There's a lot to be said for the power of positive thinking. Believing in yourself and looking on the bright side can help you get through some of life's toughest challenges.
But, being too optimistic is harmful. It can actually do more harm than good.
While I definitely spend more time helping people reframe their negative thoughts in my psychotherapy office--people with anxiety or depression tend to dwell on the negative or underestimate their ability to persevere--there are times when I have to address overly positive thoughts too.
Someone launching a new endeavor might say, "I know I'm going to make it big," or an individual starting a new job says, "This is so easy I don't even need any training." That way of thinking can be a big problem.
The Perils of Being Overly Optimistic
It's actually easier to help people replace their negative thoughts with healthier statements. Their negative thoughts cause them to feel bad and they want to feel better.
But overly optimistic thoughts make people feel good. And they don't want anyone to rain on their parade. So they're more resistant to hearing any logic that may imply things might not be as rosy as they think.
Here are three types of optimistic thoughts that do more harm than good:
- Exaggerating the positive. Thoughts like, "I love everything about this new person I'm dating," or "Everyone loved everything about my speech," could cause you to overlook reality. People who see themselves as perfect don't strive to improve. And people who only look for the good in others tend to excuse major character flaws or get themselves wrapped up in toxic situations.
- Being overconfident in one's abilities. Although we often talk about the importance of high self-esteem, overconfidence can be just as harmful. Thinking you're already skilled enough could leave you ill-prepared. You might not study for that test or you may opt out of practicing because you're convinced you're already perfect at what you do.
- Overestimating your chances of success. Whether you're convinced your business can't fail or you're sure your new investment will give you a gigantic return, you might overlook the risks you face. If you don't spend any time thinking about what could go wrong, you won't be able to prevent it from happening.
Mental Strength Stems From Realistic Thinking
Your thoughts should stem from rational thinking. But you can still have a positive outlook--sort of a realistic yet optimistic outlook.
Developing comfort with the truth will help you build mental muscle. And when you're mentally stronger, you won't need to mask your pain with unrealistic affirmations or exaggerated platitudes.
So instead of thinking, "I'm going to ace this test," a mentally strong person thinks, "I'm going to do my best." They experience a sense of inner calm because they're confident they'll be OK no matter the outcome.
That's not to say that they're passive individuals who sit by and idly let life happen to them. In fact, they're taking serious action to reach their greatest potential. But, they are comfortable enough in their own skin to acknowledge their limitations, weaknesses, and failures.