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hominid's avatar

Are there any negatives to positive thinking?

Asked by hominid (7347points) August 13th, 2014

My wife is taking a big exam in a few days. She’s been studying for this exam hours per day and has spent years in school to prepare her for this. She’s nervous, and her mind has been engaged in all kinds of “what if I don’t pass” scenarios, which simply increase her anxiety about the test. She catastrophizes and her mind will live in a fantasy about how bad everything will be if she fails.

There are a few people she knows who believe in “positive thinking” – telling her that she will pass the exam. Their recommendation is that she should tell herself that she will pass the exam, and even picture herself passing it.

This could be entirely useful and legitimate advice. But I am confused by it, as it seems that “what if I fail?” and “I will pass” both live in the same space. They are both bringing her from her present activity of studying.

These two approaches seem to be built upon the same promise – that there is value in spending her studying time now pretending that she is sitting for the exam. It appears to be about hardening expectations, rather than keeping them open.

What if she were to approach the exam without expectation (good or bad)? Wouldn’t this allow her to devote her full attention to doing what she wants to do, which is to study? In my experience, letting go of expectations allows me to focus on what I find important. It also allows me to enter the event/activity with more curiosity and less anxiety.

Note: I’m not even sure how I was going to word this question. It could be that there are different approaches that work better for everyone. And I could be completely wrong. It may be that positive thinking is great and has no real negatives at all. I’m just curious to hear what people have to say about it. If you’re an pessimist and have practiced positive thinking, in what form did it take, and how did it affect you?

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11 Answers

Coloma's avatar

If one has to force positive thinking than that is a negative. If something does not arise naturally it is contrived and forced and therefore negative. I think the whole positive thinking movement of the last number of years is over rated, as humans we have a broad range of emotions and accepting them in the moment is key. Some things ARE truly negative and while there may be a silver lining there is nothing wrong with allowing less than perfectly positive thoughts to happen.

jca's avatar

Number one question: Can she take the test again if she fails?

I deal with people who are planning to take exams for civil service. My advice is always what I did in my life for the same exams: Don’t be nervous. Either you know it or you don’t.

For me, it was not critical if I did well on any exam, and I usually did do well. It was a relief not to be anxious about it. It freed me up mentally.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Look at it from both sides. If I go in with a negative attitude, I’m not going to try as hard and questions I might be able to reason out I’m just going to bag and say I can’t do this. If I go in with a positive, but not over confident attitude, I’ll try harder.

Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

Between the optimist and pessimist there there a a droll;
The optimist sees the donut and the pessimist sees the hole.

Each human has a different personality. Each personality is created by a combination of how we are hard-wired and environment (think ‘nurturing’) before we reach adulthood.

As for personality characteristics, there are 34 as defined by The Gallup Organization. This is based upon over 50 years of extensive study. We have each of them, but to varying degrees.

It sounds as if your wife has a high rank for the characteristic called Deliberative.

You are careful. You are vigilant. You are a private person. You know that the world is an unpredictable place. Everything may seem in order, but beneath the surface you sense the many risks. Rather than denying these risks, you draw each one out into the open. Then each risk can be identified, assessed, and ultimately reduced. Thus, you are a fairly serious person who approaches life with a certain reserve. For example, you like to plan ahead so as to anticipate what might go wrong. You select your friends cautiously and keep your own counsel when the conversation turns to personal matters. You are careful not to give too much praise and recognition, lest it be misconstrued. If some people don’t like you because you are not as effusive as others, then so be it. For you, life is not a popularity contest. Life is something of a minefield. Others can run through it recklessly if they so choose, but you take a different approach. You identify the dangers, weigh their relative impact, and then place your feet deliberately. You walk with care. Source

Please share this description with her and find out if she relates to it. If so, it is probably one of her top five personality traits. While she may be able to adapt to a different way of thinking, it isn’t within her core being. It requires over-riding what feels natural. This is unlikely to happen in a stressful situation, such as taking an important exam.

There is another characteristic called Positivity. This is probably not a high-ranking characteristic in your wife.

To answer your original question, the answer is ‘yes’, there is a downside to positive thinking, as well as negative thinking. This is when the personality trait and takes over. If over-used, it can be labeled a weakness.

It sounds as if you are taking the middle ground, which is more realistic. There are too many unknown factors involved to accurately predict the outcome of the test results. All she she needs to focus on is not mentally checking out during the exam and attempt to do her best.

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

The folly of positive thinking is it leaves the believer blowing smoke up their own tail pipe. Unless you know the questions on the test, the heart of those able to hire or advance you, there is always the chance failure or incompleting will occur. She should concentrate on answering the questions and/or what questions she might have; then go with her gut, don’t mull the questions over too much. Going in too cocky and failing will be worse than if she thought there was a chance of failure if she did not do well, but prevail over it.

hominid's avatar

@Coloma: “I think the whole positive thinking movement of the last number of years is over rated, as humans we have a broad range of emotions and accepting them in the moment is key.”

I agree. I try to accept them, but do not take them too seriously. There have been times in my life where I have identified with the negative emotions, carried them around, and used them as the building blocks of my identity. But if I can allow myself to experience the whole range of emotions – positive and negative (whatever those mean) – I find that there’s something fluid and temporary about them. They are mere thoughts that I’m experiencing right now.

@jca: “Can she take the test again if she fails?”

Yes. However, if she did fail, there would be some less than ideal fallout. Interviews she has lined up now that are depending on this test would need to be delayed, more $ would be involved, etc. I get why she would be concerned. But I used her example to outline my confusion with positive thinking because like you said, “Either you know it or you don’t.” Either something will happen one way or it will happen another. Actively spending the present moment playing make-believe in our minds is unlikely to change the future. And it seems to me that people are pretty bad at predicting the future.

@Adirondackwannabe: “Look at it from both sides.”

Yeah, this might be an effective motivator for some. To me, however, it seems to be two sides of the same coin.

@Pied_Pfeffer – Thanks. I’ll pass on the deliberative and positivity personality stuff at a later date.

@Hypocrisy_Central: “The folly of positive thinking is it leaves the believer blowing smoke up their own tail pipe.”

That is my suspicion. But I’m wondering if there is some utility in doing this for some people.

Cupcake's avatar

I don’t know if positive thinking can make you pass, but I do believe that negative thinking can make you fail.

From my perspective, being in the present and picturing a positive future both do the same thing… they take the panic out of a bad future. If you’re wrapped up in panic, then “either you know it or you don’t” is irrelevant because your panic can prevent you from either remembering facts or being able to “logic through” a solution.

I’m with you… I try to be in the present and open to any possibility. But when I get wrapped up in anxiety, I need to picture a positive future to get out of it. It’s almost like I’m too far gone to just enjoy the present.

Earthbound_Misfit's avatar

If you place faith in positive thinking rather than working towards a goal, that’s definitely a negative.

I’d like to lose weight, but I’m pretty sure I can positively think as much as I like but unless I cut the calories, it’s not going to help.

I’m all for having a positive outlook but you you still have to do the work or take action. It won’t work on its own.

However, if your wife has been studying for weeks for the exam, then she’s put in the hard yards now she just has to believe she can do this and try to relieve her exam anxiety. I am a great believer in the ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’ process. If she fails, she can take it again and she’ll have real experience of what to expect.

gailcalled's avatar

I just left my deck slidng door open about 1” less than Milo’s waist line breadth. He took a deep breath, literally, and oozed outside. That’s the optimist in him.

The most prepared person in the world has text anxiety. I can think of nothing that eliminates it. If I were you, I would let her vent… let her express the most outlandish and unlikely scenarios and then kiss and tickle her a little. Feed her some bread and honey and wine and take a short recess. Help her with her review. Flash cards? Listen to a description of a possible short essay topic? Steer her towards the review parts rather than the fretting.

“Positive thinking” is one of those abbreviated short-hand epithets that is white noise. Every world-class actor has described his opening night stage fright, including often pre-curtain GI problems. Every teacher has butterflies before the first class of the term.

None of this is really helpful. Sorry. Knowing that she is not alone is not helpful either. My only suggestion would be to consider one session with a really good hypnotherapist, who will teach her something about visual imaging. It does take some work on the part of the hypnotistee, though. I had one hour with a guy 18 years ago and can still bring forth the images it conjured up.

At least you’re 24 hours closer to the exam.

hominid's avatar

@gailcalled – Thanks. Yes, she seems much more relaxed and is doing ok.

I just happen to use her and the test example to illustrate a real-life example. But I have been curious about this positive thinking thing for some time. Most people I know see this as the opposite of negative thinking, while I see them as almost identical.

I also suspect that there may be times where positive self-talk is legitimately useful, like when you are about to walk into an interview or something. But in general it seems odd to recommend engaging in futuristic fantasies (negative or positive).

fluthernutter's avatar

The cop-out answer is that it depends on the person.

Generally speaking, I’d use negative thinking leading up to the event. And positive thinking going into and during the event.

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