The tyranny of positive thinking

The tyranny of positive thinking

I remember some time ago I faced a situation that hit me emotionally. Perhaps the obvious sadness moved people close to me to recommend "you need to be positive", "think beautiful things", and "stay away from the negative thoughts"

Has something similar ever happened to you?

I do not doubt the good intentions of those who approached me. However, we must recognize that for some years now, we have heard "we should blindly adhere to positive thoughts: “think positive," "and "you should repeat positive things in your mind." Emotions are neither good nor bad[1]. They are just this: emotions bound to pass. Seeing emotions as good or bad ends up being a kind of emotional rigidity that wears down the human experience and harms the development of emotional intelligence.

Dr. Susan David's research brought to light the phenomenon of this unrelenting tyranny of positivity which consists of the rigid denial of what we consider to be non-positive. We often tell people who are physically or emotionally ill to be positive, like a numbing pill for pain or illness. Not to mention that, sometimes, health passes through those emotions that are silenced. Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they become stronger[2].

The focus is on the need to go through emotions, recognizing them as they are. False positivity can trap us in a fantasy bubble and prevent us from developing the skills to deal with the world as it is.

Emotions are the product of our interaction with the environment or inner processes, they are responses that each person produces. Sadness or anger, for example, are not born from third parties, but each one triggers emotional energy from their learning, experiences or their wounds. And in this sense, emotions function as messengers of what we have kept in the backpack of our innocent. They tell us about ourselves, about the tasks that we still need to complete to achieve physical, psychological or spiritual well-being. Shutting down difficult or overwhelming emotions is equivalent to covering the mouth of the messenger who brings the news about the path we need to travel.

How to remove this tyranny?

The first is recognizing that emotions are data, messages that can indicate paths to follow, or actions that facilitate resilience and personal progress. “Research now shows that radical acceptance of all our emotions, even the messy and difficult ones, is the cornerstone of resilience, prosperity, and true, authentic happiness.[3]” We would tend to think that they are not good or bad, they are messengers that the body brings and to whom we can ask: why are you visiting me? Usually, they talk about what is important to us.

The second is recognizing that I am not that emotion. I am the source of emotion. For example, instead of saying “I am sad”, we would have to say “today I feel sad”. This principle of non-identification is essential to be able to go through them and strengthen emotional intelligence.

Dr. Susan David proposes “Emotional Agility”[4] as a practice to neutralize the relentless tyranny of positive thinking: it is about “the ability to be with your emotions with curiosity, compassion and, especially, with the courage to take steps connected with values.[5]

Three tips:

1.       Say hello to the emotion you are in and its sensations. Observe it and explore it with curiosity, as if it were in front of you, you can imagine it with a color or a texture.

2.       Relate to your emotion: ask how it came about, what things turned it on and what it is saying about yourself, what its message is.

3.       Listen to your emtion and thank her. By learning from her, you will begin the path to emotional well-being

Oscar Gimenez

Mindfulness teacher, Master Coach,

Organizational Development expert

Director at H-Connection

Instagram @oskar_coach




[4] David, S. (2016). Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life.