“Think Positive” is Not Good Advice

“We can as easily become a prisoner of so-called positive thinking as of negative thinking. It too can be confining, fragmented, inaccurate, illusory, self-serving, and wrong. Another element altogether is required to induce transformation in our lives and take us beyond the limits of thought.”

- Whereever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Flickr Credit to: hellojenuine

I have a love/get the hell away from me relationship with advice. On any given day, I’ll call up my phone tree, asking various friends for their specific insight. Sometimes the advice is helpful, other times… not so much. Poor advice is normally dished out because:

  • The person has no experience with what you’re going through but feels compelled to say something
  • Someone thinks they understand what you’re going through and tries to relate
  • People tell you what they’d want to hear if they were in your situation

Honestly, I very rarely receive good advice. This is because good advice is partly about tactical information (what practical steps can you take to fix your situation), and partly about giving advice that broadens recipient’s perspective and understanding of what’s going on. Advice is another type of insight, but not everyone’s “insight” is particularly helpful or enlightening. This is basically why I hate “positive thinking” advice.

“Positive thinking” advice is fluffy and doesn’t provide the recipient with any methods on how to make their situation better. Additionally, many people who dish out this type of advice come off as being poor listeners and unsympathetic to what their friend is going through:

  • “To never focus on what’s bothering you, look forward to the outcome.”
  • “It could be worse, just stay positive.”
  • “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
  • “Life is what you make it.”

I understand the rationale behind “positive thinking” advice. The person thinks they’re behaving in an open-minded, compassionate and sensitive manner. More often than not, this isn’t the case. The problem is that it falls into all three categories of bad advice giving:

  • The advice given is very general with assumption that it can be applied to all situations for all persons.
  • People rarely know what to say sometimes, so “positive thinking” advice fills that void. It’s self-serving, because the advice giver can feel a bit better about themselves having offered their “support”.
  • Despite what the recipient is going through, the advice giver feels that their advice is something that all people need to hear because THEY tell it to themselves frequently.

Giving bad advice, particularly in the vein of constant “positive thinking” advice, can definitely leave a sour taste in one’s mouth. It can make someone reluctant to speak with you, or ask for your opinion, because it constantly comes across as you never listening. It’s also impressively disempowering when you’re pouring your problems out to a friend, and they dish you a piece of advice that makes it seem like you’re irrational for being upset or your frustrations are unfounded or unwarranted.

If you can’t give good advice, don’t give any advice at all. Trust me, the world won’t end if you admit to not knowing what to say.