All over the media I see messages about the power of positive thinking, encouraging us to focus on the joy and goodness of living that we can experience at any given moment. This type of thinking and the avoidance of anxiety, has been encouraged in many religions and in other ways of life.

For example, Christianity promises the provision of life necessities in psalm 91, which offers a sheltered life for those who stay at the highest level of positivity mentally and emotionally. Believers are promised protection from “the terror of night, the arrow that flies by day, the pestilence that stalks in the darkness and the plague that destroys at midday.”  There are also parables such as Matthew 6:24, in which Jesus encourages us to be like “birds that do not feel anxious or afraid about what they will eat tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself”.

The same is encouraged by Buddhist teachings that discuss mostly the nature of suffering and the cessation of it. It is interesting that Buddhists have an initial recognition that life is about suffering and that the essence of what Buddha proposed was the development of “enlightenment” or the possibility to escape what life is about: suffering. He offered teachings that provide a deep understanding of life and the process of living, which is just as pertinent today as it was eras ago. All of these teaching are tied together by the practice of meditation or mindfulness. This is encouraged as a constant discipline in developing full attention in something present and connected to life itself that increases sharp self-awareness and detachment of cravings and desires, which is the way to avoid suffering.

Positive thinking is ingrained in North American culture and is the basis for famous law-of-attraction concepts found on Napoleon Hill, author of “Think and Grow Rich” or “The Secret” written by Rhonda Byrne.  There are also psychological approaches to psychotherapy and counselling that reinforce the benefits of positivity. Professionals in this area usually use a “strength based” approach in which we make sure that we reframe a client’s mental or emotional negative constructs into something meaningful that the individual can understand — becoming positive as a result of demystifying some of the mental or emotional symptoms. As they say, “Information is Power”. This is only a small part of what can happen in counselling.

Nevertheless, in spite of the benefits of positive thinking I believe that the constant propaganda in favor of positivism has created a shrinking and shallowing of possibilities for deep communication and understanding among people in general — and family and friends in particular. Frequently we find messages that are almost aggressive in their imposition of a positive focus for any situation. I recently read a sentence from the Dalai Lama that encourage us to let go of those that have problems or negative or depressive thoughts to share. He encouraged us not be a “garbage can” for this people.  I see his point.

However, this way of thinking tends to deny a significant part of the human experience, especially for family members and younger generations who might not have the right outlets for processing and discharging the stress of life’s difficulties. If people in positions of authority in their lives are only prepared to hear the positives and goodness in each situation, this can reinforce distancing from those we love. It can also lead to misunderstanding of complex situations that can be read by the person experiencing the difficulty as a lack of caring, or steer those unable to be positive all the time towards unhealthy ways of handling negative emotions. This is unfortunately a daily experience for many people. In the end, positive thinking and similar theories tend to increase the need for professionals who can handle negative feelings and emotions. However, since psychotherapy is not necessarily valued nor recommended by many in our society, misunderstanding and lack of depth in crucial conversations can end up translating as lack of self-esteem and negative self-talk in those that feel misunderstood. Therefore, the imposition of positive thinking when the individual is not ready to take it on, can easily convert into what positive thinking seeks to eradicate: negative self-perception / talk.  I believe that the more emotionally healthy we are, the more we should be able to deal with the whole spectrum of our feelings or emotions.  This is an area where counselling can help tremendously.

I do acknowledge that at the end of the mental health continuum, there should be an emphasis in the positives of life. However, this is something that we usually learn throughout our lives as it is connected to living through enough positive experiences that these act as a buffer to allow us to take in the lessons we have learned from experiencing suffering without denial.

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