Hi there, this is Kristi Angevine and you’re listening to episode 11. Today you’ll learn 15 reasons why the habit of positive thinking is not the answer when it comes to happiness and habit change.
Welcome to Habits On Purpose, a podcast for high-achieving women who want to create lifelong habits and feel as good on the inside as they look on paper. You'll get practical strategies for mindset shifts that will help you finally understand the root causes of why you think, feel, and act as you do so you can learn to create habits that give more than they take. And now, here's your host physician and certified life coach Kristi Angevine.
Hello, hello. I think you can hear the smile on my face. I truly just love recording these episodes for you. Recently, my youngest kiddo shared some of his germs with me. So currently, I'm feeling a bit under the weather. But I find that podcasting is like the introvert’s dream come true. Instead of being at this mass networking event, I get to do this from the cozy comfort of my office.
Which for me means sometimes being Zoom presentable from the waist up, but today it means PJs, yoga pants, water, coffee, and a nice candle lit. And I think of these episodes as little care packages that when you unwrap them, inside is something that can be really useful no matter who you are, no matter what day you listen to this, no matter what you're struggling with in your life, and no matter what your unique set of habits are.
And in today's little care package, there are 15 little notes. Each about the limitations or frank problems with using positive thinking when you're trying to understand and change your habits for the long term. So on today's episode, you'll learn why it's ineffective to solely rely on positive thinking if you want to change your habits and feel better.
I'll leave you with three options for an actionable thing that you can implement. And at the end, I'm going to announce two of the five winners of the thank you giveaway. Now, if this is your first episode and you don't know what giveaway I'm talking about, for those people who've left a review of the podcast, and let me know that they left a review, those people are entered into a drawing for an Audible gift card in a day designer planner.
The reviews and ratings are not just vanity metrics, they're really important because they help the podcast be discoverable and they help future listeners get a sense of what the podcast is like. And this helps people who want to change habits that aren't serving them, figure out which podcast they should spend their precious time listening to.
So if you want to officially enter the giveaway, you have a few more days to do so before the drawings will be completed. You can find all the instructions for how to leave a review on iTunes and how to let me know you left that review on the show notes page. So let's dive into today's topic.
This episode is dedicated to anyone who's felt positivity has been forced upon you. Anyone who's been on the receiving end of the expectation that you should be perpetually cheerful or grateful. Anyone who's been struggling and then been told look on the bright side. Turn that frown upside down. At least you have a job.
Anyone who's felt unseen, unheard, or completely turned off by suggestion that the reason you feel so terrible, or the reason you're struggling with your habits is because you should just be more positive. If you've ever been told, “just change your thinking” and rolled your eyes or wanted to recreate that scene from Office Space where they destroy the printer, this episode is for you.
This is also for you if your particular habit is to naturally always see the sunny side, and yet you're starting to notice the underbelly of persistent optimism. This was me in the past. The underbelly here is you might not notice that you're tolerating things that you don't actually love. Ignoring things that don't really work well. Or you tend to settle for good enough.
Now, before I get into the list, I want to address one thing. You might think it's heresy for a coach to make a list of problems with thinking positively. Because isn't positive thinking the gold standard of the self-help industry? Aren't gratitude practices prescribed everywhere? What about the data on optimism and positive reframing for wellbeing?
If thoughts cause feelings, and feelings drive us to do what we do in order to feel better and do better, in order to change your habits, don't you just need to think more positive thoughts?
So let's be clear, in certain circumstances there are indeed clear benefits to thinking positively or being able to see the upside. And since the things that we tell ourselves create how we feel, when we believe a positive narrative, we will feel pleasant or helpful feelings. And in future episodes we'll talk more about the power of deliberately cultivating thoughts to create feelings, and actions, and results that you want.
However, to extrapolate that positive thinking is the answer to all things is a gross over generalization that can be extremely counterproductive when it comes to making real changes. So by the end of this episode, you'll understand why, when it comes to habit change and wellbeing in general, positive thinking is not a panacea.
So drum roll please, the 15 reasons why positive thinking is not the answer to all things. Otherwise known as the problems with positive thinking. Number one, we are not meant to be 100% cheerful and happy 100% of the time. We are humans, not automatons. There's a full range of human emotions we have access to.
When someone I love is suffering, I want to feel sad. When someone I know dies, I want to feel grief. When I see someone behaving in an entitled manner, it's okay that I feel frustrated. When I see corporate greed screwing over hardworking people, when I observe systemic racism, or hospital policies that create unsafe work environments for staff and patients, when I see patriarchal biases keeping pay lower for women, I want to feel angry.
When I see a bully on a playground, I have no interest in seeing the upside. I want to be angry about that shit. Anger is appropriate. Aiming to be 100% positive and happy all the time is the best way to narrow your human experience to a very teeny tiny range.
As Lori Deschene says, you don't have to be positive all the time. It's perfectly okay to feel sad, angry, annoyed, frustrated, scared, or anxious. Having feelings does not make you a “negative person.” It makes you human.
Number two, a veneer of positivity over difficulty, struggle, and heaviness is simply a lie. It's like Bondo over a rusted out hole, or using cardboard as a patch for drywall. Yeah, it's going to hold for a while. But because it's inauthentic, it's not useful in the long run. When you try to layer positive thinking on top of painful emotions or force a silver lining, you're in essence denying your human experience.
Number three, forcing positive thinking can be a subtle form of rejecting yourself. Instead of acknowledging or accepting and exploring why you feel as you do, or why you're having the experience you're having. Slapping on a smile basically says negative emotions are bad, positive emotions are better, so I'll just pretend.
Number four, positive thinking doesn't let you meet yourself where you are. If you want to change a habit, you must know why you have that habit in the first place. If you don't meet yourself where you are, you won't find the root cause of your habit.
Number five, positive reframing and making the best of something can keep you tolerating a bad situation. According to a 2013 study, looking for silver linings in a situation over which you have control to change something can actually be harmful.
So say you lose your job, or you get broken up with. In these situations, you might benefit from thinking about future opportunities that these situations open you up to. But in contrast, if your boss is verbally abusive or your employer is not trustworthy, you'd be better off leaving than trying to find the silver lining and staying.
In the cases where you do have control to make a change, positive thinking as a habit or a coping mechanism can serve to rationalize something that's actually in opposition to what we really want.
Number six, looking for the positive in a difficult experience can be premature. Say that your house burns down. In 20 years, you may look back and see all the incredibly positive and deeply meaningful things that ultimately resulted because your home burned down. You might see relationships that you would not have otherwise forged. Lessons you learned. A new appreciation for what really matters most. But in the acute phase of stress, positive thinking may be premature.
Number seven, looking for the positive in a difficult to experience can be avoidant. It can be a means to avoid genuine emotions that make great sense. Emotions like heartbreak, loneliness, sadness, shame. As Brené Brown says, if you don't process your feelings, they will eat you alive. Trying to feel better before you actually feel what is present for you in the moment is how you will build a collection of bottled up feelings.
Number eight, positive thinking as a habit can morph into a habit that some people term toxic positivity. According to Sokal, Trudel, and Babb in 2020, toxic positivity is the act of rejecting or denying stress, negativity, or other negative experiences that exist. Toxic positivity is different from optimism or positive re-frames in that there's a denial of anything that's not positive, that's not grateful, or that's not a silver lining.
Number nine, positive thinking can block learning. If every time you feel overwhelmed, stressed out, discouraged, you chant a cheesy feel good mantra, you essentially close the door on exploring why you feel how you feel. It's like putting up a sign that says, “nothing to see here, folks,” for your own thoughts and feelings. And as you've heard me say on previous episodes, awareness and understanding precede all change. So without that awareness, you can't make any good changes for habits.
Number 10, positive thinking keeps you from practicing the skill of really feeling your feelings and learning to self-regulate during intense emotions. If positive thinking is a reflexive habit for you, it may be a form of escapism, or numbing, or buffering.
Meaning in order to avoid feeling how you feel, you may use positive thinking just like you would use a drink, or online shopping, or your phone as a way to fix how you're feeling. And this is super common. If you're a very fast thinking, very cerebral, very intellectual person.
Number 11, thinking that positive thinking is the end all, be all answer reinforces the lie that you're not doing it right unless you're thinking positively and feeling great. Meaning you're not parenting, doing your marriage, doing habit change, doing work, doing hobbies correctly, unless you feel good as you're doing them. The truth is this. It's okay to feel awful. It's okay to feel deep loss, to feel regret, to feel sad, to feel shame, to feel like an imposter, to feel anxious or irritated.
There's not a moral hierarchy of emotions where serenity, and compassion, and acceptance are at the top. Judging negative feelings doesn't actually help you understand them better. Think about it, think of a time that you felt really low or really discouraged. If you layer on top of that feeling the thought, “If I were doing this right, I wouldn't feel like this.” That extra thought about the feeling is extremely unhelpful.
Number 12, believing positive thinking is the answer can perpetuate the very habits you want to change. Let me explain, if you're feeling really down or if you're really struggling and you think to yourself, “I should be more positive.” How are you likely to feel? You might feel judged, or inadequate, or even more discouraged. And these feelings make it so much easier to numb, reach for a drink, overeat, overthink over edit, over analyze.
And if all of this is done for the next few decades, this will have you on your deathbed wondering why. Why the hell did I try to be more positive? And I love how Glennon Doyle says, “What kind of life, relationship, family, world might I have created if I had been braver?” I like to say, what might you create if you stop telling yourself that you should think anything different from what you are currently thinking?
This is counterintuitive, but when you make space for how you're currently thinking and feeling, that is how you make space for the deep lasting growth. Instead of superficial and temporary changes.
All right, here we are number 13. The impact of positive reframing, otherwise known as finding a silver lining, is influenced by many variables. In some cases, it's very useful. And in other cases it can actually be quite harmful. When there's an identity threat, with for example, someone experiencing racial oppression, finding a silver lining has been shown to harm wellbeing.
Similarly, someone who has really low self-esteem, repeating something that they don't actually believe, like repeating in the mirror every single day, “I am lovable” can actually backfire. When for someone with higher self-esteem, it could be a useful tool.
Number 14. Being positive as a habit can actually impede creative solutions because it essentially avoids looking squarely at a problem. We can't change what we don't see. We see this play out when somebody joins an organization, and this newcomer starts questioning why things that have been done a certain way for years are going on the way that they're going on. This newcomer has a fresh perspective.
In contrast, if we're always looking for the positive at the expense of paying attention to what's not working, at the expense of the negative, it's like wearing blinders.
And number 15, positive thinking is a cousin to fantastical thinking. The fun reverie of imagining a future where everything has turned out exactly how you want it is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can open your eyes to things you deeply value and want to take action toward. On the other hand, it can be like putting your head in the sand.
For example, if things are really difficult at your work, you are over scheduled, you're behind, you don't take care of your basic needs. You are constantly hustling, feeling distracted, feeling at your wit's end. You may sit down and daydream of a better future. And this daydream feels amazing because it's a relief from how you feel right now.
And then when you come back to the present moment, if you think to yourself, “Right now, it's not so bad, I'm sure it's going to all turn out, at least I have a job. One day it'll be better.” But you don't actually address the problems in between your current you and this dream future, that future dream will just remain a fantasy and nothing will change.
So those are the 15 reasons why positive thinking is not all that it's cracked up to be. But remember, just because there are problems with positive thinking, it doesn't mean that it's never a solid approach. In some situations, some contexts, there's great power in positive thinking, in positive reappraisals, and in deliberately trading intentional ways of thinking about things.
So don't get me wrong, the message of this episode is not that all positive thinking is bad. The key is simply to be aware of how you're using positive thinking. It's problematic when you use it to tolerate a bad situation, to avoid negative emotions, to avoid the work of making a change that you really desire, to demonize anything that's not in the family of optimism, gratitude, peace, joy, satisfaction. In these ways, positive thinking is actually counterproductive if you want to start being more deliberate with your habits.
So this week, I'm going to give you three options for practices that you can start. And your choice just depends on your particular relationship to positive thinking right now. And these three options are not listed in any particular order where the first one is the most rudimentary and the third one is the most advanced. They’re just different ones that will be more appropriate for different situations.
So after you know which option is for you, I want you to try the exercise out for at least a week. And keep in mind that three or four weeks is really ideal for starting to see a shift.
So option one is for you if you think that you should always look for a silver lining, or your tendency is to always do that. Option two is for you if you classify yourself as more of a pessimistic person. And option three is for you, if you tend to use the idea of positive intentional thinking against yourself.
So let me elaborate on all of these. Option one is the one for you if you think that you should always look for the positive, always look, for the bright side, always look for the silver lining. Or if your natural tendency is just to do that. This will show up in a variety of ways.
Maybe you're the person who has no trouble seeing the silver lining. It might show up in your self-coaching, where you usually try to move from an unintentional model to an intentional model quite quickly. Now, if you don't know what self-coaching is, don't worry, I'm going to share more in a future episode.
It might also show up where you're always trying to find intentional thoughts, better ways to think, trying to be more positive. So if this is you, I want you to start paying attention to when you're doing this. And get curious about what you might be pivoting away from.
What's going on before you skip to the positive re-frame? And I encourage you to either write this down or type it in the notes section on your phone. Or you can just take time to just notice it. What's going on such that I think a positive r-frame makes sense?
All right, so option two. This is for you if you would consider yourself to be more on the pessimistic side of the spectrum. This week, I want you to pay attention to the times that you are only seeing the negative. Maybe times that you are forecasting the worst case scenario. Seeing all the barriers, seeing all the obstacles, seeing all the reasons why something is terrible.
When you do this, ask yourself what's a slightly more neutral, factual way to look at the situation? Note, neutral is key. The goal here is not to find the good, or find the lesson, or find the part that you're grateful for. The aim is only to make a slight shift. Like if you're looking through binoculars or a telescope, and you're not aiming to look 180 degrees the other direction, but you're just aiming to look a few degrees off.
So through the week, when you notice you're being quite negative, instead of rushing to see something totally positively or completely different from the way you're seeing it, ask yourself what is a slightly more neutral way to look at this situation?
Now here is option three. Option three is for you if you tend to use this idea of positive thinking against yourself. This will be you if you think you would be better off if you could just stop thinking so negatively. This might look like thinking, “I know better. Intellectually, I get it. I know it's just my thoughts but...” Or, if you're a coach, the kiss of death for coaches is thinking, “I'm a coach, I should be past this.”
So basically, if you ever catch yourself judging yourself, judging your negative feelings, judging your habits, judging your struggle, judging your thoughts, and you’re thinking that you should be thinking more positively, behaving more positively, being more positive, option three is for you.
Your self-judgment is a habit that does not serve you when it comes to making long term changes. It's like a road closed sign or an electric fence that blocks you from finding the root causes of why you're thinking, and feeling, and acting as you do.
So for you, when you notice yourself using positive thinking or any thought work tools against yourself, there are two things I want you to try. Number one, remind yourself of this fact, you should be right where you are. There is something really precious to learn right here. Number two, tap into curiosity and ask yourself, what might there be to learn here? And then just listen in to see what you notice.
Now, if you pair all of these exercises with a grounding, calming exercise, like taking five deep breaths, maybe placing your hand on your chest and your stomach, it can also be quite useful. And I encourage you to personalize these exercises so that they are yours.
So when it comes to positive thinking, that is what I've got for you today. And now it's time to announce two of the five giveaway recipients for the thank you giveaway.
The recipients that I'm going to announce today are Caroline Baldwin and Jordan Lore. Jordan wrote, “This podcast is easy to listen to, and stuff worth thinking about. Excited for more episodes.” Caroline said, “Great podcast. So relatable and relevant. Podcasts are the perfect length to fit into a busy day. Everything Kristi says is important and succinct, no meaningless chatter. I can already feel it will be life changing.”
So to Caroline and to Jordan, and to everyone else who has left a review, thank you so much. Thank you for listening, and I'll see you in the next episode where I'll announce the remaining recipients.
If you like what you're hearing and think others would benefit from the Habits On Purpose podcast, I have a huge favor to ask. It would mean so much to me if you would take a few minutes to rate and review the podcast. Reviews are especially important in helping a podcast be discoverable.
And I totally understand that it's really easy to not take the time to do a review. So to give you a little incentive to help me get this podcast off to a great start, I'm going to be giving away five day designer planners and Audible gift cards to listeners who follow, rate, and review the show. Now it doesn't have to be a five star review, although I really hope you love the podcast. I want your honest feedback so I can create an awesome show that provides tons of value.
So for all the details about how you can win, visit habitsonpurpose.com/podcastlaunch. And I'll be announcing the winners on the show in an upcoming episode. And if you know someone who you think would get value from listening and you feel called to share it with them, I would be so very grateful.
Thanks for listening to Habits on Purpose. If you want more information on Kristi Angevine or the resources from the podcast, visit habitsonpurpose.com. Tune in next week for another episode.