Think Negative! Reframing Positivethink…

Does anyone else get a bit fed up of the whole “just think positive” mantra? I am sure if you are looking for work, feeling unfulfilled in your career, or finding yourself at a crossroads in life and searching for that elusive raison d’être, you might at times prefer the comfort of a little self-pity and wallowing…

People you speak to will be doing their best to buoy you up, give you confidence and convey faith that you will find what you are looking for. Those kind and supportive words of loved ones are not those to which this blog is referring; positive words framed by kindness and support certainly have their place and are a bedrock as one navigates the road of uncertainty and rejection (or “saying no to”).

It is the not-always-helpful-positivity – that from herein I will call Positivethink – to which I am referring. Positivethink encompasses phrases such as: “Believe in yourself and great things will happen!”, “Visualise success!”, “Ooze confidence!” “No negativity allowed here!” “Good vibes only!” It is as if the words themselves want to jump out and emblazon themselves upon billboards for all to see. For who would (dare) challenge such positive statements? Who, deep down, doesn’t want such positivity to infiltrate their life?

If we lived in a world of Positivethink, I am sure things wouldn’t be as positive as its claims. What about cynics and pessimists (or realists?). Indeed some people are more motivated by the stick than the carrot. The motivating carrot may be seen as a slight on a person’s, well, negative slant on the world. Or one might simply be sceptical of the deceptive ease and simplicity of Positivethink… How can we truly appreciate the positives in life without some negatives thrown into the mix?

Positive Positives

As with positive support through kindness and love, I am not discrediting all forms of positivity. Here are some more positive positives:

– Taking notice of, and crediting yourself with, your achievements (no matter how ‘small’)

– Seeing mistakes or perceived failures as specific rather than generalising (reframing them as something that can be improved upon rather than an example of general terribleness)

– Visualising positive outcomes and steps on a path of value that you have chosen (not focusing solely on worst-case scenarios but also asking yourself “What is the best that can happen?”)

Negative Positives

Nowhere is there a guarantee that positivity always brings good things. Some contradictions and downsides to Positivethink:

– Many people unwittingly adopt defensive pessimism when faced with a challenging task (high achievers who claim they will fail only to outperform most others – the fear of failure and consequent anxiety actually harnesses motivation to work hard and garners success)

– Negative thoughts and feelings are normal, adaptive even (perhaps that negativity towards your job or partner is telling you it’s time to do something about it…)

– Life doesn’t owe you anything and it didn’t promise an easy ride; hopes, dreams and expectations can be as much your downfall as they can be sources of motivation to improve or change your life

The paradox

The irony is that the more energy people put into Positivethink, the worse they can feel. Why? Because any ounce of negativity becomes unacceptable. They conclude that they must be failing, rather than the fundamental flaw of Positivethink: disallowing or shutting off negative thoughts and feelings only perpetuates them or delays their necessary addressing.

Embrace the positives when they happen, but also allow room for the negatives. A final irony: if you force yourself to think negatively, you might just find some positives trying to force their way in…


About libbywatson

Dr Libby Watson is a Clinical Psychologist. She completed her Professional Doctorate at the University of East London (UEL), where she received the School of Psychology's research prize, and obtained her BSc in Psychology (with first-class honours) from the University of Sheffield. Libby is a Lecturer on the BACP accredited BSc Counselling programme at UEL. She also works as an Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck. Whilst adopting an integrative approach to her work, she also specialises in: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) including 'third-wave' approaches; Cognitive Analytic Therapy (CAT); physical health (pain management, obesity and long-term health conditions); and qualitative research methods (specifically IPA). She also holds an honorary post in the psychotherapy department at St Thomas's Hospital.

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