the limits and pitfalls of positive thinking

negative thinking > limits and pitfalls of positive thinking
positive thinking is powerful? Surely if positive thinking really were so powerful, it wouldn't need so many books?  But there is certainly a strong case for some aspects of positive thinking. more
negative thinking is pervasive There's a positive thinking book called You Can't Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought.  Did you notice that the title is actually a negative thought? more
negative thinking is taboo People are bullied to conceal or suppress negative thoughts, or to reformulate them into pseudo-positive thoughts.  Problems become opportunities or challenges, failures become learning experiences. more
rejecting the negative merely reinforces it Trying to forget is like trying to go to sleep - it has the opposite effect.  The same is true of negative thinking. more
positive thinking cannot be summoned at will "If you feel bad about something, then it's your own fault for not being in control of your feelings.  And if it makes you ill, that's your own fault too." Such nonsense some people talk!
positive thinking sometimes leads to excess Enough is as good as a feast. But positive thinking isn't good at stopping when you've had enough. more
and positive thinking doesn't always apply Many important goals are intrinsically negative.  Positive thinking isn't suitable for many important aspects of life and work. more
the power of negative thinking So are we right to be sceptical or cynical? more

negative thinking is pervasive

negative thinking > limits and pitfalls of positive thinking > negative thinking is pervasive

Here are some snippets from the positive thinking movement, where negativity is embedded in the attacks on negativity.
You can't afford the luxury of a negative thought. (book title)
You cannot under estimate the power of positive thinking.

I asked my Christian growth class what did they believe to be my number one dislike in people and they all responded unanimously...negativity!! 

Jesus was often offended by negative thinking.

David Chisholm

negative thinking as taboo - the perversion of positive thinking

negative thinking > limits and pitfalls of positive thinking > negative thinking is taboo

Positive thinking wants to establish a world in which there is no place for death or misfortune. This leads to the perverse insistence on finding reasons and causes for sorrow and disease, contingency and mortality.

In 1999, Glen Hoddle lost his job as England soccer coach, after expressing his opinion that physical handicap had to have a reason, which he saw in terms of reincarnation and Karma. Apparently this caused offence to large numbers of able-bodied people. This perversion takes different forms according to different political or religious positions. "Spiritual Republicanism … attaches blame for illness and misfortune to the self"

This is contrasted with "the Democratic cult of Victimhood at the hands of society".

When positive thinking is taken to encourage or excuse denial and self-deception, groupthink and scapegoating, then surely this is positive thinking gone badly awry.

negative thinking reinforces itself

negative thinking > limits and pitfalls of positive thinking > negative thinking reinforces itself

Look at this advice for depressed people issued by a US organization Directions for Mental Health.  ("Before Your Appointment") A well-meaning series of negative injunctions, prefaced with a strong disclaimer.

These tips are not intended as a substitute for professional assessment, advice or treatment. Use these tips to
enhance treatment at the advice of a professional, or in the waiting period before onset of professional services,
but not as a replacement for professional help.
  • Do not set difficult goals or take on a great deal of responsibility
  • Break large tasks into small ones, set priorities, and do only what you can
  • Do not expect too much from yourself
  • Try to be with other people, it is usually better than being alone
  • Participate in activities which may make you feel better: mild exercise, recreation, religious or social activities. Do not overdo it, or get upset if your mood is not greatly improved right away.
  • Avoid making life-changing decisions about changing jobs, getting married or divorced, etc., without consulting others who know you well and have a more objective view of your situation at this time.
  • Do not expect to snap out of your depression. People rarely do. Help yourself as much as you can, and do not blame yourself for not feeling up to par.
  • Remember, do not accept your negative thinking. It is a symptom of the depression and will disappear as your depression responds to treatment.
  • Remember, too, that your disorder makes you feel helpless and exhausted, and you will probably need help from family and friends. However, people who have never had a depressive episode may not fully understand its effect on you, and may say or do hurtful things unintentionally. It may be helpful to share this file of information with them, so they more completely understand your disorder.
  • Given that depressed people often feel helpless already, this list could merely reinforce this. Alternatively, it might be effective as pacing, or perhaps even as an example of prescribing the symptom - a clever (but dangerous) form of reversal.  A depressed person may face the truth and/or rebel against these negative injunctions - and the condition may start to improve. But then again maybe not.

    positive thinking can lead to excess - more is toxic

    Vision tends to be qualitative, rather than quantitative.

    If something is scarce, it makes sense to get as much of it as possible. This is an easy programme for an individual or species to learn: to recognize something (or signs that indicate its potential availability) and go for it. This is straightfoward positive thinking.

    But ‘enough’ is a second-order concept, much more difficult to visualize. In conditions of scarcity, experience of ‘enough’ may be extremely rare. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to learn how to stop when enough is reached.

    Other opportunities to overdose, for some animals, include salt.

    In the affluent countries, the most common example of this is overweight caused by overeating. It is also supposedly a feature of female sexuality: that if the sex is really good, there is no intrinsic (i.e. biological) reason to stop, apart from the exhaustion of the male. And if the male is exhausted too quickly, and there are other males available, a female would be biologically correct to take another, although there are social and emotional reasons why women do not in practice avail themselves of such opportunities as often as they could.

    the power of anti-positive thinking - ultra scepticism

    One notion of negative thinking is the idea that all enthusiasm is either fake or foolish. All causes are suspect, all promises are false, all improvements illusory, change worsens. Not just apathy but entropy. Other countries label this as the British disease. A Spanish newspaper, commenting on the 1992 British election, used the term "Negative Thinking" in English, claiming there was no equivalent term in Spanish.

    Pseudo-intellectual justification for this idea is provided by appeal to Popper, whose attack on Marxist ideology is thought to provide conclusive destruction of all possible ideologies and utopias.

    The piecemeal engineer will … adopt the method of searching for, and fighting against, the greatest and most urgent evils in society, rather than searching for, and fighting for, its greatest ultimate good. Karl Popper At one level, post-modernism can be seen as a theory about the impossibility of theory. In a rephrasing of Wittgenstein’s metaphor, it is the ladder climbing towards ladderlessness. This is taking ultra-scepticism to the extreme.

    The proper name for this, however, is anti-positive thinking. It represents a fundamental rejection of positive thinking, carrying with it both a powerful emotional distrust of positive thinking, and a powerful intellectual distrust.

    But this form of thinking, whatever we call it, is tremendously powerful.

    Page last updated on January 4th, 2001
    Copyright © 2001, Richard Veryard