Is thinking positive REALLY the key to success?  Positive thinking has its benefits, but it also has its shortcomings, and even a few pitfalls.  Today, I’m breaking down the myth that positive thinking is the key to success, and sharing what to do instead.

Is positive thinking REALLY the key to success? Introduction

I understand why you might believe that thinking positive is the key to success. We’ve all been told that if we just believe in ourselves and think positively, we can achieve anything we set our minds to. It’s a message that’s been repeated by motivational speakers, hammered home in self-help books, and even espoused by our well-meaning friends and family.

But the truth is, business and life are more complex than that.  Human emotions are more complex than that.

Expecting yourself to always think positively can be counterproductive and even unhealthy.  It also fails to account for the emotional nuance in tough situations, and even skips several steps for healthy emotional management.

First, I’ll cover why “just thinking positive” isn’t the best approach.  Then, I’ll talk about what to do instead.

Why constant pursuit of “positive thinking” is a problem

Here are just a few of the issues with believing that thinking positive, in and of itself, is the key to success.

Life is 50/50 in terms of positive and negative emotions

Can you imagine a “good vibes only” sign hanging in a funeral home?  Or in an examination room at an oncologist’s office?  Or even at the DMV?

Of course not.  It would be insulting. 

The thing is that, throughout life, we have tons of variation in terms of the circumstances we face.  Naturally, that means we’d have tons of variation in terms of our immediate emotional response to those circumstances.

In other words, expecting yourself to “just think positive” in response to any and every circumstance is like telling yourself you need to “just wear a suit” and you’ll be successful.

  • What if you’re going to the pool?
  • Or skiing?
  • Will you sleep in the suit, just because you believe that always wearing a suit is the key to success?

Suits are wonderful, but they’re not the best choice for every situation.  Likewise, “positive thinking” by itself isn’t the best choice for every situation.

Life is 50/50 in terms of positive and negative emotion, and therefore, expecting yourself to always think positively is unrealistic and unsustainable. It would invalidate your very real human emotions in reaction to potentially challenging circumstances.

Insistence on “positive thinking” sends your brain the wrong message

If you feel upset, distressed, discouraged, etc. in response to something that happens, then you tell yourself that you shouldn’t feel that way, it can become a problem.

Imagine this:  A four-year-old is running, falls down, and scrapes his knee.  It’s bloody, full of gravel and sand, and it hurts.  He starts crying.  His mom comes up and says, “Oh, you shouldn’t feel upset.  You shouldn’t cry.  Think positively!”

The same thing happens when you have a valid emotional response to a circumstance, you tell yourself you “shouldn’t” feel that way, and you also tell yourself that you should employ positive thinking, instead.

  • You invalidate your own emotions.
  • You judge and/or shame yourself for feeling something on the spectrum of human emotion that isn’t “positive.”
  • You send your brain the message that you’re wrong for feeling the way you do.

Positive thinking can even be used to avoid, suppress, or reject negative emotions, according to Psychology Today, crossing into the harmful realm of toxic positivity.

A “positive thinking” expectation can block you from making pivots or adjustments

Finally, a constant focus on “positive thinking” can stall progress and prevent you from making needed pivots and adjustments.

Denying that a problem is a problem, pretending to yourself that things are going well when they aren’t, or choosing to look past significant issues in the name of thinking positively can be costly in terms of your time, productivity, and wellbeing.

I’m not saying here that you should engage in constant doom-and-gloom thinking instead.  Rather, it’s about making sure that you’re being honest with yourself.  Otherwise, you risk prolonging suffering and unhealthy or unproductive situations for far longer than necessary.

If “positive thinking” alone isn’t the key to success, what is?

So, if positive thinking alone won’t propel you to success, what’s the alternative?

I know it seems like I’ve been bashing positive thinking this whole time.  However, there is actually tons of value and power in positive thinking.

The problem is, when we tell ourselves or other people to just “think positive,” we skip a ton of important steps that make positive thinking more impactful and sustainable.  It’s kind of like buying a box of cake mix and a can of frosting, and spreading some frosting on the top of the box of cake, and expecting to be done.  You’re trying to put the finishing touches on, when there are several steps to take first!

There are a number of paths to lay a strong foundation for positive thinking to take root.  In my work with clients, I sum them up into three major steps:  Notice, navigate, and overcome.


First, it’s important to notice what’s going on for you, both mentally and emotionally.  Don’t ignore the uncomfortable thoughts and emotions in your mind and body.

Instead, notice and acknowledge them.


Second, it’s important to be intentional about navigating your way through the thoughts and emotions that you’re experiencing.  Otherwise, you could become stuck in rumination, or go back to ignoring or resisting them, none of which are the healthiest choices long-term.

Navigation looks different for each person and situation, but it can include things like:

  • Processing emotions
  • Examining and questioning the thoughts and beliefs that underpin emotions
  • Identifying the neurocognitive processes behind those thoughts and emotions


The final step is to overcome any mental and emotional roadblocks in your path.  THIS is where positive thinking can come in.

Working to overcome roadblocks can take many forms.  It might involve:

  • Choosing a different perspective that better serves you going forward (deciding how you want to think and feel… leaning into positive thinking, for example)
  • Tearing down limiting beliefs and rebuilding beliefs that empower you
  • Choosing and generating an emotional fuel that will help propel you forward

As you can see, trying to start with positive thinking is kind of like trying to put up new walls on a cracked foundation.  If you don’t address the foundation first, the walls will eventually crack, too.

Is positive thinking REALLY the key to success?  Conclusion

So, let me ask you:  Do you want to continue focusing on thinking positive all the time, and risk ignoring the complexity of your emotions, your business, and your life?  Or are you ready to learn how to notice, navigate, and overcome your mental and emotional roadblocks, so you can show up more effectively in your business and your life?

If you’re ready to take control of your mindset and make it work for you, sign up for a free productivity power session with me.  We’ll identify the biggest mental and emotional roadblocks that are holding you back from success, and develop a concrete plan to help you overcome them.

About the Author Amy Schield

Amy Schield, MBA is a time management and productivity coach for small business owners. Using a mix of simple tactics and neuroscience-based strategies, she helps clients manage their time successfully, set and achieve goals for business growth, and navigate the mental and emotional side of owning and running a small business. Acting as a personal trainer for the brain, she teaches clients how to get out of their own way, so they can finally build the business they want.

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