The Poison in Pushing for Positive Thinking

I was vaguely irritated to discover yet another book pushing the power of positive thinking recently.  In many ways there is much to commend it, but in others the concept and its application can cause more harm than good.   Inevitably it can whip up immature and dichotomous notions that positive thinking is good and negative thinking is bad.  An addiction to positivity can engender an extreme negativity to negativity!

This brings to mind the Tim Minchin song, Lullaby.  Minchin perfectly describes the desperate state of a sleep-deprived parent who is struggling to get his baby to settle.

'My heart says "I love you", but my brain's thinking "fu** you"
And hoping a child trafficker will abduct you
At least then I'll get a few hours in bed.

I've shushed and I've cooed and I've even tried to sing
"Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da" in the exact voice of Ringo
Now all I have left is to hope that a dingo
Will sneak in and rip off your fat bitching head.'


I attended a seminar where Minchin shared how a woman warned him that he was tempting fate, and that thinking this way was enough to endanger the life of his child.  In CBT we refer to this as thought action/ or thought event fusion.    And this is just the problem that an obsession with the power of thought can engender, a crazy, superstitious notion that thoughts are things in the same way that a table is a thing. Whilst I'm on the topic of child rearing for instance, it is normal  to have frequent fleeting thoughts of dropping, stabbing, harming a baby in some way because the brain has a tendency to flag up threat so that we may avoid it. See the excerpt below from the Wikipedia page ''

"Many people experience the type of bad or unwanted thoughts that people with more troubling intrusive thoughts have, but most people can dismiss these thoughts.[1] For most people, intrusive thoughts are a "fleeting annoyance."[5] Psychologist Stanley Rachman presented a questionnaire to healthy college students and found that virtually all said they had these thoughts from time to time, including thoughts of sexual violence, sexual punishment, "unnatural" sex acts, painful sexual practices, blasphemous or obscene images, thoughts of harming elderly people or someone close to them, violence against animals or towards children, and impulsive or abusive outbursts or utterances.[6] Such bad thoughts are universal among humans, and have "almost certainly always been a part of the human condition"

Instances of this are thought to be highly evolutionarily adaptive;  for example if we are alert to threat, we know to avoid it or protect ourselves from it in some other way.   It is extremely damaging to a mother's self-confidence to believe that because she is focusing on causing harm that she is endangering the safety of her child.  It can whip her up into a needless state of fear and guilt based on the childish notion of 'positive thinking' and the importance of avoiding negative thinking at all costs.  On occasions it has proved necessary for me to insist that clients say outloud to me that they hope I die before they see me in the following session to allay such superstitious notions of omnipotence.   This has happened on several occasions and I'm still alive, so far.   I appreciate that this is of a somewhat different emotional note to Minchin's 'Lullaby.'  but in the same sentiment, an acceptance of our full range of human thoughts and feelings, and an appreciation that they are not our behaviours or tempting fate, or things that exist anywhere else than in our mind, is crucial to supporting a good relationship with ourselves on the road to happiness. 

So, I beg of you watch out for the poison in pushing positive thinking.

Rachman S, de Silva P (1978). "Abnormal and normal obsessions".Behav Res Ther 16 (4): 233–48. doi:10.1016/0005-7967(78)90022-0PMID 718588.