Newer research suggests that the “just be positive” mentality often endorsed by pop psychology as a means to cope with hardship may not be as helpful as we once thought. In fact, telling ourselves to think positively when reality is quite painful can often invalidate our feelings and endorse shameful thought patterns.
Research by David B. Feldman, PhD, and Lee Daniel Kravetz explored the stories of supersurvivors in order to seek a better understanding of what variables may be contributing to positive outcomes in peoples’ lives following life-altering traumatic experiences. They define a supersurvivor as “a person who has dramatically transformed his or her life after surviving a trauma, accomplishing amazing things or transforming the world for the better,” and include stories of the likes of Desmond Tutu, Alan Lock, and Clemantine Wamariya.
Why Positive Thinking Doesn’t Work
Surprisingly, these accomplished individuals didn’t arrive at their success simply by staying positive or through self-encouragement to do the seemingly impossible. In fact, some of the individuals interviewed were decidedly not bought-in to positive thinking, and some were even self-proclaimed pessimists.
When we believe that positive thoughts enable desired outcomes, then we chalk up our successes to positive thinking and we blame our failures on not thinking positively enough. Both of these results can make it difficult to see ourselves accurately. When we fail, others may believe that we simply didn’t think positively enough when maybe we weren’t equipped for the task. When we succeed, we may not be able to see our personal strengths that contributed to that success and instead believe we just thought positively enough.
I’ll give an example to illustrate this idea. A couple of days ago I noticed a baby bird (California towhee) fluttering about in my backyard and I thought it might be injured. After a bit of research (aka googling) I learned that baby birds jump ship when they grow too big for their nest, but their bodies are not yet developed enough to be able to fly. They spend about a week or so fluttering around on the ground while their mothers feed them and their bodies develop the capacity to fly. Several times a day I see mother and baby go through a routine where the mother perches atop the fence and calls to her baby below. The baby squats down and puts all of its effort into jumping and flapping its wings to join its momma, only to make it about a foot above the ground before hitting the fence and falling defeated on its side. As a reference, here baby towhee is in all its glorious cuteness:
No amount of positive thinking is going to get this bird off the ground and flying. If we believe in the power of positive thinking, we might assume that this baby’s inability to fly is explained by it not believing in itself enough.
The reality is, this bird’s inability to fly has nothing to do with its lack of positive thoughts; its body is simply not physically equipped to fly yet. Accepting that truth allows it the opportunity to enjoy exploring all there is to do along the ground now that it’s out of the nest.
On a human level, those who believe in the power of positive thinking might respond to a loved one struggling by implementing a cheerleader response:
You can do it, just believe in yourself!
The problem is, hearing this advice might lead us to feel shame, as we feel like we should be able to succeed but we simply aren’t trying hard enough or believing hard enough. This is a dangerous framework to operate within.
A Better Perspective: Grounded Hope
The supersurvivor researchers observed that participants didn’t achieve success by staying positive or through self-encouragement to do the impossible. Rather, success unfolded as a result of a phenomenon they call grounded hope. Though these individuals did reflect positivity in their sense of hopefulness, they kept their head out of the clouds by keeping their hope grounded within the reality of their lives, limitations and all.
For these individuals, staying grounded in reality means that they accept how their trauma has affected them. A cancer diagnosis is not going to go away due to positive thinking. Positive thinking is not going to enable someone who has lost their eyesight to pilot an airplane. Accepting how our trauma has affected our reality enables us to accommodate as we adapt to the new reality. Being realistic about what doesn’t work can free us to see what is in our power and to invest our eggs of hope in that basket.
How to Become More Grounded
The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” values system endorsed in our culture often unintentionally causes people to overly focus on their limitations and weaknesses, with the hopes that enough thought and effort might overcome those limitations. However, this usually amounts to wasted time and energy, and may slowly feed into a shameful sense of self as the needle doesn’t seem to budge enough on our limitations.
Instead, I encourage you to accept the items you experience as limitations. Whether it be related to physical health, mental health, personality characteristics, intellect, trauma, or other experiences, it’s important to identify and accept the characteristics that are unchanging. Doing so may free you up to focus on what your strengths are, as well as what is in your power to work on and change for the better. This strengths-focused approach allows us to build a sense of agency when we’re able to further items that live within our wheelhouse, upping our confidence and building momentum in a positive direction.
With much hard work, it may even be possible not to bounce back, but to bounce forward from hardship.
For more information on David B. Feldman, PhD and Lee Daniel Kravetz’ work on supersurvivors, you can find their book on Amazon by clicking here.