Why ‘Positive Mental Attitude’ can be Toxic


Positive Mental Attitude. Surely there’s nothing bad about that?

Here are some examples of the cult of positive mental attitude:

“If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

“The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

“The negative thoughts come—and they will; they come to all of us—it’s not enough to just not dwell on it. … You've got to replace with a positive thought. ”

“Nurture your mind with great thoughts, for you will never go any higher than you think.”

And of course, one that's really very popular right now and particularly harmful: 'you just need to manifest positive things into your life'. Ouch!

Don’t get me wrong, my counselling approach encourages helpful ways of thinking – I will always challenge unhelpful thinking patterns, and encourage gratitude, helpful ways of thinking and all of that important stuff.

But do I beat up my clients when they compassionately share with me their suffering – the things that have happened to them, that were totally beyond their control, when they were children, teenagers? And as adults also... The things that hang round their neck like millstones, holding them back emotionally and psychologically -and therefore in every area of their life? Do I say they should have thought more positively about their suffering, their REAL absence of opportunities, that they should have should have simply tried harder to manifest positivity in their sad history? That if they just tried harder to think more positively their life would be really great? I do not.

That would be dismissive, ignorant, dishonourable, disrespectful and to be honest, just plain cruel and stupid.

But there is definitely a school of thought out there that does that. There is a school of thought out there that tells you your suffering is your fault – if only you tried harder then or now, you could have succeeded. They tell you it’s YOUR responsibility if you’re struggling or failing.




This is not just disrespectful, it is unkind, unempathic, oppressive. It is stupid, un-self aware BULLYING.

Let’s use depression as an example. Depressed people find it very hard to help themselves - that’s one of the defining features of depression. It’s not their fault, it is the depression. If you're depressed, you need rest, compassion, empathy, tenderness and understanding - and LOTS of patience and staying with you where you are - absolutely NOT action or goals to be a ‘better, positive person’. You  do NOT need people telling you if could only help yourself with positive thinking / try harder / get to the gym / be grateful, you would feel better.

Everyone’s different and not all mental illness is the same. Staying with someone where they are, even if they don’t feel they can’t take action, is really important. We shouldn’t shame those depressed people who don’t have the energy at the moment to see a way through. They will get there. And pressuring them to get better and ‘do’ things and ‘help themselves’ will only make them feel  ashamed, more disconnected and feel worse. Action is NOT the only answer in the short term. Positive mental thinking - while helpful for many - is not the solution for everyone, and can actually be really damaging.

I feel very strongly about this. Positive mental attitude defies us when we’re really struggling - whether this is from a sad, lonely and emotionally neglected childhood or depression from other roots in our life that are really very very difficult to quickly change... silly short term positive thinking and childish flowery mantras will not help this.

Don’t be ashamed if you can’t access a positive mental attitude. Don’t feel shame. Shame comes from stupid people who are unable to feel your feelings with you. Or are scared of your feelings and don’t know what to do with them. This is THEIR failing not yours.

You’ll get through.

Positive mental attitude when you’re depressed? It's just not possible. It’s the kryptonite of people experiencing deep sadness. Stay with the feelings, allow them, honour them, respect them. Once you do that you have a chance of getting through them and making healthy change. Ignore them, or disrespect them through childish positive thinking and they will haunt you forever.

If you would like to find new, meaningful and less potentially harmful ways to feel better about yourself - ways that are more likely to lead to permanent change - then please contact me, I'd love to hear from you.

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