Positive Attitudes Are Overrated

Author: Donato Fanelle, MA

Is the glass half-full or half-empty? The glass has to be half-full because we want to have a positive attitude and looking at the glass as half-empty means we’re pessimistic, right?

Well, it does not matter how much is in the glass because either way, you can walk over to the sink, turn on the faucet and fill that glass up to the top.

I have some breaking news for you: positive attitudes are overrated.

Before getting into why being positive is not what it is cracked up to be, let’s first address negativity. It may seem obvious why being positive is better than being negative. Yet, I have heard some athletes argue that sometimes being negative can work because it motivates them to work harder. Yes, sometimes negative-thinking can work in the short-term. But in the long-term, negative-thinking will likely lead to unnecessary stress, excessive worrying, self-doubt, and emotional burnout. Negativity is an ineffective strategy for consistent and sustained success.

But this does not mean that we always have to be positive. In fact, sometimes positive-thinking can cause more harm than good.

There are two general ways in which having a positive attitude can become problematic:

  • Overcoming Challenges – Sometimes the reality of the situation is just bad, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it.  Not everything in life is all sunshine and rainbows. Bad things can and will happen, and being positive in those difficult situations may not be realistic, and therefore not helpful. If there is not any truth behind the positivity, then it’s fake. You can be saying all the right things, but deep down you know they are not truthful, so you do not believe it. Trying to force positivity when it’s not realistic could make you feel even worse about the situation.
  • Maintaining Success – When you are experiencing a lot of success, being positive can cause you to ignore the areas in which you still need to improve. Too much positive-thinking when things are going well can lead to complacency, cockiness, and arrogance. Then if something goes poorly, it can be a hard crash down past reality, straight to negativity.

So, if we never want to be negative but we also cannot always be positive, what can we do?

Shift to neutral.

“Neutral-Thinking” is a term coined by Trevor Moawad, a mental coach to NFL quarterback Russell Wilson and other elite athletes. In his book It Takes What It Takes: How to Think Neutrally and Gain Control of Your Life, Moawad says that “Neutral thinking is a high-performance strategy that emphasizes judgment-free thinking, especially in crises and pressure situations.” Having a neutral mindset means that you accept the past as real—good or bad, it happened. However, instead of dwelling on the past, worrying about what may or may not happen in the future, or focusing on how you are feeling— a neutral mindset means focusing on what you are going to do next. Moawad says “The past is real, that happened. However, the past is not predictive of the future. What happens next will be determined by what you do next, not what has happened.”

Neutral-thinking is behavior-based thinking. It’s about being in the present moment, focusing on your behaviors, and allowing your actions to determine the outcome. When things are going poorly and the odds are stacked against them, neutral-thinkers ask themselves: how can I overcome this? And when things are going well and they experience success, neutral-thinkers ask themselves: what’s next?

Negative-thinkers make excuses, let their emotions dictate their actions, dwell on the past, and worry about the future. Positive-thinkers downplay mistakes, ignore problems, need to feel good to play good, and fantasize about the future. Neutral-thinkers hold themselves accountable, learn from their mistakes, prepare for the future, stay in the present, and take effective action regardless of how they are feeling.

Pessimism is negative-thinking’s ugly sibling, but where does optimism fit into this equation? There’s a common misconception that “being positive” is the same as “being optimistic.” But this is like comparing apples to oranges. Being positive means you think that everything will go your way, even if you do not necessarily know that to be true. Being optimistic means you accept the reality of the situation, but understand that if you stay present and control what you can control, then things can go your way. Neutral-thinking makes optimism far more effective because it is based on facts, not feelings or fantasies. It makes optimism more tangible and action-oriented.

If being positive comes naturally, then that’s great! Positive attitudes can be beneficial, but that does not mean that you always have to be positive. With neutral-thinking, it’s more so about eliminating any negativity.

Here are a few quick tips to help you to “shift to neutral”:

  • Eliminate negative language (e.g. “I can’t do it,” “it’s too hard,” “I don’t feel good”)
  • Take accountability for mistakes so you can learn from them and improve
  • Identify the things you did well so you can build off them, but avoid complacency
  • If a mistake happens, identify the problem and find a solution
  • Invest your mental energy into the things that you can control, let go of the things that are out of your control
  • Instead of allowing your emotions to dictate your actions, allow your actions to influence your emotions
  • Learn from the past, prepare for the future, but be in the present

Russell Wilson and Trevor Moawad on Neutral-Thinking.