The Positivity Trap

communication mindset

Trying to be relentlessly positive is an exhausting and often useless pursuit.

So many of us, especially women, got the memo that good people always look at the bright side and help others do the same. How often has your child come to you with a story of how she is feeling hurt, disappointed or even humiliated and your first response was to reframe the story and point her towards a whole new and positive interpretation of it? I know I used to do it all the time with my kids.

The memo we received was not wrong, but looking at the bright side is called optimism and it’s a trait worth cultivating. To be hopeful about the future is at the core of being optimistic, but positivity is an attitude. One that has an admirable intent but many of us are practicing it in a way that is often unhelpful and even damaging.

The three ways this flavor of the trait, I’ll call Negative Positivity, shows up in our lives are  reframing, rationalizing, and denial. I know this well because I regularly come across it in Coaching. I work with a very particular psychographic and although my clients come in all ages, they are all ambitious, audacious and deep thinking men and women who want to move from ambiguity and uncertainty to powerful and purposeful action. A lifetime of “being positive” has not brought them any closer to the clarity that is a prerequisite of taking effective action. It has shaped them into nice, cooperative and agreeable members of society, but left them with a profound and often terrifying question, “Is this all there is?”

Positive thinking has its place in our lives. It’s meant to be used in small doses to get us through temporary pain, but many of us have cultivated it into an incessant and often oppressive habit. When I’m committed to finishing an Ultra and find myself squarely in the pain cave, you better believe I’m reframing, rationalizing and even denying my feelings in order to finish the race. But I’m mindful of not turning that temporary and necessary tactic into a life strategy. There is a time when using these skills will help us get past a rough patch. But if you catch yourself habitually putting a smile on your face and being positive when a totally different response is longing to be expressed, you are only making your world smaller, less authentic and less purposeful.  

And then there are times when being positive is downright cruel. When someone is grieving, it’s not positive but rather deeply insensitive to say anything that starts with, “yes, but…..” 

When we say, ‘...this will pass, you will move on, he is in a better place, and he lived a full life….,” our intent is to be positive and helpful but our reframing and rationalizing only makes the other person feel unseen and her pain unappreciated.

We are most brutal when we turn this habit inwards and force our own thoughts and emotions into submission by using gratitude as a weapon.

My client, Linda (names of clients are always changed), has a beautiful home and family. She is financially well off and has the ability to travel and indulge her hobbies. But in the quiet moments when she can hear the still, small voice of her intuition, it’s whispering, “Is this all there is?”

Linda wants more. She wants to feel free to speak her mind without fear. She wants a much deeper, more connected and juicy relationship with her husband. She wants to take her hobby of creating unique, healthy and delicious foods and build her own business. She wants to communicate with her adult children in a whole new way that deepens their relationship as equals. Most of all, she wants more Linda! A Linda that takes more space in the world and feels good about it.  

Gratitude is a life changing and transformative practice, but it can also be a prison warden. For Linda, each foray into her deepest wants and desires is cut short by a kind of Negative Positivity that is camouflaged as gratitude. A relentless voice that tells her she should be satisfied and be grateful for all that she has. Somehow, wanting all the things has come to mean being ungrateful for what we have. This is simply an untrue and dangerous belief that holds us back from building a life that is just the right size for each of us - a life that is ours to hold, celebrate and feel good in.

I want to offer you the option to shift your thinking pattern from positivity to possibility.  As with any brand new skill or habit we want to develop, first we have to stop doing the thing that’s getting in the way of the growth we want to create ( ).

Stop making positivity equal to optimism and gratitude. By all means cultivate optimism and become increasingly more hopeful about your future. Grow your gratitude and become ever more mindful of your gifts, blessings and victories. Celebrate them with abandon! But don’t drown yourself and others in the kind of incessant positivity that is a thin veil for the fear of not being able to manage uncomfortable and undesirable emotions.

Instead, shift to thinking from a place of possibility. Here’s what a conversation in our head looks like when we inform ourselves from the context of possibility:

  • I want to create a business and make my own money!
  • What????  Look at your beautiful life. You should be grateful for all you have. Also, it’s going to turn you into a bad mother, wife and mess up all the good things in your life you already have.
  • What if it doesn’t?

“What if….” is the two-word gateway to tapping the deep and rich ocean called possibility as opposed to staying in the shallow and anemic waters of positivity. 

When we decide to experiment with what is possible and even build evidence for it, we are tapping into our endless power of creativity which generates its own level of energy. This powerful and unique energy is only released when we play with imagination and start to see the world from a completely different point of view. 

Suddenly our world becomes more spacious, resourceful, and generous. In the process, we become bigger and see ourselves taking more space even before we take one step or action towards our goal. So often, we want to jump into action to change an element of our internal or external life and we are held back by the belief that we don’t know how to do it.

The “how to” (

always comes after the “want to”. How will we know what we want if we allow Negative Positivity to run our thinking and distract us from what really matters to us? Given the reins, this habit will always keep us pleasant, nice and sadly, in an ever present longing for the life we know we were born to create.  

Be possible instead of positive and watch your life expand!


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