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Why positive thinking could be making you feel worse

Prima with Maja Jovanovic 18 October 2018

When we’re dealing with life’s ups and downs, lots of us have those friends who will tell us to push aside our worries and think positive.

Of course, it’s a well-intentioned message. And, while it’s one that’s backed up by some best-selling self-help books, many experts are concerned that positive thinking may not be the best approach for everyone.

The downsides of positive thinking

If you have low self-esteem, the positive affirmations beloved of self-help gurus or inspirational Instagram quotes may actually make you feel worse. One study found repeating affirmations such as ‘I am lovable’ works for those who already feel good about themselves. But for those with low self-esteem, such affirmations have actually been shown to increase levels of self-doubt.

Positive thinking can make us passive, believes Professor Maja Jovanovic, who specialises in confidence and empowerment in women.

‘One premise of positive thinking is that your thoughts create your actions, and whatever you give most attention to is often what happens in your life,’ she says. ‘But that’s not enough.

‘If you have a health problem, or you’re unhappy in your job or relationship, you need to do something about it. It’s great to have optimism that things can change but what’s most important is that you put in the work.’

You may decide to feel positive about meeting someone new after your divorce, for example – but if you don’t make an effort to put yourself out there, it’s unlikely to happen, which may leave you feeling disappointed and powerless.

Forcing yourself to think positive can also mean you miss out on useful lessons, says registered psychotherapist and self-care coach Eve Menezes Cunningham.

‘It’s when you sit with pain, loss and fear that you can start to learn from them and transform things,’ she says. ‘If you try to talk yourself out of difficult feelings with positive thinking, you can miss out on that.

‘This doesn’t mean you have to dwell on difficulties for a long time – but sitting with those feelings while you process them and learn the lessons is important. It’s the way you grow.’

And it’s important to be realistic about life. Staying blindly positive can leave you ill-prepared to meet challenges if things don’t go the way you’d hoped.

While worrying obsessively is unhelpful, it’s wise to think through any potential barriers in advance, so you’ll be much better able to handle anything that comes your way, says Professor Maja.

When positivity is a problem

The message that positive attracts positive has a sinister shadow. If you take it to its logical conclusion, you have to assume it means bad things have happened to you because you haven’t been thinking positively enough.

When Ali, 40, lost her third pregnancy, she confided in a friend she’d always feared being childless. ‘We create what we fear,’ the friend told her. But Ali has struggled with anxiety for most of her adult life and has always had intrusive unwanted thoughts.

If you find it difficult to banish worries, it’s not helpful to also have to deal with shame, guilt – and more anxiety – about that.

A similar argument has played out among people with cancer, with experts and patients alike criticising those urges to ‘keep fighting’ and ‘stay positive’.

While some may find battle talk helpful, others say it puts pressure on them to stay upbeat even on the most difficult days. An American review looking into positive thinking in cancer found no evidence to link positive thinking with a better prognosis.

How to be an optimistic realist

Taking off the rose-tinted glasses doesn’t necessarily mean giving into negative thinking, though. Here’s how to stay positive the grounded way…

1 Have a plan B (and C, and D)

Sure, be positive things will go your way. But make sure you have a contingency plan in place if they don’t. Heaping too many expectations onto one thing – whether that’s a man you met online dating, a job interview you’re about to have or your new diet – can mean you feel hopeless and disempowered if it doesn’t work out. Know there are other options so you’re ready to explore them if the first one doesn’t go to plan.

2 Avoid overthinking

‘This means ruminating over negative thoughts, which can keep you feeling sad and anxious, so you’re looking through a distorted lens at every situation,’ says Maja. ‘When you notice these thoughts coming up, do something different, such as going for a walk or watching something funny, to get you out of the cycle.’

3 Be grateful – and proud

Eve recommends writing gratitude lists to help you focus on what’s good in your life. ‘Also, write down things you’ve done well every day – from getting to the gym even though you were tired, to making time to call your friend. This can help you identify and acknowledge your strengths, which boosts your confidence,’ she says.