Limitations of Positive Thinking

Limitations of Positive Thinking

Mental skills training is becoming more and more popular today with advances in neuroscience and performance psychology. These skills include goal setting, visualization, mindfulness, meditation, and positive thinking. For this article I’m going to share some thoughts on positive thinking.

Positive thinking has been around for a long time. One of the things I like most about this cognitive practice is the awareness of choice. At any given time I can choose the narrative that helps me construct meaning from my experiences. Most people naturally allow an unconscious narrative developed throughout their lives to frame everything that happens. Because of our minds natural negativity bias, this usually leads to seeing the “glass half empty” so to speak. The practice of positive thinking has helped many people make this unconscious narrative conscious. Over time and with effort I can begin to change this narrative. For example, this morning I was supposed to be emailing this article which I completed a couple of weeks ago to Slow·o·lution. I was expecting to read it over one last time, send it off, and drink my Sunday morning coffee and spend much needed time with my family. Instead, my computer crashed a couple of days ago and while I was able to retrieve most of my files, this article was nowhere to be found. So after spending 30 min trying every way possible to retrieve my lost work, I am now rewriting it. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience frustration, but I quickly reframed the experience and am enjoying writing from a different perspective than I had a couple of weeks ago. One I hope you, the reader will enjoy more and benefit more from. Positive thinking can be a very good practice, in my opinion.

However, if we’re not careful, there are limitations to positive thinking. The first is we can use this mental skill to what I call, “Play the wrong game”. What is the wrong game? The wrong game is where I overvalue some future outcome, achievement, or experience. This is very common today in our “Results” oriented cultures. Why do we play a sport? To Win! Why do I go to class? To get an “A”! Why do I go to work? To earn a pay check! While a goal or vision for the future is good, most of us have a natural tendency to overvalue that goal or vision in the future. When we do this, we by definition devalue the process of our activity, Now. We turn our current efforts into a means to an end to get what we want in the future. Positive thinking can easily become a futuristic practice that diminishes our life experience, Now. The problem with this futuristic game, as most of us have experienced, is that it’s never good enough. The more we get, the more we want. Very soon life is all about getting somewhere else, doing something else, with someone else. This is why so many of us find ourselves, working fast, talking fast, typing emails fast, driving fast, eating fast, etc. Life is always just around the corner. The illusion is that if we can just get “there,” wherever “there” is, then I can be happy, fulfilled, satisfied, etc. Mental skills, including positive thinking, can be used to “Play this wrong game” better. You will perform at higher levels and get better results, but those results will never be enough. All you’re doing is “Playing the wrong game” better. What is the right game? Please see an earlier article I wrote titled, “Primary Paradigm Behind Stress

A second limitation of positive thinking is that it can become a form of delusion. Have you ever been with someone who seems to have divorced themselves from reality? Certain things need to be addressed and effort should be applied to change direction, but action is not being taken or at least without a sense of urgency. This form of delusional positive thinking becomes rosy colored glasses unwilling to assess and act, now. Too often leaders use being positive as an excuse to avoid having difficult conversations or making tough decisions. We’ve all seen this before in ourselves and others when we chose to ignore the inevitable consequences coming hoping it will all work out on its own.

For some, it’s an intentional practice to influence the universe to get what they want. They’re able to have a good internal state now because they’re convinced positive thinking or belief will get them what they want in the future. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, whether that reality manifests or not is irrelevant. If it does, they’ll go right on to the next thing that needs to happen to be happy, unsatisfied again with what is. If it doesn’t, which is more often the case, they’re disappointed and discouraged accepting a false belief that they don’t deserve to be happy or fulfilled. This false belief is rooted in an even greater false belief that the source of our happiness and fulfillment is external.   

These limiting forms of positive thinking have one consistent theme about them. They separate us from reality, from what is, from the present moment. This is why mindfulness and mindfulness based meditation are so important. They are designed to reorient us or even reintroduce us to what’s happening right now. Once we have restored a healthy relationship to our present moments, we can more effectively use mental skills like positive thinking, goal setting and visualization to influence our future.

“Only by fully embracing what is, can we fully influence what could be.” Vision Pursue

My initial response waking up to find my work had been lost and my Sunday morning would be spent rewriting this was frustration. Using the mental skill of positive thinking, along with a couple of others, I was able to reframe my situation. This new narrative shifted from me being the victim and technology the villain, to one where this article needed to be rewritten to better benefit you the reader. Rewriting took very little time and I was able to complete most of it before my family was up. In addition, more than half of this article is different from the original I wrote and I believe it’s significantly better. I hope you’ve enjoyed! 

Photo source: © Cécile Gall /

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