When Positive Thinking Becomes Toxic

“See the bright side of things” not enough to get better. This advice, stemming from positive thinking, even has the opposite effect on your mental health. Here’s why.

Positive thinking is a concept that encourages having a consistently positive attitude to be happy and successful, even in difficult times. Most of the time, this mindset can be a strength in the face of life’s adversities. But in some cases, it can become toxic. So, how to deconstruct this thought? Decryption.

In search of positivity

Before approaching the philosophy of positive thinking, it is necessary to understand what is happening in the brain, because this need for positivity at all costs does not come from nowhere. Indeed, many studies have shown that older people favor the affectsaffects positive and avoid or reduce their negative emotions, both subjectively and physiologically. This is what scientists call “the positivity effect”. Although many cultural biases are added to this observation, humans could therefore tend towards the positive when they age.

However, before reaching this stage, other studies show that negative emotions have more impact than positive emotions in younger people. This “negativity bias” give more importance to negative information. Thus, it is possible, for example, that you are more affected by a criticism than by a compliment. Moreover, in the most tragic cases, such as a breakup, bereavement or trauma, this can cause great suffering that we seek to heal. In these moments of vulnerability, positive thinking can present itself as an alluring solution, promising happiness and healing. Nay!

Birth of the movement

Founded by American pastor Norman Vincent Peale in 1952, positive thinking is above all a pseudo-science ofreligious inspiration, which has sparked renewed interest 60 years later in the personal development industry. Having then become a very lucrative business, it travels around the world and does not spare France. Its fundamental principle is to be optimistic in all circumstances, focusing on moments of happiness instead of focusing on the negative. For this, this philosophy recommends its followers to practice gratitude and visualize their future success.

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Please note that positive thinking should not be confused with positive psychologywhich is a field of study seeking to know what makes humans happy, optimistic or resilient.

It may be related to the controversial strategy of autosuggestion, an old concept developed by the French psychologist and pharmacist Émile Coué. The objective of this “Coué method” being to repeat positive thoughts several times a day to improve your health. the movementmovement positive thinking also gives rise to the famous “law of attraction” which suggests that it is possible to attract positive things just by thinking about them. A kind of magical thought, itself without scientific basis.

Deconstruct positive thinking

Unfortunately, when you try to ignore, avoid or suppress your emotions, which are considered negative, or when you feel guilty when you finally feel them, this injunction can become toxic. A formidable phenomenon can occur: the more you try to avoid a thought, the more you think about it tirelessly. This is called the “rebound effect”. Note that at a certain threshold, negative thoughts should not be neglected. It could be a sign that something is wrong. We must therefore listen to them, accept them and express them by considering, for example, see a mental health specialist.

The more you try to avoid a thought, the more you keep thinking about it.

But, before becoming toxic in people in psychological distresspositive thinking is also ineffective when it comes to to improve its performance. Studies conducted by psychologist Gabriele Oettingenauthor of the book “Rethinking Positive Thinking”, reveal that when we imagine our success, the brain believes that we have already achieved our goals – even if only virtually. This is called “mental realization”. Thus, we feel less need to act in the real world and are less successful.

The contrast effect

To solve this problem, Gabriele Oettingen proposes an alternative approach. According to her, it would be more interesting to visualize the challenges that stand in our way, instead of visualizing its success. His experiments show, in fact, that considering future obstacles led people to formulate realistic goals and therefore to try harder and perform better, while people with unrealistic goals, that is- ie who did not take into account the obstacles, performed less. Our mind would therefore have an unconscious way of pushing us towards achievable wishes.

The importance of forgetting for our mental health

Other psychologists, such as Peter Max Gollwitzer and his colleagues at New York University, have taken the approach even further with the strategy of “implementation intention”. A short and simple exercise in four steps, called Woop for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan, in English. It proposes to define a wish, visualize the desired result, identify the obstacles and finally move on to the implementation plan. Thus, the objective of this method is to contrastcontrast your dreams with reality.

The Woop method explained. © woopmylife.org

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When Positive Thinking Becomes Toxic

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