Why positive thinking needs a makeover

When I hear about ‘positive thinking’, my immediate reaction is to screw up my face and shudder with revulsion. This year I’m aiming to change that, for my own good, and in my own way. I’ll tell you why in just a moment.

First, though, I do need to have a quick rant about positive thinking, just to get it out of my system.

The phrase ‘positive thinking’ conjures up images of excessively cheery people, bounding around with ceaseless, inexplicable joy, squirting out irritating, glib catchphrases like “There are no problems, only opportunities”.

I associate ‘positive thinking’ with the kind of grating, false positivity that’s often touted in a supposedly motivational way. I was once at a conference, eating my dinner and chatting to the people I was sitting with, when a motivational speaker popped up and began to address us. The one thing I remember from his talk was his method for dealing with people who weren’t positive. If someone objected, complained, or appeared disgruntled, however justifiably, he would shout ‘FANTASTIC!’ in their faces. As a motivator, he was actually very effective – a number of people felt highly motivated to leave the company soon after that conference.

It’s not that I’m a ‘the glass is half empty’ sort of person. I’m not really a ‘glass half full’ person either. I’m more of a ‘there’s some water in the glass’ person. I’d class myself as a realist, rather than an optimist or a pessimist.

I have to admit, though, that when I think about something, I tend to think through the difficulties or problems before I get to the good bits. When it comes to managing difficult projects, which is something I do quite a lot, identifying problems is actually quite a useful skill, and part of making sure the project is successful.

But it’s less useful when it comes to most other things. The more problems you can foresee, the more difficult something appears. And the more difficult something appears, the less likely you are to do it. And the less likely you are to do something, the less likely you are to get anywhere. So you stop trying to get anywhere, then you get frustrated at yourself for not getting anywhere. That kind of thinking is a dream killer of the highest order. It stops you thinking ‘What if?’ and drives you down the road of ‘You can’t’.

I recognise that pattern of negative thinking from my experience of depression. It’s my default setting – imagine the worst first. Even now I’m feeling better, all it takes is tiredness, hunger or a difficult day, and the negative-thinking demons start dancing a gleeful jig in my brain, dragging me down.

I decided at the end of last year that I would try to be more positive this year. However, I started writing this in December and only now, at the end of February, am I posting it – because I didn’t feel positive enough.

I’ve come to realise that what I need is not just an unthinking dollop of positive thinking, but just to try and see the positive side of something first, before the negative jumps in. It’s hard. It involves changing years of habitually doing the opposite. But I don’t want those dancing demons to get the upper hand again, so it’s got to be worth a shot.

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13 Comments on “Why positive thinking needs a makeover”

  1. katejones73 says:

    ‘I’m more of a there’s some water in the glass sort of person’. I love that! Great post. Those people with a constant stream of positive cliches do my head in too. My mum had a good saying ‘try to see something good in every day’, which isn’t always easy but worth trying to remember.

    • Paul says:

      Thanks very much, Kate, and for reblogging my post. Your mum’s saying is a good one – I keep a diary of positive things each day, which forces me to at least find one good thing!

  2. I find Gratitude a wonderful friend when I become world weary and overwhelmed, I also think of ‘its a wonderful life’ a bit cliché but I know I my life has touched the lives of others and that keeps me going, and your life touches so many more and that can only be positive, genuinely positive I’m sure your wife would back me up and many more that even during the hard times, it has a positive, because it allows people to show you how much they truly love you.

  3. David says:

    Thought provoling post thanks. Although you don’t like the term, there is some evidence that pessimists are more successful in business because they plan more effectively, as they identify risks better and havebetter thought out strategies in place to prevent these coming to fruition. Some people equate pessimism with negativity, unfortunately. They are not the same thing.

  4. […] Why positive thinking needs a makeover → […]

  5. […] instead of the worst-case scenario (even more difficult, if that’s not your brain’s default setting). A friend recently showed me this lovely little poem by Erin […]

  6. puretrumpet says:

    Negative thinking is a difficult pattern to break but it causes more damage to a person both physically and mentally than positive thinking. Don’t associate positive thinking with ‘in your face’ gurus but normal, everyday people who just see the good in things. My partner has taught me this. He’s probably too optimistic and wings it too much!
    But he hardly ever gets in a cycle of negative thinking unlike myself. I have to have a word with myself and practicing gratitude helps a lot.
    I know one thing for sure, I feel so much better when I think positively and more energised than I do if I let those negative thoughts take hold.
    There’s no quick fix. I have to work hard at it. But taking myself off to bed feeling like I’m the worlds biggest failure is no longer an option.

  7. […] quite often find ‘positive thinking’ a bit grating but one thing I’ve done consistently since I had counselling is to keep a daily […]

  8. Fellbound says:

    I relate to this so much. Thanks Paul.


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