The Perils of Positivity: How Too Much Optimism Can Hurt

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I’ve lived my entire life with a compulsion toward positivity. It’s been a superpower. I’ve become a source of laughter and encouragement for many friends. I’ve taken risks, assuming the pieces will fall in my favor. I’ve walked through most days with a belief in a better future.

But over the past few years, I realized this bent toward positivity has also become a prison. Turns out, there’s a downside to always seeing the upside.

When I speak of positivity, I’m referring to three specific habits:

  1. Focusing more of your energy on the parts of life you like (rather than the parts you don’t like),
  2. Assuming things will get better (rather than worse), and
  3. Believing in your own ability.

These are all beautiful traits. They also possess a shadow (as do all things).

While many people struggle to see the light, some of us are addicted to it.

Like moths desperate for a hit of positivity, we fly blindly into the bug zapper of denial. We can’t last five seconds without searching for the silver lining, cracking a joke, or keeping our heads above the deep emotional waters of our soul. We refuse to acknowledge the gifts of darkness.

The biggest danger of obsessive positivity is the tendency to deny parts of our life begging for attention. Pain is meant to be a signal — a warning light. Those of us addicted to positivity see this signal as the problem itself, rather than the alarm. Instead of listening to the pain, we turn up the dial on the Feel Good Indie Rock playlist on Spotify (a personal favorite) and whistle to the tune of denial.

Each of the three ingredients of positivity carries both medicine and poison–two sides of the same spiritual coin. Until we remove the rose-colored glasses long enough to see through new lenses, we will remain blind to the wounds and treasures waiting around us and within us.

1. Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Pain

Some folks are blessed with the natural ability to find the good (ie. desirable) thing in any situation. Got dumped? Now you’ll have more free time. Plus, think of all you learned from that relationship. Fired from your job? That gig wasn’t right for you anyways. This is just a launching pad toward an even better job. Stuck in a pit of quicksand with no cell reception as a snake chews on your arm? What a fascinating new experience! Maybe you can write about it someday.

The price we pay for this ability is our blindness toward pain. We notice it, but we shove those parts of life to the corners of our mind, forever banished to the subconscious for the sake of feeling good in the present.

When we ignore the pain in our lives, we keep ourselves from removing the thorns we’ve carried for quite some time. We’re afraid of the pain we might feel from tending to the wound, so we carry on and pretend it isn’t there.

Instead of acknowledging our relationship with our father isn’t great, we convince ourselves it’s “good enough,” then quickly shift our focus to other relationships we deem already successful. See? All good. Nothing to feel bad about.

Naming the broken pieces of our life is the first step toward restoration. Admitting your relationship is in the toilet empowers you to grab an emotional plunger and get to work. You can’t improve what you aren’t willing to face.

This inability to look at pain also keeps our relationships shallow. Not everyone shares our addiction to the light, and sometimes they’ll need us to journey into darkness with them. Friends will need to cry after a breakup. Lovers will need to vent about their day. Neither wants to hear our pre-packaged solutions in the moment.

If we remain allergic to pain, eventually others will stop trying to share theirs with us.

Pain brings gifts. It sucks. But it brings gifts. Facing our pain grows our hearts — it’s the shit that turns into fertilizer. Pain increases our empathy. Pain gives us a reason to slow down. Pain opens our eyes. Pain unites us with others. Facing our pain empowers us to say yes to the full range of human emotion. Pain is the key that unlocks us from the prison of perpetual positivity.

Summary: An obsession with positive thinking can keep us from removing our thorns, healing our wounds, and connecting with others.

2. Assume the Best, Don’t Put It to the Test

Hope is complicated. Because it has two meanings. On one hand, it’s the idea that “things are capable of changing.” We need this. Without this belief, we fall into despair, which is the idea that “things will always be this way.” In this sense, hope is vital. We need to believe in the possibility for change. If we can stick to that definition, hope is great.

The problem arises when hope turns into a wish or an assumption that things will improve. “I hope I finally get a raise.” “I hope I get fit.” “I hope my marriage gets better.” This perversion of hope reduces our power and places our future in the hands of Luck or Fate, both of which are waiting for us to decide what’s next.

We’ll call this toxic hope. Toxic hope is the desire for change without a shift in habit. Toxic hope is proclaiming, “I’m going to get out of debt this year,” without creating a plan or taking any action toward this new reality. It’s an over-emphasis on the shiny end result and an under-emphasis on the small, unsexy changes necessary to get there.

Sometimes we need to get uncomfortably honest with ourselves. It’s okay to admit when something has been on our vision board for years, but we’ve yet to make any real progress toward it. It’s not because we lack hope. We have hope spilling out of ears. It’s because we lack the small, consistent actions needed to move us forward.

Let us keep hope alive, believing life can and will always be changing, always becoming new. And let us release our toxic hope, trading in our wishing for small acts of brave creation.

Summary: An obsession with positive thinking can keep us stuck in fantasy and distract us from taking unsexy actions toward the life we want.

3. I’ve Got This

I love responsibility. I know that’s weird. But taking responsibility is the foundation of any real change in our lives. It’s a source of power. Whenever we give up our responsibility, we give up our “ability to respond.” Responsibility is the belief that we have a choice in life. It’s the gentle flow of power moving through us. It’s the voice that declares, “I want things to be different and I can do something about it.”

Some people fear taking responsibility. Instead, they choose to blame the people and events of their life. In doing so, they give up their power. They deny their ability to create change. For many people, taking more responsibility would be a big step forward.

Other folks (like me) have the opposite problem. We lean into our power so much that we reject the idea of receiving help from other people. We’ve become accustomed to having our shit together (or at least pretending like we do) in order to be a resource for others. We’re not looking for help and we don’t blame the world for our problems. We also don’t open ourselves to the gifts of receiving.

An overemphasis on our own abilities blocks us from the insights and connections others might be able to provide us.

Positivity becomes our armor. I don’t need to let you know how confused and insecure I am if I pretend to be fully capable of handling the situation. For some of us, growth looks like admitting our weakness, asking for help, and letting someone else take care of us.

Sometimes it means saying, “I don’t got this.” For me, sometimes that looks like reaching out to a friend and telling them how lonely I feel that day. Other times, it’s sharing my insecurities with a partner. Whatever form it takes, the goal is to let others inside our armor. To let them see those worn out and sunburnt parts of us that need aloe vera and love.

Summary: An obsession with positive thinking can blind us to our limitations and block us from receiving the unexpected gifts waiting inside the hearts and minds of others.

Balancing the Bright Side

In all fairness, these ideas are most useful to a small subset of people who are compulsively biased toward positivity. This is not the majority of people. Most folks would probably say they lean toward the opposite three habits: focusing on the parts of life they don’t like, assuming things won’t turn out great, and doubting their own abilities.

That’s normal. In that case, it might be helpful to cultivate a practice of shifting your focus, challenging your assumptions, and reminding yourself of how capable you are.

Life requires balance in order to flourish. A plant cannot take too much sun or too little. The human experience is much the same.

Balance allows us to embrace all aspects of life. We can say yes to childish play and yes to diligent work. Yes to indulgence and yes to discipline. Yes to community and yes to solitude. Yes to laughter and yes to grief.

If you need more sunshine in your life, may you gaze upon what you love instead of what you lack, may you discover hope where you need it most, and may you recognize the power already alive inside you.

And if you need more healing darkness and uncomfortable truth in your life, may you find the courage, wisdom, and community to guide your sunburned body into the cool shade of rest and imperfection.

Written by

Writer. Improvisor. Human in process. Learning to say, “Yes, thank you,” to the curveballs of life.

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