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10 Times Overly Positive Thinking Can Totally Backfire

Most of the time, positive thinking takes you to a happier, healthier place. But not always.

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Why positive thinking is mostly, well, positive

For Positive Thinking Day on September 13, it pays to see the glass half full. “Positive emotions broaden our thinking, which in turn makes us have more positive thoughts,” says Julia Breur, PhD, a licensed clinical psychotherapist in Boca Raton, Florida. (Here’s what optimistic people do every day). “If we are experiencing positive emotions such as peacefulness and curiosity, we are more likely to be creative, see new opportunities, and be open to new ideas.” At the same time, however, it’s possible to be too positive. Yes, in fact, perpetual smiles and ongoing Pollyanna-ish thoughts may work against you and those around you. “Being willing and able to feel the entire spectrum of human emotions is far more important for experiencing a full life and can benefit one’s overall mental and physical well-being,” Dr. Breur says. Here, she and other experts explain the downsides of constantly donning rose-colored glasses, while sharing some tips about how you can find balance.

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Your partner’s health could suffer

Dr. Breur says that if you dismiss your partner’s physical pain by always putting a positive spin on it, you might miss serious health conditions. Saying things like “you work so hard all day, of course your back hurts,” when your spouse’s pain has been occurring for weeks, may brush pertinent health issues under the carpet. While your uplifting comments are filled with good intentions, Dr. Breur says that you should take a step back and consider the possibilities. And in this case, head to a medical professional, especially if pain has been ongoing. These are the pain symptoms you shouldn’t ignore.

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You may not cope as well with reality

It’s normal for all of us to daydream or wish certain challenging circumstances didn’t come up. But perpetually positive people may truly struggle with inevitable life issues such as illness, divorce, job problems, and more. “Individuals with overly positive thinking may have issues with confronting reality,” says Aniesa Hanson, a licensed mental health counselor at Hanson Complete Wellness in Tampa, Fla. “Going through life believing the glass is half full isn’t much of a problem as long as when a problem arises it’s recognized. People who completely ignore and reject times of discontentment may also be living in a state of denial. Ignoring problems with too much positivity doesn’t allow the problem to be addressed.” Hanson explains that not acknowledging difficulties will only prolong the inevitable, so it’s best to face the reality of the situation at the onset. Here are some ways to keep your marriage going strong when job loss strikes.

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You may not be genuine

While it’s nice to be kind and cheerful, some people are over the top, spending nearly every single moment wrapped up in positivity. Unfortunately, in some cases, all those sweet words and behaviors aren’t genuine. “Positive thinking could be considered the high fructose corn syrup of the thinking world—when forced,” explains Tamar Chansky, PhD, in a PsychCentral.com article. “It’s not necessary or natural, and research has found that it’s not good for us when we have to sell ourselves on it.” Instead, make sure all that positivity isn’t stemming from ulterior motives like telling the boss her idea was terrific, her outfit is great, and her company party was the best thing event you’ve been to—all in one day—when everyone knows you’re up for a promotion. Reel it in and be honest. “So, welcome spontaneous positive thoughts, but don’t knock yourself out trying to fashion them out of thin air when they just aren’t there,” Dr. Chansky notes.

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You might start seeing things in black and white

“No matter what happens to us in life we tend to think of it as ‘good’ or ‘bad,'” writes Srikumar Rao PhD, creator of the course, “Creativity and Personal Mastery,” for a PsychologyToday.com blog. He explains that the tendency is to try to make lemonade out of lemons every time negative circumstances arise, which can be “tiring and tiresome.” People often quickly scramble to find the silver lining to disappointing situations in an effort to make them “less bad” only to be “devastated that the model they were trying so hard to build caved in on them. That’s why positive thinking can sometimes be harmful.” Speaking of lemons, why not put some of their many benefits to use with these helpful suggestions?

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Bad behaviors may be free to continue

It’s natural for a parent to want to reassure their child across a variety of life circumstances, but sometimes too much of a sunny disposition can backfire. For example, Dr. Breur says that if other kids are making fun of your child and you respond to your son or daughter with a smile while telling them there’s nothing to worry about, that could make matters worse for your child, besides that they won’t feel their feelings are validated. “The harassment may escalate,” she says. “Your child needs you to be an advocate as well as a parent.” Dr. Breur suggests contacting the school and reporting bullying incidents immediately. “If a parent doesn’t address this, your child may develop anxiety and depression brought on by escalation of the verbal or even potential physical abuse by the bully.” Here are more things parents say that erode their child’s trust.

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Positivity may be confused with perfection

We’ve all been there: Every single aspect of our life is going splendidly well, when suddenly a health or financial concern rears its ugly head. Dr. Breur warns of equating life accomplishments and their associated positive feelings with perfection. That new home and fantastic, high-paying job can change in a heartbeat if your employer lets you go, which may jeopardize mortgage payments. “Life happens and you must take steps to think ahead,” she says. “I would recommend taking at least a day to breathe and think out solutions to the problems at hand. Be mindful that more of life’s negative situations will occur that are unexpected and unfair, but how you choose to plan, react, and manage them is the key to what many call living a full and happy life.” Here are some ways to earn cash if you come across hard times.

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It could set you up for failure

Sure, you might be the next great celebrity, but that’s a big “might.” Hanson encourages people to set realistic expectations. Positive people typically believe in themselves and their abilities, but she warns that too much of a bright outlook can actually impede desired success. While it’s great to be confident, she says “it’s equally important to make sure our hopes and dreams are achievable.” Kudos to you for thinking you might be the next Nobel Prize winner or contestant on The Voice, but it’s worth weighing whether they’re truly achievable. Otherwise, Hanson says your “I can do anything” personality may be setting you up for failure. “Being positive encourages us to take risks” she says, “but make sure the reward is realistic achievable before proceeding.”

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You may seem insensitive

If your friend just lost her job and wants to talk, chances are he or she is going to want to have a serious conversation. It’s not the time for relentless positivity and cliché “it happened for a reason” comments. “When friends, family, or colleagues confide in, us they’re primarily looking for a supportive ear,” says Hanson. “Providing an overly positive Pollyanna response could send a message that you’re not really engaged or invested to your loved one’s feelings.” Instead of possibly coming off as insensitive to others, know when to put those rose colored glasses aside. Doing so, Hanson explains, will convey that you’re genuinely concerned about the real problems others are facing. Here are some smart ways to help someone with depression.

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You may actually feel more negative

Some people enjoy saying or thinking positive mantras, perhaps looking into a mirror and telling themselves that they are lovable or smart. But a ScientificAmerican.com article reminds people of a study conducted by a University of Waterloo psychologist who found that for people with low self-esteem, practicing positive affirmations had the opposite effect. Instead of boosting self-esteem, ithe positive sayings only reinforced the fact that they hadn’t met certain life goals. Hard on yourself? Here are some ways to silence your inner critic.

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You may feel out of balance

Positive thinking has its benefits; Hanson says it can lead to better relationships, improved health, and even a longer life span. But she says there’s some good to positivity’s flip side: “Although positive thinking has its list of benefits, such as moving past our own fears,” she says, “pessimism has been shown to be equally important to a well-balanced life.” Don’t think you have to always keep your emotional meter pegged to the positive setting. Embrace life for all that it is, which also includes appropriately acknowledging and dealing with negative circumstances and all the not-so-Pollyanna thoughts and reactions that may accompany them.

Jennifer Lea Reynolds
Jennifer Lea Reynolds is a journalist and advocate. Her articles on mental-health topics like ADHD, body image, relationships, and grief have been published in outlets including U.S. News & World Report, Reader’s Digest, Woman’s Day, Smithsonian magazine, Mental Floss, and The Huffington Post. She has been a featured guest on national podcasts, including Distraction and Health Check. Reynolds is the founder of The Kindness Couture, an effort dedicated to shedding cloaks of negativity and making sure kindness remains in style. From kindness in the corporate culture to easy ways to demonstrate caring acts, she is dedicated to showcasing the benefits of compassion and empathy. Motivated by her own unpleasant experiences with bullying, Reynolds also draws on research about the decline of workplace kindness. Her Facebook page, The Kindness Couture, provides more information about increasing empathy. Reynolds is the author of two children’s picture books encouraging kindness, compassion, and hope in young people—Carl, The Not-so-Crabby Crab and The Cat Who Loved the Moon. A graduate of Monmouth University, she lives in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire.