The problem with positive thinking

Surely there can’t be any ‘problem’ with positive thinking? Isn’t it better than negative thinking? And don’t we hear all the time that it is good to think positively and we should do it more often?

Well, yes and no.

Research has found that when you set yourself a goal, for example losing weight, planning a holiday or reducing your alcohol, many of us think positively and only think of the positive outcomes. For example if our goal is weight loss then we may imagine ourselves a couple of sizes smaller looking satisfied, happy and gorgeous; if our aim is to book a holiday we imagine ourselves on a white beach with the sun on our face; if we wish to drink less alcohol we may imagine ourselves happily enjoying a Coke while relaxing with friends. When we do this, the dangerous thing that happens is that our mind is fooled into thinking that we’ve already achieved our goal – and this then reduces our readiness and ability to put in the hard work that may be needed as well as the determination to overcome setbacks.

It’s as if we assume that we can ride the wave of positive thinking all the way to the shore without putting in any effort.

It may seem counterintuitive, but we now know that when people balance positive thinking about their goal with a realistic look at the challenges and obstacles that might arise, they are much more likely to be successful in achieving their goals.

This is called ‘mental contrasting’.

So, if we are aiming to lose weight we may need to consider the obstacles in our way of the weekly shop with it’s bulging biscuit aisle, or the temptation facing us from the sweets and treats in the house for the kids or others, or perhaps the business dinners or quick-grab lunches that office life throws our way. In the holiday planning example, we may need to consider that we may not be able to get the time off work we need, school penalties for taking kids out, Brexit, family disagreement about where to go etc etc. If we want to reduce our alcohol we may need to plan for when and how we will say ‘No’ when offered a drink, or how we’ll stop finishing the bottle once we’ve opened it etc

Counselling can really help not only with setting realistic goals for your life but also with this aspect of ‘mental contrasting’ and helping you to explore what may get in the way of you reaching your goals. Some of these obstacles may be challenging emotions such as loneliness, anger, sadness etc. Crucially, counselling can help you better handle these obstacles and difficulties – and increase your chance of success.

If you’re planning on changing some aspects of your life, setting new goals, or struggling to achieve some goals dear to you, then I’d love to talk to you. Contact me.

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