When Being Positive Doesn’t Work

At some point in your life, you have probably either been told or told someone else “be positive” when faced with a challenging situation or negative emotions. What this means is: if you have negative thoughts/attitudes/opinions, try replacing them with something positive instead. Someone losing a job may initially think, “no one will want to hire me,” and in attempt to be positive tries the thought “this is an opportunity to find something that makes me truly happy.” This is absolutely a great coping skill for some and can be linked to concepts within positive psychology. For others, it doesn’t quite do the trick. They find themselves questioning why this doesn’t work like it does for others.

For example, someone with significant depression or anxiety symptoms may not find a positive thought to be helpful. “I’m a weak person” can’t easily become “I’m a strong person” because it feels so inconsistent with what they consider their truth to be. Nevertheless, “I’m a weak person” is going to produce more negative emotions and perceptions of self.

So what can you do if trying to be positive isn’t working? The solution still includes trying to reduce negativity, but has more to do with finding a helpful truth. What does this mean? Let’s go back to the example of being “a weak person.” Perhaps that feels true. Another (helpful) truth could be “I feel weak, but I am doing the best I can,” or “I am being challenged and I am working on overcoming these challenges.” These statements don’t deny the reality the person may be experiencing, but they also add a supportive element that can provide hope and encouragement.

With ongoing stress, depression or anxiety, it can be difficult to identify helpful truths. It requires a bit of compassion for yourself and, at times, the outside perspective of a close friend, family member or therapist. Once you have identified a helpful truth, monitor your thoughts and when you recognize a lot of negativity, practice thinking about your helpful truth. Over time, this can prompt healthier behaviors and reactions to stress and may just reduce the need for the “be positive” advice.