Alas, the exaggerated way that leads us to be obsessed with the half-full nature of the glass (or with the one that is half-empty, if we are talking about orientally inspired positivity) has the potential to exasperate even the most optimistic of optimists.
As it happens with all things in fashion, this wave of positivity has awakened a lot of criticism. I believe that this is the result of a necessity shared by us all that aims to find an explanation for the world, to give it a meaning. One of the resources available to us for that purpose is comparing: the use of the polarity principle. From another perspective, the main criticism that the “positives” do to their critics looks to bring to the surface the skepticism of the latter. This argument seems to demonstrate that “the positives” are believers while “the negatives” are unbelievers regarding positive thinking, that is.
However, it is not just a battle between optimist-believers and skeptical-pessimists; it’s not just a question of belief or the lack of it. Positive thinking shows a path that prevents a critical, conscient, and constructive interiority. Francisco Bosco, the Brazilian philosopher, in his book “Alta Ajuda,” dedicates its first chapter/essay to this subject. He presents the idea that positive thinking has an effect of “easy consolation” before an adverse or challenging situation. By opposition, he argues that only negative thinking — the movement that allows us to live, understand, and build on adversity and challenge — enables us to let go of the “structures that remove our power to act and condemn us to a passive existence.” Then we can to create new versions of ourselves that grant us access to further actions based on new understandings and feelings. By creating new ways of being and behaving, we notice that the need to “kill” old habits so as to annihilate some parts of ourselves rules. This process never is and never will be comfortable; for that purpose, no positive thinking can help.
Positive thinking, in its superficial version, at least, leads us to abdicate the inner work that is indispensable to elaborate experience, namely life, and to transform and incorporate it into action. Part of the idea that wishes (of overcoming a difficulty or of reaching something) have to be immediately satisfied, creating, thus, an illusion that “everything is going to be fine if I believe in that hard enough,” does not contemplate the scenario in which the wish is not fulfilled. For that reason, it does not let us think about any other outcome.
This movement towards a negative interiority, by opposition to a positive superficiality, is far different from pessimism. It is not about seeing and explaining the world through its negative side. It has to do with acceptance, with channeling its strengths, which often bring us suffering, to the generation of positive and significant change. The British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, by recovering and developing an original idea from the poet Keats, his fellow countryman, talked about “negative capacity” as an essential aspect of life itself. This capacity implies psychological flexibility that translates to a tolerance towards suffering and confusion that may be a product of uncertainty, adversity, and ambiguity and of not knowing how the future will unfold. Positive thinking seems to annul this negative capacity, looking to foresee and to define the “grand finale” to make sure it ends with a pink curtain. It may seem more comfortable to know what is going to happen, eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity, and to look at the world and see only the colors that make us feel good. Positive thinking wants to offer us all this but with a price that may be hefty.
By thinking about this subject, we cannot ignore the weight that words carry. “Negative” and “positive” are heavy words loaded with meanings, biases, generalizations, and intentions. They bear intense and rarely questioned emotional responses. I believe that most of us will subscribe to something “positive” with much more ease when compared to something “negative.” As we have been trying to demonstrate, this is one the main attractions of positive thinking: its link with easiness. By opposition, negative thinking like Bosco, Bion, or the stoics see it does not imply that we necessarily choose the most challenging resolution. It is not about embracing difficulty to the detriment of easiness. It is about a commitment to the truth, even if it points to a path that is not easy.
As a professional in the field, I find, more often than I would like, that coaching is associated with the worst characteristics of positive thinking. The “yes you can” doctrine is used many times out of context and in a frivolous and sensationalist way.
I accept and adhere to the perspective that advocates that coaching aims to facilitate the learning process, its incorporation and its manifestation practically and concretely. However, that does not necessarily mean that the process is easy nor that is possible to circumvent difficulty or avoid uncertainty. On the contrary, the facilitation of learning and change processes may imply accepting challenges, creating resolution strategies and developing skills and virtues that are a byproduct of negative thinking.