Limitations of Positive Thinking

Positive thinking is simply about having a mind-set you cultivate. An example of this could be when you have been late in arriving at work because of delays in public transport. Someone who is upset by such a thing may go down the path “public transport is always like this, it makes me angry”. Positive thinking suggests we go down the route “I may have arrived late, but at least I got to read my book”.

I like positive thinking. It’s useful, and it can enable people to look differently at the world around them. This reframing can be helpful in how we might understand what we’re experiencing, how we might want to act moving forward, and what language we choose to use.

For example, being asked to write a report at work may be seen by some as a chore beyond your capability. Others may benefit by seeing it as an opportunity to learn a new skill you can use in the future. Both are right in their assertion – what’s important is how you choose to do something with what you’re presented with.

We know that if we adapt what we’re thinking, this can influence our behaviour and our outcome is more likely to be successful. Before an interview, before a presentation, before a client meeting, before a marriage proposal, it can help us feel better about the next activity if we spend some time focusing on what is positive.

Indeed this is a part of many sports people’s activity before they enter a big match. They are taught how to think and focus on their strengths. They are taught how to think and focus on victory. They are coached to be mindful of their training and how this places them in good stead.

This is as far as I think we can take positive thinking though. Where positive thinking starts to become less useful is when something significantly distressing and/or sad happens. In those instances, it’s not possible to just positively think your way out of it. It wouldn’t be appropriate, and may in fact be destructive or harmful to your psychological self.

An example here could be having your bicycle stolen while at work. It’s a significant enough event that you would need to move past your anger, annoyance, frustration or sadness before you start to think about what this could mean in the future. With some passage of time, and some positive thinking, we could feel better about the theft.

Imagine, however, you are cycling to work and are hit by a car causing you to injure yourself badly and damage the bicycle. Such an incident may cause you to reconsider cycling as a form of commute because of the association with the accident. Positive thinking in this instance may not be helpful. We may need further support and help before being comfortable using the bicycle in the same way.

At the other end of the scale, people sometimes make the cause fatale that positive thinking is all that’s needed in ‘getting over depression’. This is often said with a lack of understanding of the psychological illness that is depression or who suffer mental health problems. Treating mental health could require a range of interventions, both medicinal and/or therapy based. Often, it’s an illness which requires careful monitoring and support to help someone work through it, and come back to a feeling of ‘normality’. Telling those suffering with such things to ‘just think positively’ or ‘just look on the bright side of life’ is as useless as saying to someone who has a gambling problem to ‘just save a little everyday’. Both are insensitive, and bear no appreciation of the problem at hand.

With this in mind, positive thinking is just a way to give ourselves a sense of perspective about something bad or unfortunate that has happened. For more difficult phases in our life, we require more than just positive thinking.


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

One thought on “Limitations of Positive Thinking”

  1. a blog I found about how to change the way of how we think what is happing around us hope it would help me and some other to change way of adopting things that would hurt our feeling in future thanks and keep writing love you 🙂

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