The observation that positive thinking can do more harm than good has been discussed in the vulnerability, empathy, and positive thinking book by Dr. Geraldine K. Piorkowski, “BEYOND PIPE DREAMS AND PLATITUDES: Insights on Love, Luck, and Narcissism from a Longtime Psychologist.” She explains that positive thinking can be harmful when it leads to the avoidance of processing negative events and emotions. When negative experiences are not dealt with, that is, thought about and resolved, it can lead to poor judgment and psychological symptoms, such as anxiety and/depression. Processing doesn’t mean dwelling on the negative; it means acknowledging the negative, thinking about it, and then moving forward.
While positive thinking and optimism entail hope and confidence in better outcomes in the future, there is not always a happy ending to every life event. Tornadoes and hurricanes can cause much damage, and failures as well as rejections can hurt, sometimes a great deal. When a tornado is coming, it is wiser to plan for your safety than think only positive thoughts. Likewise, when you have suffered failure on the baseball field or in the job market, it is best to acknowledge the defeat and the disappointment and then plan different strategies for the future. Otherwise, you will ignore what happened and be more likely to repeat it.
There is no doubt that one’s mindset or thoughts can affect one’s mood. If someone is thinking over unhappy experiences, they will be sad. Conversely, thinking over happy occurrences will elevate their mood. Additionally, when people imagine or picture scenarios in their mind, they tend to limit their imaginations to positive happenings. Fantasies are ordinarily wish-fulling, consisting of one’s hopes and dreams. But ignoring any negative signs or symptoms can be life-threatening, e.g., not thinking about the recurrent pain you’re experiencing can worsen the physical or psychological situation and lower the chances of your getting help in time.
At the extreme end of optimism is optimistic bias, which is the belief that one is invulnerable and can survive anything, no matter how dangerous. Drug overdoses and reckless driving lead to death, no matter how much one wishes it weren’t so. Optimistic bias, which is a form of grandiosity, leads people to believe that they are unlikely to suffer the consequences of their reckless actions and so, they continue to do the same unsuccessful or dangerous thing.
In general, optimism is healthy and gratitude for the positives in life is even healthier. However, learning how to deal with negative situations does strengthen healthy coping strategies, which is important in dealing with similar situations the second or third time around. While people are often afraid to face the negatives in their lives, worrying that they will be overwhelmed, most people are resilient and can handle mistakes and failures without falling apart.
Instead of excessive reliance on denial, realistic thinking, which includes self-awareness of negative feelings and thoughts as well as positive ones, is the healthiest perspective to adopt in the long run. Because realistic thinking acknowledges the depth of sadness that can accompany major losses and disappointments, it can facilitate the resolution of grief and other trauma-related emotions for those of us not permanently wearing either rose or dark-colored glasses.