Could Positive Thinking Actually Be Holding You Back?

You may be surprised to hear that negative emotions can actually boost your well-being.
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You may be surprised to hear that negative emotions can actually boost your well-being.

You’ve had a rough day. Maybe because of one incident, or maybe several little things just seemed to fall out of place. So you fall back on the conventional wisdom that forging ahead, smiling through the pain, and thinking optimistically will help you weather the day. After all, research tells us that thinking positively increases well being and can help us cope with negative emotions. 

But is that the whole story? 

It turns out that the benefits of thinking positively are much more nuanced. In fact, smiling your way through hard times might not actually be the best way cope with your negative emotions in certain cases. Basically, positive thinking isn’t a cure-all.

Ignoring your negative emotions can backfire on you. One psychotherapist writes for the Scientific American that she has noticed an increase in the number of people she works with who feel guilty for experiencing negative emotions. “A crucial goal of therapy,” she writes, “is to learn to acknowledge and express a full range of emotions, and here was a client apologizing for doing just that.... Although positive emotions are worth cultivating, problems arise when people start believing they must be upbeat all the time.” 

Believing that you must experience only positive emotions can thwart your ability to more forward in life. You have to ask yourself what you're risking by ignoring emotions simply because they are unpleasant. 

The Case for Acknowledging Negative Emotions

Say your boss calls you out for daydreaming during a meeting. You're embarrassed, and maybe a bit peeved that he spotlighted you in front of your colleagues. But in an effort to avoid those feelings, you forge ahead—"forget" it happened. But the rest of your day is dampened because of this low-grade emotional anxiety you're experiencing. Acknowledging that you felt embarrassed can help you reduce those negative feelings more than if you ignore your reaction and keep going about your day with a vague sense of unease.

Psychologist Dan Siegel says that naming emotions (he calls it “name it and tame it”) can dull the pain of those feelings. According to Siegel’s research, when you experience a negative emotion, it is registered in the right hemisphere of your brain which is associated with nonverbal aspects of experience. And, until you name it, this emotion exists unnamed and floating around unattached and unassimilated into your experience. When you identify the emotion with the verbal side of your brain, the left hemisphere, you are able to lessen the intensity of the emotion because you’ve connected it to your experience. This helps you to calm down and move forward.

But what about that age-old advice to fake it ’til you make it? When it comes to achieving genuine happiness, especially for women, recent research indicates that faking it isnt the way to go. 

One study found that when the research participants smiled even when they weren’t happy, their moods were more likely to deteriorate, and they were more likely to withdraw from work. On the other hand, when participants smiled for genuine reasons, their mood and productivity increased. The researchers found that women were more affected by this disparity between genuine and pretend smiling. They hypothesized that since women tend to be more emotionally expressive, hiding emotions lead to more emotional strain. 

Another study found that the difference between whether a smile will help boost your mood or not depends on how often you normally smile. Those who normally don’t smile frequently tended to view smiling as an effort to become happy. Those who did smile normally tended to view smiling as a reflection of already feeling happy. Those who believed smiling should cause happiness wound up with reduced happiness and well-being. It seems that smiling even though you are experiencing negative emotions might not help you become happier.

If their hypothesis is correct, it is more beneficial for you to acknowledge your negative emotions than it is to put on a brave face and try to hide behind a smile.

Is There Power in Positive Thinking?

Avoidance of negative emotions sends the message that merely thinking positively can change the course of life events. One journalist wrote that she feared individuals might blame themselves for not recovering from an illness, telling themselves that if they had only thought more positively, they would have healed quicker. 

As it turns out, our mindset has more to do with how well engaging in positivity will boost your mood. Scientific American Mind cited a study which found that participants with low self-esteem experienced a worsening of their mood after practicing positive affirmations.

You may be thinking, that can't be. It's true, this does contradict what we often hear about affirmations. I talked about the science of boosting esteem extensively in my article about bolstering confidence quickly. For instance, Carnegie Mellon found that affirmations help with problem-solving and protect against stress. Another study found that women in a physics class who used self-affirmations outperformed the women in the class who did not. But sometimes these positive reminders can backfire. 

The Scientific American Mind researchers theorized that, for those with low self-esteem, these affirmations only served to remind participants of how they’ve fallen short on their life goals. 

Here's the key. There's no denying that positivity is hugely important in life, but it can't come at the cost of recognizing hardships you face. Positive thinking allows you to weather, not circumvent, the storm.

This is all to say that we should not be afraid to allow ourselves to express negative emotions. The Mayo Clinic recommends we should try to take an unbiased perspective on the situation. This means challenging your negative emotions by looking at the facts of the situation, assessing how rational they are, and acting accordingly. Allowing your negative emotions to call attention to a situation that you’d like to change can help you determine the best way to react to that experience.

Ignoring your negative emotions can lead to numbness, which also means that you are numbing yourself to positive emotions as well. Denial, says the Mayo Clinic, can lead to refusing acknowledge the reality of a stressful problem and the potential consequences.

As Tony Schwartz wrote for the New York Times, you can’t change what you don’t notice, and that holds true for negative and positive emotions. He explains, “Noticing and naming emotions gives us the chance to take a step back and make choices about what to do with them.” So the next time you are upset by a friend or family member, stop, acknowledge your negative feelings, and try to determine why your reaction was so strong. Use this information to help you move forward in a positive direction. You’re more likely to reach real positivity if you follow this path than if you take a shortcut.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Wells Photography