Positive thinking proposes techniques to improve one’s life and manage one’s mental states through conscious and intentional control of one’s thoughts. Positive phrases and affirmations are used to counteract unpleasant thoughts and change one’s attitude towards life.
In recent decades, this current has been followed and developed by different strands of thought – from positive psychology to the most heterogeneous new age currents. The risk, however, is that this concept goes to endorse a certain widespread belief in the mainstream of today’s society, where we are all called to always be positive, smiling, optimistic and active. It is forbidden to be sad, it is forbidden to stop or linger on negative thoughts or moods.
Self-help manuals continually encourage us to improve, the current consumer society continually offers us easy and immediate solutions to distract us from ourselves (shopping, going to the gym, eating food, or watching others do it, etc.). In short, everything seems to suggest us not to think, put aside sadness and discomfort and replace them with pleasant activities or thoughts!
Eliminate Negative Thoughts?
Let’s try to ask ourselves first – why should we eliminate negative thoughts? The question is not so trivial, that human suffering is something that is expressed through recursive and repetitive patterns is known history. Freud himself had defined this mechanism as repetition compulsion, that is, the tendency of human beings to re-enact symptomatic, behavioral, or relational patterns that are dysfunctional and cause subjective suffering.
Apparent self-sabotage through which it would seem that people tend to retrace the paths that perpetuate their pain rather than seek new ones. And then, it would be natural to ask ourselves, why not break this vicious circle by forcing ourselves to think about something positive? The rest will hopefully follow.
In reality, things are not that simple and these techniques often only work in the short term. First of all, because forcing oneself to think about something positive while sad, disheartened or distressed, can be a sort of paradoxical injunction for the mind. As if, in other words, we were imposing on ourselves with willpower something that can only happen spontaneously.
Friends and relatives of those people who in some moments of their life have gone through a depression know this well. Encouraging them to get up, to go out, or even just to get out of bed has achieved nothing but the opposite effect. Forcing ourselves not to think about something reinforces that thought that we would like to eliminate because we try to change with willpower something that is not voluntary.
Positive thinking – when it’s a trap
There is another aspect that should warn us from positive thinking at any cost, sometimes positive thinking can be harmful and sustain dysfunctional states of mind. An example is the state of euphoria in which people who unconsciously deny depressive suffering by covering it up with manic excitement find themselves.
Their optimistic thoughts contain a certain amount of unreasonableness, excessively grandiose self-esteem, and poor judgment that can lead them to undertake risky and potentially harmful initiatives for themselves or others.
Another example is the false optimism that connotes the thoughts of those who are addicted to gambling, whenever they suffer a loss rather than stop they continue to gamble, why? Because, ignoring the nature of their condition, they are convinced once again that the win is now close, that now it is not enough to recover all that they have lost previously. Instead of acknowledging the reality of loss, they convince themselves that they are close to redemption.
Sadness, fear, anxiety, discouragement, and others are all emotions that cause an unpleasant state of mind, but they are also useful in making us recognize a source of danger. To let us process a loss, to signal to us that the choices we are making are perhaps not as right as we thought or that within us there is a source of emotional suffering that we must listen to and deal with. If we pretend to use positive thinking to disavow all this we risk distancing ourselves from ourselves.