How To Be Positive: The Good and Bad Side of Positive Thinking

Think Positive

Thinking Positive comes naturally to some. To others, it’s a real effort.

The question is: If you’re not naturally positive, is it worth forcing yourself?

and the answer is: Not always…

What We’re Told…

If you start researching ‘positive thinking‘, you’ll quickly get a sense that, without it, you’ll get nowhere.

I recently read something about positive thinking that grated on me: ‘Anyone who is serious about personal growth and improving themselves should and must practice positive thinking’.

Well, must they?

You might have experienced the same push towards positive thinking in your own life.

Have you ever been told that you should be more positive? That you should stop worrying?

Well, should you?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying positive thinking is bad.

Having a positive attitude can be a gold mine.

The Benefits Of Positive Thinking

1. Positive Thinking Encourages Us To Take Risks and Expand Our Horizons

The positive thinker has more self-confidence. He (she) believes in himself and his capabilities and sees opportunities. He fears rejection less, has fewer limiting beliefs and experiences less negative self-talk. He’s ready to try new things, explore new avenues, look for a new job, go on that date,… He’s more likely to achieve his/her goals.

2. Positive Thinking Helps Us Cope With Stress Better

If you think positive, you don’t assume the situation is out of your control. You don’t give up. You don’t take no for an answer. You try to solve the problem. You see the problem as a temporary setback, a blessing in disguise. You  bounce back from failure and hardship faster. You have a higher resilience.

3. Positive Thinking Boosts Our Health

Some of the health benefits that have been associated with Positive Thinking are: better immunity, reduced risk of cardio-vascular incident, reduced risk of depression, longer lifespan.

But positive thinking doesn’t suit everybody all the time.

Positive Thinking can be a gold mine but it does not suit everybody
all the time

When Thinking Positive Can Send You Off Course

There’s a very interesting story about Bill Gates and how he prepared for the Harvard commencement speech he gave in 2007. He worked on it for more than 6 months. He wrote many drafts, bounced ideas with many people, read many other speeches.

If somebody had told him then: Don’t worry. Think positive. You’ll just be fine. Look at Steve Jobs. He prepared his standard commencement address on his own, critiqued by his wife only. And he was great.

I don’t think Bill Gates would have taken it too well and it’s unlikely such an approach would have worked for him.

People are different.

If you tend to be a completer-finisher (very conscientious, feeling responsible, concerned when errors are made – like me!) or a defensive pessimist (worrying about future negative outcomes), you will need to practice a speech or a job interview over and over again until you feel confident. That’s your coping mechanism and that’s what helps you deliver better results. Just forgetting about it, trying to relax and feeling positive without preparation will not help you achieve the results you desire.

For defensive pessimists, worrying is a good coping mechanism which helps achieve better results.

Another way positive thinking can serve badly is when the positive thoughts are too remote from reality, too unrealistic and … we believe in them.

An interesting study lead by Cornell University has found that poor feedback and unrealistic optimism can lead to some people grossly overestimating their capabilities.

Unfortunately, this can have dire consequences:

  • overcommitting, which often results in stress because of not being able to deliver
  • avoiding improvements because we don’t see our own failings
  • jeopardizing our job because we don’t realize our performance is mediocre
  • not preparing a plan B because we never expect to fail (exams, job interview, job,…)
People who truly believe overly false positive statements about themselves may end up setting themselves up for failure.

What about people with low self-esteem? Then surely positive thinking must be able to help?

A 2009 research by the University of Waterloo psychologist Joanne Wood showed that it’s not necessarily true either. It depends on the amount of self-esteem you have. They found that people with very low self-esteem felt worse after repeating to themselves statements such as ‘I’m a lovable person’ because, once again, it was too remote from reality.

“Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people [such as individuals with high self-esteem] but backfire for the very people who need them the most”

Final Thoughts

Make positive thinking work for you and who you are.

Positive thinking is extremely powerful but as with all things, you have to get the balance right.

If you cope with the pressure of future events by worrying and preparing for them, there’s no need to apologize or feel bad about it. Practice (and not relaxing and blind optimism) is what you need.

If you have low self-esteem (focussing on your perceived weaknesses, giving little credit to your skills and assets, fearing failure), work on it little by little: acknowledge positive feedback, take note of your successes, work on your limiting beliefs (see our article on limiting beliefs for practical advice) and identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones that ring true to you and are within your reach – not ones that are so remote that they feel unattainable and remind you of your own shortcomings.

If you have a tendency to overestimate your abilities (you probably will know that if you’ve gone through several setbacks and people have finally given you constructive feedback), inject some reality and lucidity into your positive affirmations (without versing into pessimism).

Positive thinking is not about seeing everything through rose tinted glasses it’s about being optimistic without becoming oblivious to possible threats.

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