Positivity backfires when real problems are present


Positivity backfires when real problems are present

Psychological researcher James K. McNulty reviewed four separate long-ranging studies of newlyweds to identify the actual outcomes of so-called “positive” behaviors (including optimism [happiness], forgiveness, and upbeat speech patterns) on marital satisfaction.

McNulty found that these so-called positive behaviors worked fine for couples who were not facing serious problems, but that they were actually damaging to couples whose problems were more serious.


… less-positive expectations, less-positive attributions, more-negative behavior, and less forgiveness most effectively maintained satisfaction among spouses facing more-frequent and more-severe problems, partly because those processes helped spouses acknowledge, address, and resolve those problems. Accordingly, distressed and at-risk couples may benefit from interventions that teach them to think and behave in ways that motivate them to resolve their problems, even if those thoughts and behaviors are associated with negative emotions in the moment. (“When Positive Processes Hurt Relationships.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, June 2010, 19:167-171)

McNulty’s research focuses on the seemingly surprising benefits of working with what he calls “negative” emotions, but to my eye, what he’s really discovered is the power of being emotionally honest and respectful of the intelligence inside each emotion.

Merely pasting happiness on top of a true difficulty is actually disrespectful. It’s disrespectful to the true emotions; it’s disrespectful to the happiness that is being falsely used; and it’s disrespectful to the true needs of the people involved.

Sometimes, sadness needs to arise to help people identify what’s not working (and let it go). Sometimes, anger needs to arise to help people identify unfairness or set boundaries. Sometimes, anxiety needs to arise to help people focus on a future they aren’t prepared for.

Every emotion has its place and its specific job to do. If people are only willing to feel happiness, their lives can’t work properly.

The empathic approach to happiness is the same as it is for all of your other emotions: Your happiness needs to know that it’s welcome to bring you its gifts when they’re necessary, and it also needs to know that you’ll make room for your other emotions when their gifts are necessary.

Emotions work best when they’re welcomed as equally important members of a valued and respected team.

How forced contentment creates a backfire effect

Contentment is a very important emotion that arises to tell you when you’ve done a good job or acted in a way that makes you feel proud of yourself. It’s an important component of healthy self-esteem, and it’s an important part of your ability to manage your behavior. Contentment also works in a partnership with your healthy shame (or, it should). When both of them are are healthy, your shame and your contentment work together to help you manage your behavior and your self-esteem.

Many people make the mistake of thinking that if some contentment is good, then too much is great! But forcing and faking your way to contentment (trying to feel good about yourself at all times, no matter what is going on) actually backfires.

Researchers have found that enforcing contentment with positive affirmations actually has a backfire effect in the people who tend to use affirmations the most.

In a 2009 study in the journal Psychological Science, British psychologists Joanne Wood, John Lee, and Elaine Perunovic discovered that people with low self-esteem actually felt worse about themselves after repeating positive affirmations:

The researchers asked participants with low self-esteem and high self-esteem to repeat the self-help book phrase “I am a lovable person.” The psychologists then measured the participants’ moods and their momentary feelings about themselves. As it turned out, the individuals with low self-esteem felt worse after repeating the positive self-statement compared to another low self-esteem group who did not repeat the self-statement. The individuals with high self-esteem felt better after repeating the positive self-statement—but only slightly.

In a follow-up study, the psychologists allowed the participants to list negative self-thoughts along with positive self-thoughts. They found that, paradoxically, low self-esteem participants’ moods fared better when they were allowed to have negative thoughts than when they were asked to focus exclusively on affirmative thoughts.

The psychologists suggested that, like overly positive praise, unreasonably positive self-statements, such as “I accept myself completely,” can provoke contradictory thoughts in individuals with low self-esteem. Such negative thoughts can overwhelm the positive thoughts. And, if people are instructed to focus exclusively on positive thoughts, they may find negative thoughts to be especially discouraging.

As the authors concluded, “Repeating positive self-statements may benefit certain people [such as individuals with high self-esteem] but backfire for the very people who need them the most.”  (“Positive Self-Statements: Power for some, peril for others,” Psychological Science, 2009)

This story includes a wonderful phrase: “unreasonably positive self-statements,” which is so delightful. Positive statements that are not true are unreasonable!

Observe the idea of positive self-statements empathically: If you try to enforce positive affirmations and stay in contentment at all times, and then you experience change, novelty, or hazards, your healthy fear won’t be able to help you orient to any of it.

If someone challenges you or tries to bully you, your healthy anger won’t be able to help you re-set your boundaries and regain your composure.

If someone threatens your relationship, your healthy jealousy won’t be able to help you identify the threat and repair your relationship. Or if you desperately need to let go of something, your healthy sadness won’t be able to help you let go and move on. And so forth.

If all you’re willing to feel is contentment, you’ll lose your way. And that’s not a positive outcome.

Contentment is only positive when it’s the correct emotion for the situation. In certain troubling situations, contentment can actually become a negative emotion, because it’s not appropriate, it’s not doing the right thing, or it’s not working with its best friend shame in the way it should.

One thought on “Positivity backfires when real problems are present

  1. Adelaide Dupont

    Karla McLaren is great!

    I’ve read her empathy studies several times over the past 4 years.

    Very often – contentment happens “Against my will”.

    And contentment and shame being good friends – I like that!

    Like a best friend, shame forms you and shares with you and makes you into a better person with better relationships.

    And anxiety and the unprepared future and the focus.

    If even a person with low self-esteem can accept themselves unconditionally and completely.

    “Researchers have found that enforcing contentment with positive affirmations actually has a backfire effect in the people who tend to use affirmations the most.”

    This is what my friend FlutistPride is experiencing at the moment.


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