“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” — Warren Buffet
Having a positive mindset when life hands us lemons can be a good thing. Actually, it’s pretty amazing. I wouldn’t have made it through the last couple years of school if I hadn’t remained somewhat positive and focused on the goal in light of bullshit, traumatic events and academic pressures.
Examining psychology through a more positive lens first began with humanists like Abraham Maslow and his theory of self-actualization and Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy which focuses on embracing our authentic self. These theorists started shifting the psychological mindset from pathology to inner strength.
Qualities like resilience, a zest for life, self-acceptance and emotional availability are aligned with the mindset of positive psychology where researcher and clinical psychologist, Martin Seligman, spearheaded the movement.
Remaining positive is about having the expectation that things are going to turn out positively, and with a satisfying result…if we just remain positive. And, some times retaining an upbeat attitude while focusing on positively accomplishing what we set out to do, proves worthwhile.
Learned optimism has its strong points. For example, by ridding ourselves of our self-defeating inner critic and the “screw it” attitude, we can begin reformatting our internal dialogue to an “I got this” attitude. After a while, we can even kick it up a few extra notches by writing down everything we conquered that day, creating an “I conquered it” attitude.
Boom…positive psychology #ftw.
However, while a positive mindset is solid advice for teaching ourselves to look for silver linings, there are a few limitations to consider.
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Positive Mindset Limitations
Expectations. The thing with expectations, is just that: they’re expected. Some may even go as far as guaranteeing a satisfying outcome as long as we just remain positive that it will happen.
Being geared towards expectations can be a good thing, as long as what we’re expecting, happens.
It becomes circular thinking.
Makes sense, right?
Positive mindset→expectation→positive outcome→positive mindset…
Yet, the downside of expectations happens when we are hopeful and optimistic about seeing a positive outcome, but we don’t.
Or, the outcome is different than what we were expecting, maybe not necessarily bad, but just different, which may be disappointing.
Needless to say, a positive mindset without expectations of a satisfying end-result is no longer a positive mindset.
It becomes a more realistic mindset.
Motivation. Because life happens and can sometimes get in the way, our motivation about our expectations and maintaining a positive mindset can waver. Keeping our motivation up and our mindset positive at the same time can be mentally and emotionally exhausting.
Being unprepared for the “what-ifs”, can impact a positive mindset.
When our motivation, direction or self-worth take a hit, so can a positive mindset.
Inborn Gauge. Most of us have a set temperament that tends to go back to baseline, even when accounting for a positive mindset. For example, some are more open to new experiences, are more social and more outgoing, while others aren’t.
While a positive mindset may support the non-genetic portion of our temperament, genetics often wins, with some theorists estimating as much as 60% of our temperament traits as attributed to our genes.
Toxic Positivity. On the far end of the positive mindset spectrum is toxic positivity.
How can positivity be a bad thing? While it seems counter-intuitive, positivity may become toxic when it’s not genuine — where we’re supposed to “be happy” and “be positive” irrespective if how we authentically feel or the situation at hand.
For example, some kids may be shamed for being sad, or an older sibling may tell a kid to suck it up and stop acting like a baby. The kid may learn to “be positive” no matter what —where they grow up being out of touch with their own emotions and the emotions of others.
When a positive mindset turns to toxic positivity, it is not based on authentic happiness or expectations of satisfying outcomes; it’s based on survival mode.
The Benefits of A Realistic Mindset
Similar to a positive mindset, is a realistic mindset, without the limitations.
A realistic mindset is about balance: it represents the healthy qualities of a positive mindset such as being hopeful, resilient and optimistic, while realistically being aware of both pros and cons.
Life Lessons. Being positive is amazing for helping lift us up and seeing the bright side. And, we do need positivity in our lives.
However, life also includes learning curves and valuable lessons that should be taken as part of those learning curves.
For example, if all we focus on are the good times associated with an unhealthy relationship, we’re looking through rose-colored lenses instead of a realistic lens that would consider the red flags, learned behavior or patterns that repeat. By taking both the good and the bad into consideration, we can make a more informed decision whether to stay, or go.
Recognizes All Emotion. A positive mindset tends to up-play happiness, sometimes at the sake of equally healthy (but often messier, or more vulnerable) emotions. All emotions have value, and many times it’s the more uncomfortable emotions we don’t want to deal with or accept that can bring the most growth.
For example, anger, jealousy, sadness, fear or love are what can motivate us to take action and to make changes in our lives while gaining self-awareness. If all we’re focusing on are happiness and positivity, we can be shortchanging ourselves valuable growth.
Recognizes Limitations. We all have basic needs, such as recognizing our strengths and knowing we have value. Here is where a positive mindset shines.
However, we also all have our limits. Some we may be able to fine-tune and strengthen, others not so much. Accepting our limitations and humanness is humbling and rids us of Ego and pride — which can only happen when we’re taking a realistic look at ourselves and our starting point.
While a positive mindset has its usefulness, balance is key; which is where a realistic mindset steps in.
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Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.
Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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