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Why You Can't Always 'Think Positive'

Happiness isn't always a choice. There's a benefit to accepting your negative emotions.

by Gretchen Brown
April 24, 2020 | Health

Half of social media right now feels like that fire drill scene in “The Office.”

Someone smashed out a window, someone else is climbing through the A/C vents and a third person is yelling that we’re all going to die.

The other half is the meme of a small dog with a coffee cup in a burning room. Saying “this is fine” when things, clearly, are not.

It’s this push and pull between positive and negative. Some folks are spiraling in this scary time we’re in. And then, always, there are folks sharing quotes like “think positive!” and “happiness is a choice!”

Common knowledge says the pessimists are the odd ones out here. And some studies do suggest that negative thinking can weaken your immune response.

But forcing people to think positively — what’s sometimes called “toxic positivity” — isn’t the answer either.

“We can't just all ‘think positive’ constantly because that's not the reality of the human experience,” said Samara Quintero, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at the Psychology Group Fort Lauderdale.

As humans, we all experience a full range of emotions. That’s anger, and guilt, and sadness, in addition to happiness. 

“What makes a human being healthy is their ability to cope and manage these emotions,” she said. “Rather than suppress or deny their existence.”


[ICYMI: How to Protect Yourself from Other People's Stress at Work]

Validation in venting

That’s because ignoring negative thoughts doesn’t make them go away. It might actually make you feel worse about a situation. And you’ll feel more stressed next time around too, because you don’t have a healthy way to process your feelings.

Accepting your negative emotions, on the other hand, can help you process them.

A man in an apartment. Rewire PBS Health Think positive
You can feel lonely — and accept that — while taking a positive approach to your alone time at the same time.  |  Credit: Adobe

“In order to cope with reality, we first have to accept reality as it is, rather than using the silver lining or rose-colored glasses approach,” psychotherapist Grace Dowd said.

There’s also scientific evidence that people who think realistically actually fare better in life — lower risk of heart disease, healthier relationships. That could be because they’re not setting themselves up for disappointment. It could be because a positive outlook, as The Atlantic puts it, “leaves us overconfident.”

I’ve coped with a tough time by venting to a friend more than once. 

It’s a way to feel validated about what I’m going through. There’s a little bit of camaraderie in sharing that space.

But there’s some shame in negative feelings, especially when you feel like your friends and family don’t understand where you’re coming from.

It’s easy to learn which friends I can vent with, and which I can’t. Because when I don’t feel that there’s empathy involved — when they respond with something like “it could be worse” or “just think positive” — I don’t feel heard.


“We have to create space for all emotions, not just the positive ones,” Dowd said.

“When we are able to validate others, it brings us closer to the people we love and makes us feel heard.”

If you’re feeling hurt or dismissed by your friends, Quintero says you should tell them why being told to “think positive” makes you feel worse.

There’s a good chance they’re not even aware of how harmful it can be.

Know yourself

On the flip side, when we actually feel heard, our emotions feel less intense. 

Dowd recommends an approach that lets you take account of both the positive emotions and the negative emotions.

“For example, ‘I am feeling isolated and lonely AND I can use this time to focus on myself,’” she said.

Because while social media might feel polarized, negativity and positivity aren’t mutually exclusive. You can feel lonely — and accept that — while taking a positive approach to your alone time at the same time.

Nekeshia Hammond, a psychologist, says it’s also important to take stock of how long you’re feeling sad or down.

“Is your sadness, anxiety, and/or anger lasting for weeks and weeks at a time with no break?” she said. “These longer times of mental health symptoms may be more concerning and need a check-in with a mental health professional.”

A few bad days here and there are completely normal. But don’t be afraid to seek professional help if you need it.

There’s been advice everywhere from folks saying how they’re dealing with the pandemic. They’re baking bread and they’re doing puzzles and they’re writing screenplays.

But Hammond says you need to look internally and figure out what you need to help you feel better. Your personal form of self-care will be different than what other people need.

“Some people love spending time outdoors, others hate it. You may love to cook or despise it. A gratitude journal may work for you or not,” she said. 

“Bottom line, do what works best for you to cope with all of the emotions that you are feeling, and be patient with yourself.”

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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