I’ve read and listened to a lot of personal development material. The one thing you tend to notice is that most of the authors and speakers of this material tend to be pretty much in agreement on just about everything. Some authors focus on one area and others focus on another, but it is rare that you hear them make sweeping contradictions from the work of their peers.
The idea of positive thinking, however, is one that I see as probably the most widely debated area of personal growth. Many authors build entire products around using positive thinking. Others like Steve Pavlina make the claim that positive thinking is self-delusional and dangerous.
This seems a bit like the story of the three blind men and the elephant. In case you’ve never heard the story before it goes somewhat like this:
Three blind men encounter an elephant on their travels. Because they cannot see the elephant the men touch the elephant in an attempt to describe it. The first man touches the elephants tail and describes it as slender. The second man touches the elephants trunk and describes it as long. The third man touches the elephants body and describes it as large.
Each of the men continue to argue on about who is right and why the other person is wrong. They are arguing about how they describe the same thing!
I believe the debate about positive thinking is just different ways of saying the same thing. Many authors look at one aspect of positive thinking and claim it is the key to success. Other authors look at other aspects and claim it is the key to delusion.
I think that another key problem to seeing through this conflict is by trying to understand just what positive thinking is.
So what does the word positive mean? My dictionary says:
Positive – adjective –
1) expressing or implying affirmation, agreement, or permission.
2) constructive, optimistic, or confident.
3) with no possibility of doubt; certain.
Based on these definitions I think we could describe positive thinking as thinking in a way that is constructive, confident, and certain. Positive thinking also lends itself to affirmation.
Lets look at each of these components.
First, positive thinking is constructive thinking. I believe constructive, or empowering, thinking is the process of trying to find solutions rather than problems. This means that once you understand the problem at hand, you immediately look for solutions rather than focusing on the problem. I believe this aspect is often what makes so-called positive thinking valuable. If you focus on solutions you get more of them. If you only focus on problems you get more of them too.
Keep in mind that by its very nature, thinking of solutions rather than problems doesn’t lend itself to the self-delusional properties connected with positive thinking. Because in order to see a solution you would have to first understand the problem. The key is where you focus your attention.
The next attributes of positive thinking would be confidence and certainty. This attribute can go both ways. If you are under-confident then you will seriously under-perform in a lot of tasks. However if you are over-confident you might not prepare as much as you should.
I think most people assume that the level we want is the level of confidence that represents reality. However, achieving this state is enormously difficult because of our own personal bias. In these cases you really need to look at what are the costs of being under-confident and what are the costs of being over-confident and then err on that side.
For example, if I was going to ask someone out on a date, I would want to err on the side of over-confidence. Being over-confident in that area has little downside where being under-confident would have larger negative consequences. However, I’d rather have an under-confident doctor that rechecks his books three times before prescribing something than an over-confident one who gives me the wrong medication!
A final attribute of positive thinking is affirmations. So why use affirmations in the first place?
Affirmations are basically designed to increase your level of confidence. Affirmations are also tools to subconsciously change who you identify yourself as so you will behave in that new manner. So if I continuously affirm that I am a non-smoker that will increase my confidence in my decision to quit smoking. These affirmations also shape who I identify myself as. By affirming I am a non-smoker I stop thinking like a smoker.
In this sense I feel affirmations can be incredibly powerful. Especially in areas where you lack confidence or you are trying to change how you identify yourself.
There is a danger in using affirmations, however. Affirmations can delude us to the problems. By continuously affirming the solution we may be blinded to real problems. If we affirm everything, it doesn’t solve the problem. The only thing affirmations can do is give us the confidence or identity we need to solve those problems. Beyond that, affirmations just delude us to the problems.
So where does this leave our debate on positive thinking?
I conclude that the people who support affirmations and positive thinking are attempting to compensate for the generally pessimistic, problem-conscious, under-confident populous. Others can use positive thinking as a form of focusing on the solution rather than a problem.
Those that believe positive thinking is the key to delusion are worried that by blindly accepting this advice, we might become over-confident. Also in the attempt to “affirm everything away” we forget the real problems at hand.
I think the key is to balance it. We should always strive for thinking realistically, and where that is impossible we should err on the side that has the fewest negative consequences. We can use affirmations if we need a boost of confidence or to trigger ourselves out of a harmful identity, but we shouldn’t use it as soon as it blinds us to real problems.
Remember, it is still an elephant after all…