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Escaping the Positive Thinking Trap

 

positive thinking“You’ll see it when you believe it”
- Wayne Dyer, PhD
“If you can dream it, then you can achieve it”
- Zig Ziglar, CSP
“Down with positive thinking”
- Rich Gallagher, LMFT

What could possibly be wrong with positive thinking? Isn’t it a little like apple pie, motherhood, and customer service? Does not believing in it sound a little like trying to murder Santa Claus?

Believe it or not, positive thinking is actually one of the worst possible things you could do for your small business. It can bring you unhappiness, shattered hopes, and financial ruin. To use a nutritional analogy, it is the equivalent of trying to have a balanced diet by eating raw sugar.

If you have ever met me in person, you know that I am one of the most happy, positive people out there. But I don’t ever practice positive thinking. Nor do I recommend it to others. Here’s why:

1. It makes you do stupid things. How many of your friends or colleagues have told you that they believe in themselves, visualize success, and see possibility – as they are joining some harebrained MLM or opening up a restaurant specializing in fried beets? A few, right? And all of them eventually ended up in the ditch, correct?

For a book-length treatise on this concept, check out our genial host Carol Roth’s book The Entrepreneur Equation. In the meantime, just remember that you can’t make positive chicken salad out of positive chicken, er, droppings.

2. It is totally useless for getting rid of fear. Let’s say you’re afraid of quitting your job and starting a business. So you decide to think positively, and tell yourself, “Oh, I’ll probably do a dandy job at my new business.” Perhaps you even tape a few affirmations to your bathroom mirror.

Here’s the problem: your amygdala. Your what? Your amygdala. That part of your brain that tells you when to worry about something. When it smells baseless positive thinking, it smells blood and pushes back – hard – to protect you.

If you want to lose your fear, you need to tell yourself statements that your amygdala will shake hands with. In other words, understand and embrace the worst case scenario. When I work with therapy clients who are afraid of failure, I have them extrapolate these fears all the way down to moving back in with Mother. When you make peace with the worst that can happen, you are suddenly playing with the house’s money, and your fear gives way to focus.

3. It saps your true potential. When you think positively, it is all too easy to set goals based on what your parents, your friends, or your mortgage want you to do: become a doctor, create the next Google, or whatever. In reality, the most successful people you know probably succeed at very un-glamorous things that they happen to do really, really well.

Instead of positive thinking, I believe you will find your bliss in realistic thinking that goes something like this: “I am pretty good at A, B, and C. I am terrible at X, Y, and Z and always will be. And I could learn to do better at D, E, and F. Given all this, here is what I will choose.” Statements like these move your focus from pie-in-the-sky to real world skills and choices, which in turn can make you very successful indeed.

The opposite of positive thinking isn’t negative thinking. No one is suggesting that you turn into a grumpus with no discernible vision. But the sooner you shift gears from positive thinking back to reality, the faster you will succeed. Try it!

Article written by
Rich Gallagher is a former customer service executive and practicing therapist who heads the Point of Contact Group. His books include two #1 customer service bestsellers, “What to Say to a Porcupine” and ”The Customer Service Survival Kit: What to Say to Defuse Your Worst Customer Situations,” both released by AMACOM. He has taught over 25,000 people what to say in their worst customer and workplace situations.
2 comments
jshuey
jshuey

The last section suggestions sound a lot like Marcus Buckinghams's "Show Your Strengths" thinking. Which makes sense to me. We can't be great at everything. I call this SBO Thinking ... where SBO = Step Back Optimism. Take a step back, assess the situation, think optimistically (or realistically to use the authors term) and go forth.

RichGallagher
RichGallagher

@jshuey I like your framework a lot - and I really like Marcus Buckingham. Realistic optimism is awesome in my book. Buckingham is a strong proponent of positive psychology, which has nothing whatsoever with positive thinking. (The former has an Ivy League research center and a strong evidence base, the latter is generally the domain of motivational speakers and the like.) Thanks!

 
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