If you feel that the positive thinking movement has let you down, experiment with tragic optimism. Learn more about this practice.
The concept of the power of positive thinking traces at least as far back as the first century, when the Greek philosopher Epictetus said, “The thing that upsets people is not so much what happens, but what they think about what happens.” But it really cemented into the collective unconscious in the New Thought movement of the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly in North America. French psychologist Emile Coué advanced the movement, promoting affirmations such as: “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.”
In more recent years, Dale Carnegie has been credited with furthering the positive thinking movement, as has Napoleon Hill. In 1952, Norman Vincent Peale published The Power of Positive Thinking, and Earl Nightingale, known for his motivational audio programs, offered that the strangest secret is: “We become what we think about.”
Today, of course, the positive thinking movement is everywhere, part and parcel of any life-coaching session or motivational speech. Some prominent names in this field include Joe Vitale, Anthony Robbins, Steven Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People), and, specifically in the New Age world, Louise Hay, and Dr. Wayne Dyer.
The ideas of positive thinking are so intertwined with living a successful life that, by now, you’re probably wondering: What exactly is wrong with thinking positively? Unless, of course, you’ve heard of toxic positivity.
How Can Positivity Become Toxic?
Toxic positivity occurs when we take the concepts of thinking positively to the level of expectation. At this stage, it becomes taboo to complain—even in one’s own mind. It feels embarrassing to admit one’s true feelings; it’s a personal shame not to be able to “get over” something and a fault of whoever expresses “unwanted” negative emotions or thoughts.
Positivity turns toxic when we’d rather fake a smile or state of mind than honestly accept and allow how we feel. Journalist Katie Couric wrote about how the philosophy of staying positive no matter what kept her from having important conversations with her husband in the last days of his life, something she now regrets. Says Couric: “Ultimately toxic positivity leads to emotional suppression. What we see in the research is that suppressing emotions actually just makes them more intense. Emotional suppression has been shown to be associated with higher rates of heart disease, autoimmune disorders, and gastrointestinal complications. People who suppress their emotions will also likely have issues within their relationships.”
We are whole human beings, meant to live whole lives. This includes experiencing the full range of human emotion. If we never let ourselves feel scared, sad, frightened, angry, jealous, or lonely, then we are missing the lessons that these human emotions are meant to teach.
Furthermore, when we stop feeling our emotions, we create a rift between our bodies and our minds. As that rift grows, we become fragmented and compartmentalized, which prevents us from moving toward wholeness, health, and healing. In fact, many of our “undesirable” emotions are exactly the contrast we need to fully inhabit the exciting, joyful ones. For instance, when we shun toxic positivity, we begin to recognize that:
Hope comes from understanding our feelings of despair.
Happiness is not an absence of pain; it’s an experience that comes as we heal from pain.
True joy is not a pasted-on smiley face; it’s a gift that arrives when we’ve first accepted fear, anger, guilt, and shame as parts of our lives.
An Alternative to Toxic Positivity: Tragic Optimism
Even once we recognize the drawbacks of maintaining a constant state of positivity, we still need another way to go through life, feel our emotions, and not get lost in despair. There are other options, such as tragic optimism.
Tragic optimism is a term defined by Viktor Frankl in his book Man's Search for Meaning. He describes it as “the ability to maintain hope and find meaning in life, despite its inescapable pain, loss, and suffering.”
Tragic optimism describes the ability to experience feelings similar to optimism, but without having to find the silver linings or bright sides. In this approach, there is no rejection of what is, no emotional suppression, and no need to realign our beliefs, morals, or ideas to fit some idealized version of who we should be.
Carolyn Baker, in her book Undaunted: Living Fiercely into Climate Meltdown in an Authoritarian World, says that tragic optimism means “not only making the best of whatever situations one might be in, but also turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment; deriving from the guilt that might arise the opportunity to change oneself for the better; deriving from the transitoriness of life an incentive to take responsible action.”
Tragic optimism aims to bridge the tension between suffering and joy. It teaches that life is both. As the character Joy learns in the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out, some of the most joyful experiences in our lives are buoyed by sadness, loss, and grief. This ability to hold opposites is a practice, not an innate talent. And it’s certainly not taught in our culture, where, often thanks to the rise of positive thinking, we demean and ignore a whole half of human experience while lauding the other.
These days, many motivational coaches still profess positive thinking as the best way to achieve our goals in life. But if you’ve found yourself a bit hungover from the effort of years of forced positive thinking, know that there are many other teachers—such as Carolyn Myss, Stephen Jenkinson, and Jeff Brown—who speak not of “mindsets” and “reality creating,” but to the very real, personal, emotion-filled, and beautiful journey toward wholeness in which all the human emotions, feelings, thoughts, and worries belong.
Explore how self-love can help combat toxic positivity.