Positive Thinking is Not (Necessarily) Rational Thinking

This past Saturday I got a phone call from a former Counseling student (who will remain unnamed). He said that he and another student were heading to the University of Montana gym to play basketball at 1pm and wondered if I’d like to join them.

I should have recognized I was in trouble when I somehow decided NOT to tell my wife that my sudden reason for going to the gym was to play basketball. She would have reminded me that the odds of injuring my back while playing basketball are better than any odds you can get in Vegas. But I didn’t want her to rain on my positive thinking fantasy world. Do you know what I mean? Have you ever had a time when a part of you knew better and so you decided not to tell any other rational human being what you were planning?

I also should have recognized a few other obvious flaws in my positive thinking: (a) my age is approximately the sum of the two young men with whom I planned to play; (b) I quickly began developing a handicapping system through which I could compete with them; (c) for a few minutes I was visualizing myself leaping into the air without hurting myself.

In his book, The Elements of Counseling, Scott Meier, an old friend of mine and professor at SUNY-Buffalo, wrote that positive thinking is not rational thinking. This is a great point . . . and one that’s easy to forget. Despite the many cultural messages that we get about having “no limits” or being “able to accomplish whatever we can imagine,” it’s not really true. No matter how much visualizing (and personal training) I do, I’ll never be able to keep up with any professional . . . or college . . .  or high school . . . or middle school basketball player. I can practice “the secret” ( a visualizing strategy) all I want, but Obama will not ask me to replace Joe Biden on his 2012 campaign. These are limitations; they are SIMPLY NOT HAPPENING.

Typically, when positive thinking fails, many of us begin rationalizing away because we want to jump back on the positive thinking horse. This is a form of denial that even happens to cult members who are planning for the end of the world. When the end doesn’t come they develop a reason why . . . and often set a new date.

In my case, as I limped and slumped home in humiliation, I was already rationalizing my glorious return. And this is my second point: Rationalizing is generally irrational. What this means is that when we catch ourselves excusing our behavior or re-writing history, we’re probably fooling ourselves. In this case, I quickly began telling myself that the main reason I hurt myself was because I just wasn’t in good enough shape to play on this particular day . . . but that if I rehabbed and worked on my conditioning (for the next year!), I could return to the court and teach those young whipper-snappers a lesson they wouldn’t soon forget. Of course, I forgot to factor in (a) I’m already in pretty good shape; (b) in a year, I’ll be a year older (duh!); (c) I can’t reasonably spend all day rehabbing; and (d) there aren’t many bionic body parts for sale at the local hardware store.

Positive thinking and rationalizing are, quite naturally, at the heart of most of our temptations. For some, the temptation is alcohol, drugs, sex, or chocolate. We may tell ourselves we can have one drink, one bowl, one sexual indiscretion, or one bite and then find ourselves suffering the consequences. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage in positive thinking. It’s just that we need to balance or moderate it with real rational thinking. And one way to get a dose of rational thinking — even if we don’t want to admit it — is to ask someone who really loves us and cares about us if we’re sounding reasonable or not. Another way is to engage in honest self-scrutiny.

Personally, I plan to remain a positive thinker, but in the future I will moderate it with spousal consultation and honest personal reflection. This isn’t nearly as fun as pretending I’m younger and more capable than I really am . . . but right now the pain, ibuprophen, ice, and physical therapy are inspiring me to think more rationally and live more mindfully. I share this story as a reminder to myself and others of what Norman Vincent Peale referred to as the power of positive thinking. In fact, positive thinking is so powerful that it’s actually one more good way for us to get ourselves in trouble. Really, it may seem depressing, but it’s perfectly okay to know our limits and live within them. In the spirit of reality therapy, that’s my new plan . . . and I’m sticking with it.

6 thoughts on “Positive Thinking is Not (Necessarily) Rational Thinking”

  1. Thanks for shattering my belief in The Secret (of which I own two copies so I always have one to lend and have considered downloading a third on my Kindle…) 🙂

    1. Hi Julie . . . I’m very sorry about shattering your belief in The Secret. . . but if it was shattered so easily, maybe it was too fragile anyway? Seriously, I totally believe that we can use our minds to improve our realities. I sometimes use and teach hypnosis to do some of that. . . but I do think it’s good to keep our positivity balanced with reality. At least that’s a good thing for me. I hope you’re doing great and thanks for your comment.

  2. This reminds me of the cultural “American Dream” – We are inundated with the idea that the “sky is the limit and then some” without a lesson in racism, sexism, oppression, or socioeconomic struggles and cycles that create a entirely new meaning for a journey embarking on reaching the sky. I know that at times I struggle at work with students coming to me with what I may perceive as grandiose plans. Who am I to say though? I want them to find success and be rational about their skills, but I also still believe that “anything is possible.” Is it? It is important that we know as School Counselors what our student capabilities are in the academic arena, so we can support them in a “rational” manner. I think we can support their dreams, rational or not, and include the logical challenges that could arise due to their low math skills for example….and always include Plan B or C 🙂 Thanks John for the post – made my wheels start turning this morning!!

    1. Hi Melissa. I remember listening to a keynote speaker at the Virginia School Counseling Association meeting years ago who emphasized how important it is for school counselors not to be dream crushers. This led me to the same conclusion as you . . . that it’s very important to support dreams while helping students not put all their eggs in one basket by having several back up options should the dream not make it into reality. As always, thanks for reading and commenting because I like reading your comments.

  3. This Dec. 6, 2011 post reminds me of a difference between “wishful thinking/magical thinking” compared to positive thinking/or/realistic thinking. I have a Chopin Nocturne that I aspire to play for my students on Sunday, Feb. 28/21. I can imagine, listen to ,and dream of playing it as Arthur Rubinstein does, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nu48Z45ibxQ. But what that imagination must lead to is the real hard work of daily practice at the keyboard…And the serendipity of an actual phone call from my own piano teacher this past Thursday afternoon, Jan. 27/21 reminding me that she still owes me one lesson in this “terrible time of distance piano lessons on Zoom”. I was able to tell her about my “dream/aspiration/plan” and she will listen to me around Feb. 20 with her good listening ears. I will not play like Arthur Rubinstein. I will play from the heart of Elizabeth Sherk.

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      I’m behind on my posting . . . but I love your take on the positive thinking. As you know from class yesterday, I’m also a big believer in combining hard work with imagined goals. I think you playing from the heart of Elizabeth Sherk will be fantastic!

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