In one way or another, you have probably heard it before. Why can’t you be more positive? All that negative thinking is sure to bring negativity to your life. If you think about good things, good things will come your way. These are all expressions of what we can call the myth of positive thinking: the idea that our thoughts are enough to change the reality around us.
The myth of positive thinking is widespread and commonly used. Some people take it further. With books like The Secret, many believe that positive thinking is enough to shift the universe around them and attract good things to their life. Abundance and love are natural to find; you just have to think about them and not think about any negative things. Others take a more measured approach but still feel that thinking negatively means inviting bad stuff into their life. This is the reason why many people avoid making a will or planning for bad situations. They don’t want to “invite” these things into their life by thinking about them.
The core of the myth of positive thinking is a cognitive distortion known as magical thinking. Magical thinking suggests that we can change the world around us because of what we think. Sure, our thoughts have the power to shape our behaviour but, realistically, they cannot influence the outcome of a sports game or the weather or the winning lottery numbers. By focusing solely on our thinking, we forget about doing things that will help us live better and more fulfilling lives. We stop ourselves from taking action and only try to modify our thinking to suit our wants better. There are several problems with this.
The main four myths
Firstly, believing in positive thinking can induce a lot of guilt and shame for being unable to give up negative thoughts completely. No matter how much we practice, we will never be able to think only positive things. It’s quite impossible never to get angry or sad or fearful. It’s quite impossible to never think about potential adverse outcomes. If we do achieve this, it will also be quite ineffective because it will prevent us from preparing for bad situations and handling them as they come.
Secondly, this myth prevents us from taking action. We act only to change our thinking and don’t do anything to bring about the outcomes we hope to achieve. Instead of working on getting a promotion, we think about very hard. Sure, the right mindset and some degree of positive, hopeful thinking can be useful to secure us a new position, but we do have to take action actually to get it. It’s not enough to think about it and hope the universe sends it our way.
Thirdly, the myth makes us needlessly wary and avoidant of emotions such as sadness or anger. These emotions are negative, but they do have an important function. They let us know when we are feeling attacked or when we are faced with a loss. We cannot avoid them altogether, nor should we try to. Positive thinking states that we should not get unhappy, which is not a realistic possibility and imposes a lot of pressure onto us. We might feel guilty about our normal reactions.
Finally, the myth of positive thinking places a massive burden of responsibility on our shoulders. There are no accidents, no coincidences. Any bad things that happen to us were our fault for not thinking positively enough and attracting negativity.
Whether you subscribe to the myth in its most extreme form (the law of attraction, so positives attract positives and negatives bring negatives) or in its lighter form (thinking positively will make you happier and negative thoughts are to be avoided), you may feel the adverse effects of this type of thinking.
What to do instead?
First, it’s essential to allow yourself to have negative experiences as well as positive ones. Give yourself the chance to be sad or angry and learn from these situations. What can they teach you? What message are they giving you? Secondly, promoting positive thinking can be beneficial. You should not get stuck in thoughts of your failure or lack of skill. However, this doesn’t mean you should eliminate negative thoughts. Give them their place and recognize situations when you need to consider the worst. Finally, give yourself permission not to be in control of everything. You won’t be able to control your thoughts completely. You can’t change the outcomes of events that don’t depend on your behaviour. Working on letting go of these ideas can be hard but also very beneficial.
What are you experiences with positive thinking? Looking forward to your thoughts (positive or negative?) and comments below!