Exploring the limits of positive thinking

Positive thinking is all too often sold to us as the solution to all life’s troubles. It’s an approach that has some utility, but if we don’t recognise its limitations, it becomes a form of tyranny, a method for victim blaming and a way of hurting people who are already hurting a lot. The idea is of course that a positive attitude changes everything; with exams and job interviews cited as examples of how this will work. And yes, in exams and jobs interviews a positive attitude will help you. In war zones, with a knife at your throat, starving, or watching a loved one die, it’s not just useless but insulting.

There is much to be said for asking whether good, or potential good exists within a situation. In times of mild upset and modest difficulty, the challenge can be a blessing in disguise and a positive outlook can bring that to the fore. However, if a situation is truly hideous and doomed, a positive outlook can keep you slogging away when you should be running away. It can deny you the space for needful emotional processes – when important things are lost to us, we need to grieve first before we try and move on.

If there’s no good to be found in a situation, then we waste energy looking for it, or we delude ourselves trying to manufacture it, and this doesn’t help in the slightest. Further, the person who is undertaking to think this way may be less alert to dangers, and to strategies that suit the scenario. The eventual, inevitable realisation that it really is hopeless may lead to a more profound despair than the less optimistic person will ever face. An approach of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, for example, can give you a much more realistic grasp of a situation’s many possibilities, and prepare you for more eventualities.

If you can solve all of your problems by taking a more positive approach to them, then the problems aren’t that big to begin with. It’s worth noting that the greatest exponents of this notion tend to be healthy, affluent, white, western and generally privileged. If your problems stem from a sense of entitlement, a lack of gratitude, and a ‘poor little me’ mindset then yes, positive thinking can save you. But only then.

If there is something you can make the best of, looking for it will help. It is possible to be happy even while being really quite poor, if you have an attitude that allows you to find the good. Material wealth is not, after all, what happiness is all about. If your essential needs for food, shelter, warmth and safety are not being met, no amount of positivity will transform that into a good situation –practical change needs to be sought.

Perhaps the place we most need positive thinking, is around the idea that things can change. Positivity applied to what we’ve got, if what we’ve got is awful, can lead to cognitive dissonance. We have to be realistic about how things are. Positive thinking applied to what we might be able to do, is a whole other game. How many people who could change their lives, communities and environments don’t act because they don’t think it will make a difference? All the people who don’t vote, protest, petition, or take action? All the people who accept what’s being done to them out of the belief that nothing better is possible. Believe that better is possible, and the lies of politicians and the gains of big business appear in a very different light.

When it comes to who holds the power, thinking positive about what you’ve got allows that to stay just as it is. Thinking positive about what we might collectively and individually do, has the power to change things. Positive thoughts alone are never enough. We need positive actions.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

4 responses to “Exploring the limits of positive thinking

  • Naomi Jacobs (Léithin Cluan)

    Preach it sister! I love this 🙂 I am so tired of the ‘just think positive’ comments – which always come from people who are very financially comfortable, tend not to have too many medical problems, are probably white, and usually don’t face major problems in their lives. The major problem with the ‘positive thinking’ or ‘the Secret’ stuff is that people start to believe an individualistic narrative – that they created their good luck. In fact ‘good luck’ is usually social privilege that we all need to recognise and then decide what we’re going to do with, in relation to other people who don’t have such ‘luck’ because of systemic oppression, marginalization, poverty and so on. It’s great to know that we can all take action – but some people have less scope to change things than others do. That’s where collective action comes in, in my opinion.

    • Nimue Brown

      That’s a very good point about the degree to which its possible to take action – something we can only ever figure out on an individual level, but being able to speak about what’s needed is a very powerful action, because without that knowledge, well meaning people can all too easily run off in totally unhelpful directions doing things that aren’t wanted…

  • Kaylee

    The more I read about positive thinking, the more I realized it was about stagnation. The way it is practised doesn’t allow room for examining yourself and your situation completely. There is a big difference between having confidence and being grateful and who the positive thinking gurus want you to act. Blinding yourself to the negative can lead to no good.

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