The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

I have had many people come to see me over the years who tell me that they only want to think positively or that they do not want to experience any "negative" emotions. Sometimes they may tell me that they only "think positively" or have time for "positive things", which always makes me wonder why they want to see me if this is truly the case. One thing I often notice with these people is that they seem to be fighting an internal battle. I notice that when they talk about only thinking positively that their entire body seems to be in revolt. It is if they have to force such words out and try very hard to keep their bodies upright and put a lot of energy into keeping the smile on their face. The truth is, that whilst over the decades a lot of self-help books and motivational gurus have sold the idea that "being positive" all of the time is the only way to go, it actually becomes very hard work. In essence, to maintain such an attitude all of the time means denying a lot of very normal and natural feelings and some people do it to the point that entire areas of their emotional experience can become more or less split-off and then take on a life of their own. Only being positive and only thinking positive thoughts means that you are no longer fully-human. This is because it means that such people are putting a lot of work into pushing away and in some cases trying to obliterate very real feelings of sadness, grief, fear, and other feelings that they have decided that they do not want to feel and experience. This means that such people can come to judge themselves very harshly for having such feelings and thoughts, thus making them more prone to developing depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, it also means that they can judge their children and other loved ones for having thoughts and feelings that they deem to be "negative". This can often result in children and loved ones feeling criticised and judged for having what are in essence very normal and healthy thoughts and responses to difficult things. Such children and other loved ones can also feel unable to have a real relationship with the parent, spouse, sibling, or friend who is into only thinking positively and this means that they can end up feeling very alone in this relationship. The truth is that we all experience feelings of sadness, grief, fear, happiness, joy, excitement and other feelings and this is part of being a normal functioning human being. The trouble is when feelings (even those of happiness) become overwhelming, uncontainable, and unmanagable. When feelings become too hard it is generally useful to get some help. It can also be useful to get therapy if you feel the need to be "positive" all of the time, because it means that part of you is missing. In order to appreciate happiness, success, joy, and excitement means that we also have to be open to feeling sad, afraid, and other feelings sometimes judged as negative. This is because we need to be able to compare happy feelings to feelings that are not happy in order to really enjoy them. Having feelings that we might judge as negative also allows us to connect with others, empathise with them and have deeper and more meaningful relationships. Below psychologist Susan David talks about why embracing our so-called negative feelings is not such a bad thing.