The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

The Tyranny of Positive Thinking

In mental health by Tree House Recovery

We seem to live in a society obsessed with optimism and gratitude. We’re often told about the power of positive thinking, to look on the bright side, and to have an attitude of gratitude. There are indeed benefits to feeling and expressing gratitude. It helps you focus on the good things in your life and it makes others feel appreciated. Optimism can be good when it helps you persevere toward a worthy goal. And many of us fall prey to cognitive distortions that make use feel more pessimistic than we objectively should. However, this constant emphasis on positivity has some downsides that don’t get much attention, including the following. 

Positivity can lead to self-blame.

When you really believe that your thoughts create your reality, it logically follows that anything bad that happens to you is your own fault. The radical version of this idea is best characterized by The Secret and its antecedents in the New Thought movement. However, modern positive psychology presents a softer version of this, adducing studies that show more optimistic people enjoy more career success, better health, and longer lives. 

The downside is that when things go wrong, people, including you, tend to blame the victim. It’s certainly true that bad decisions typically lead to bad outcomes but it’s also true that bad things happen for no particular reason or even in spite of good decisions. What’s more, there’s not necessarily any connection between positive thinking and good decisions. In fact, making good decisions depends on the ability to foresee possible problems. 

Acceptance is important.

Even people who are naturally disposed toward optimism and gratitude experience challenging emotions and moments of doubt. It doesn’t help at all if you also feel bad about feeling bad. This is what Buddhists call “the second arrow.” The original harm is the first arrow, and feeling bad about it is the second arrow. Feeling like you should be positive all the time only makes you feel worse when you inevitably have a bad day. If you’re already in a difficult place emotionally, as many are when they begin recovering from addiction, being told to think positive can make you feel hopeless. Beyond that, it’s just not helpful. Several studies have found that people who acknowledge their negative emotions instead of trying to ignore or suppress them enjoy better psychological health. [

Relentless positivity can be alienating.

No one likes to be around someone who is relentlessly negative or critical but sometimes the demand to always be positive is just as stifling. In forming the strong relationships necessary for a successful recovery, willingness to be open is far more important that relentless positivity. You have to be willing to share your doubts and fears with people you trust and to listen to others when they’re going through a difficult experience. It’s important to have friends who are positive and supportive, but it’s also important to remember that we all have bad days and we all need help sometimes. 


Tree House Recovery of Portland, Oregon uses cutting-edge techniques in individualized programs to help men achieve freedom from addiction. Taking a holistic, sustainable approach to the inner and outer effects of addiction ensures you or your loved one will emerge with the confidence and skills to manage your addiction independently. No one is beyond help- our Admissions Counselors are available 24/7 at (503) 850-2474