The pitfalls of positive thinking: a mindful perspectiveAug 4th, 2011 | By Dr R Lepcha, | Category: Living Mindfully
Intrinsically there is nothing wrong with this concept, except that positive thinking on its own in most instances does not bring about a profound change in the way we are used to approaching life and work. Yet generations of psychotherapists have always aimed to do that, in a process known as cognitive restructuring, they attempt to replace our negative self defeating attitudes with positive winning ones. A lot of recent research, on cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), have actually shown that people with chronically low self-esteem actually feel worse when presented with an overtly positive image of themselves by the therapists. Not only do they find it incredible to believe it at times, but also such a failure to adopt the new self-image might actually strengthen and reinforce the negative feelings they have about themselves even further.
Work joyfully and peacefully, knowing that right thoughts and right efforts will inevitably bring about right results.
- James Allen
The conclusion of a study entitled “Positive Self-Statements : Power for Some, Peril for Others” carried out in the two Canadian universities of Waterloo and Brunswick in 2009 ( published in the journal Psychological Science) is that positive thinking can actually harm those with low self-esteem i.e. precisely those who needed it the most according to current popular psychological lore. Cancer patients, students facing exams, people who are nervous about their public lectures and those who are trying to raise their low self-esteem are often the victims of pop self-help psychology by repeating phrases to themselves like “I don’t have cancer” to “I’m a lovable person” hoping for some miraculous transformation in their lives which rarely happen in reality. People with an already high self-esteem were shown in this study to have a mild positive enhancement of their confidence levels, although it cannot be disputed that realistic assertions of positivity can provide a short-term fix to one’s self-esteem.
A polar opposite to this short-term approach is the long-term transformational change that characterizes mindfulness and meditation techniques that are emphasized upon by Buddhism and other similar approaches. Buddhism in particular, stresses upon examining our own lives in a bigger psychological perspective than merely our short-term concerns, thus forcing us to re-evaluate our shortcomings after accepting them, and seek solutions that are congruent with our re-prioritized life goals.
For instance, in the case of somebody with an extremely poor sense of self-esteem, the Buddhist method challenges the validity of the negative self-image that we currently hold about ourselves, as mere mental constructs (samudayas) that we used to identify ourselves. It forces us to review our own shortcomings taking into consideration our past circumstances, often leading to the realization that our shortcomings are often not our own fault on their own, but the endpoint of several factors many of which were beyond our control. This acceptance often leads to insights regarding positive affirmative action to change the situation within the limits of what is humanly possible to achieve. Poor self-esteem and in the Buddhist analysis is just a set of incorrect delusional beliefs that we have built up in the process of coping with reality, that can be changed through practice.
Joanne V. Wood, W.Q. Elaine Perunovic and John W. Lee (2009) Positive Self-Statements : Power for Some, Peril for Others. Psychological Science 2009 20: 860