Being positive about positive thinking

Or, what positive thinking is not.

It is not, denial of reality. As things stand, I can’t afford to pay my rent all year. Ignoring that, or denying it, is not positive thinking, however I “vibrate”. I need to do something about the issue. Positive thinking involves noticing things I might do.

It is not imagining that things are as they are not, that at Christmas I am having a wonderful time with people who only give me joy and no heartache, for that creates resentment against things as they are.

This dreadful straw man argument (do read it- the last thing I can do after attacking it for setting up a straw man is summarise it) says some useful things, but also sets up false oppositions. Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking sixty years ago, is quoted: During holidays, Peale once suggested, you should make “a deliberate effort to speak hopefully about everything”. That does not mean, lie. I would like to have a good enough relationship with S. Peale is not suggesting I should say that I must or will have that good enough relationship, setting myself up for disappointment, but saying that it is possible, rather than concentrating on all the things which might go wrong.

To overcome a fear of embarrassment, [New York psychotherapist Albert] Ellis told me, he advised his clients to travel on the New York subway, speaking the names of stations out loud as they passed. I’m an easily embarrassed person, so I took his advice, on the Central Line of the London Underground. It was agonizing. But my overblown fears were cut down to size: I wasn’t verbally harangued or physically attacked. A few people looked at me strangely.

That is seeing things positively rather than negatively. Negative thinking would be, “I cannot do that, because I would be totally embarrassed”. Positive thinking is, “People do not care that much about me, and even if they do disapprove it does not  hurt me”. Positive thinking enables. Negative thinking concentrates on possibly illusory bad consequences. Positive thinking says, well, even if people do “look at me strangely”, I will cope with that if it happens. I have done makeup on the tube: I found it empowering. “What will people think?” is a bad reason for not doing something, unnecessarily restrictive. People rarely think what I imagine they will, in reality, and if they do it does not matter. Do I feel moved to do it? Do I really think it wrong or shameful?

The WSJ attack on setting goals (I told you, read the article) is classic negative thinking. Setting goals has bad results in some situations so is a bad thing to do. (I am paraphrasing, read the article to see whether I am accurate.) Positive thinking says, bad results can come from goal setting. Be aware of that, and seek to avoid them.

I love the idea of effectuation. Rather than choosing a goal and then making a plan to achieve it, they took stock of the means and materials at their disposal, then imagined the possible ends. Effectuation also includes… the “affordable loss principle.” Instead of focusing on the possibility of spectacular rewards from a venture, ask how great the loss would be if it failed. If the potential loss seems tolerable, take the next step. That is positive thinking, considering all the good in a situation. Equally, I may criticise the thrust of the article, and still gain from it.

4 thoughts on “Being positive about positive thinking

  1. Clare,
    I read the article and I do think your take on it is correct. While I tend towards the positive thinking approach – and you’re right positive thinking is not about lying to oneself, but simply keeping one’s mind open to the positive possibility – I do think this kind of mental focus does bring more positive into my own life.

    There are others, however, chronic worriers, people whose main focus is fear of those things that often never come to pass who may benefit from the approach mentioned in the article. For example, when I have a client who is perseverating, worrying unduly, I will sometimes say: “Well, what’s the worst that could happen? Could you live with that?” It’s very interesting how their focus will shift, their countenance will change and they’ll say something like: “Yes, I suppose I could.” If I had asked them to think positively, I not sure they could do so, but this approach will shift things for them. I don’t even see this as negative thinking, per se, it’s more a mind game that somehow allows some people to be more comfortable with uncertainty.


    • Yes. The “premeditation of evils”, “defensive pessimism”- asking “What’s the worst that can happen? How would I cope with that?” Definitely useful. I have thought of how I would cope, say, if my house burned down. Yes, I could cope with that.

      And, yes, it is not negative thinking, I think, though one could label all the thought forms one finds useful “positive thinking” and so completely dis Negative Thinking as completely and utterly bad. I suppose what matters in the technique is the words “It will be OK” as a genuine perception rather than just whistling in the dark. That is positive.”The bad thing is likely to happen” would be negative.


      • I agree. “The bad thing is likely to happen” would be negative – and I think that is the unspoken part of worry. So when the worrier is challenged to shift to “could I live with that?” somehow they let go of the “it’s likely to happen” thought pattern.


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