomous thinking is a trap, perpetuating irrational thinking which underlies a number of psychological disorders including depression and anxiety. This type of “all or nothing” thinking is over simplistic and not at all representative of the complexity that exists in life. When we make these kinds of simplistic judgements on ourselves, negative emotions follow. Instead, it’s much more helpful to accept that life is full of grey, and this isn’t such a bad thing. After all, by rejecting an “all or nothing” approach to life, you take away the negative judgement associated with it!
It shames people. This sounds extreme, but overuse of the phrase “be or think positive” shames people who feel anything negative (sadness, anxiety, depression). “Be positive” is an instruction, a way of life which is often promoted as something that all happy and successful people do. For people who are struggling with negative emotions (which is actually all of us at certain times), this can make them feel ashamed, and like failures for not being able to live up to these expectations.
It undervalues the importance of human suffering. No one likes to suffer emotionally. Emotional discomfort feels awful, and sometimes our reaction can be to avoid or deny these feelings (just be positive!). However, emotional and psychological growth comes from learning how to accept and move through these difficult times. It also results in healthier relationships as it means we can be more sensitive and empathic to the emotional discomfort experienced by our loved ones. Think of who your “go to” people are when you are feeling a bit low. Would you confide in someone who is empathic and acknowledges negative emotions, or the “be positive” friend who insists on being positive all the time? Which friend are you?