Don’t worry, be happy. Chin up. Look on the bright side. Social media feeds and daily conversations are flooded with phrases like these. You don’t have to look too far to see how much we favor positivity.
A positive mental attitude can be a powerful tool to help you through life’s challenges and daily struggles. But unrelenting positivity can turn toxic.
Forcing yourself to always look on the bright side can become draining, and optimism can lead us to ignore the thoughts and feelings that are happening at a deeper level.
Helen Dillon, life and careers coach and founder of Your Path Coaching, agrees that too much positivity isn’t necessarily a good thing. She recognizes that negative thinking, when used right, can be a powerful tool for introspection and a motivator for change.
“Being positive all of the time means that there is no critical analysis taking place or taking stock of one’s current situation,” Dillon says.
“Life is never straight forward; it often throws curveballs at us, like losing one’s job or suffering a period of ill health… Positivity is a good mindset to have, but embracing the negative moments in our lives is what keeps us real.”
Gillian Fagan, a therapist, coach, and counselor at Acora Therapy, agrees with Dillion. Fagan also notes that biologically speaking, humans have a negativity bias, which means we’re actually designed to focus on the negatives.
“Our brains are hardwired for negativity, because human beings are wired to survive,” she explains.
“It’s more natural for us to expect the worst, catastrophize, be cautious and slow to change. If the default position is to survive, this means worrying about the what-ifs.”
According to Fagan, too much positivity can reinforce feelings of personal failure when life doesn’t go the way we want. It’s in these scenarios that negativity is needed for us to grow.
For me, it was looking closely at the negative emotions that surrounded a work problem that helped me move forward.
When I found myself dreading going to work in the mornings, telling myself to simply look on the bright side wasn’t cutting it.
Instead, I accepted the negative emotions I was feeling and gave myself the space to investigate them.
I took a look at what was really going on. I allowed myself to vent to friends when normally I might force a smile. Instead of contriving gratitude, I kept a grievance journal to put all my worries and concerns down on paper.
What I discovered was a mix of feelings of inadequacy at work and anxiety stemming from the demands of the job. Armed with this knowledge, I was able to implement some changes.
I worked on building my confidence, learned to speak up when the workload became too demanding, and accepted that the job wasn’t perfect. This was a relief in itself.
Negativity was my path to getting to a happier place. If I hadn’t allowed myself to focus on the negatives, I wouldn’t have moved forward.
So, how can you harness the power of negative thinking in your life?
“First of all, it’s acknowledging to ourselves that we’re unhappy or dissatisfied with the position in which we find ourselves,” explains Dillon.
“This can be an enormous difficulty, especially if it’s admitting that something we had chosen to do didn’t work out right.”
Once we give ourselves the space for this reflection, we’re able to work out a solution. The resulting negative emotions are motivators to drive us to change, says Dillon.
“Using these periods of negativity is actually how we learn to improve ourselves. It’s how we can better understand our strengths when we are faced with challenges that make us dig deep within ourselves to overcome those difficulties,” she says.
Negative thinking actually holds benefits that can help us move forward in life.
Accepting all emotions allows us to experience our lives more fully. We don’t have to feel guilty or at fault when negative emotions arise. We can accept them as just a part of life. They also allow us to appreciate the positive aspects of life more fully.
“We succeed because we learn and grow from our failures. We connect and feel love because we are vulnerable and take risks. Avoiding pain is in a way a form of pain, as it means living in denial,” says Fagan.
No one is capable of being totally positive all the time. We’re too multidimensional for that.
“When we’re just emitting positivity, we are putting too much pressure on ourselves to be anything other than an authentic human being. Any negative feelings just get pushed down and sent to denial,” says Fagan.
“It’s genuinely OK not to be OK! When we honor all of our feelings, we honor all of ourselves. The most positive thing you can do is be true to yourself.”
The pressure of being positive all the time can lead to increased stress as well as feelings of isolation. It may lead you to bottle up your feelings and not share when things are difficult.
Looking at a problem and accepting that something in your life isn’t working is the first step in making a change.
“One of the biggest motivators for change is being uncomfortable with our real feelings,” Fagan notes.
“Nobody wants to feel afraid or sad. The negative thoughts are usually what motivate people to seek therapy and get a real understanding of what is going on for them and why they feel what they feel.”
Without negative feelings, we might stay in less-than-ideal situations when deep down we’re in need of something different.
Success doesn’t come without failure, Fagan points out.
“If you know what failure feels like, congratulations!” says Fagan. “Failure means that you tried. You took a risk and tried something. Show me a successful person who has never experienced failure. I really believe that we should be celebrating failure, as it teaches us so much; how to improve, develop, learn and grow.”
If you fail but continue to try, you build resiliency and are better able to cope with life’s ups and downs.
Not being honest with yourself or others about how you’re feeling has real health consequences.
“Psychological and physiological studies show that denial and pretending to be OK increases internal stress. Hiding feelings of anger and sadness can cause depression, anxiety, and even physical illness,” Fagan says.
Emotional repression has been shown to decrease immune function and put you at higher risk for some diseases.
“A range of emotions helps us regulate our stress response, which actually means a healthier immune system. Accepting negative emotions rather than dismissing them is better for you in the long run,” says Fagan.
Accepting your negative emotions can also improve your relationships. By being honest about what you’re experiencing, you’re increasing the opportunities for intimacy with your partner. Intimacy itself has multiple health benefits.
Your instinct may be to play the “strong one,” but vulnerability is necessary for deep connections.
Ultimately, it’s all about balance. Both positive thinking and negative thinking can be valuable to us in different ways.
Striving to be positive in a difficult situation can be the mindset that keeps us going when the going gets tough. Negative thinking can be the tool that allows us to carefully assess a situation and decide to make a change.
A healthy outlook has room for both.
Victoria Stokes is a writer from the United Kingdom. When she’s not writing about her favorite topics, personal development, and well-being, she usually has her nose stuck in a good book. Victoria lists coffee, cocktails, and the color pink among some of her favorite things. Find her on Instagram.