The Problem with “Positive”

Actually, I don’t think there is a problem with being positive, but I’m more concerned with the harmful implications of our view of its opposite.

Here’s what I mean:

Positive thoughts = positive responses in the body (yay for thinking positively!). There is scientific evidence that proves that the way with think impacts how we feel. Positive thinking increases endorphins, produces the feel-good hormone oxytocin, improves immune function, and gives us a sense of possibility and hope. All good things.


The problem with “Ms. Positive” has to do with its presumed adversary, “Ms. Negative.” When we say to someone, especially to someone who has an illness, “Think positively and your chances of recovery are greater,” this implies that if someone were to think “negatively” that her chances of recovery are worse. Or we make judgments like, “If so-and-so weren’t so negative in her life, she wouldn’t have drawn this illness to her.”

The most problematic implication for me is that by thinking negatively we have created our illnesses. This way of thinking, to my mind, is blaming the victim.

Here’s my reality: I’ve had cancer. I did not create my cancer by experiencing negativity in any form. Did a few doses of positivity help me cope with having malignant melanoma? Yes. Did crying and pounding a pillow also help? Yes. Did laughing help? Yes. Did going to a deep, dark place and questioning the meaning of life help? Yes. Did journaling and painting help? Yes.

Here comes my thesis: It’s not positivity that necessarily helps us heal, but it’s authenticity.

Authentic expression of whatever we are feeling and experiencing helps us heal because we are being true to ourselves. Because we are not keeping our emotions bottled up inside us. Because we are allowing ourselves to experience the broad spectrum of emotions when we are grieving, reckoning, and worrying.


This summer, I have three close friends who have cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy. When I was talking with one friend the other evening, she conveyed how she keeps trying to “stay positive” for other people and yet she just wants to curl up and cry, but worries that doing so will some how “jinx” her healing process.

And that’s when I heard myself say, “Perhaps your path to understanding, accepting, and healing is not in trying to stay positive, but in your expression of your greatest authenticity.”

Her shoulders dropped. She took a big deep breath. Everything softened. Her stress level plummeted as she was imagining not having to “perform” being positive. And surprisingly, her next sentence, was a positive one — one of strength and clarity. Once she released the pressure to be positive, positivity could flow naturally and sincerely.

Forced positivity is not a guaranteed formula for success. Natural expression is.

Are some of you freaking out by my assertions? I’ll admit that I feel a little vulnerable right now…but I also feel, well, authentic in my expression.

Did you create your illness? No. Did you draw your cancer to you? No. Did a negative thought give you the flu? I don’t believe so.

Will waiting for the natural expression of hope and possibility and positivity to emerge help you deal, heal, and grow? Absolutely! Will making positive choices in your life (whether related to your health, your friends, your partner, your environment, your job, etc.) be good medicine for you? For sure! But I don’t believe that curling up in the fetal position for a good cry and telling people you feel like shit today will make you a magnet for illness.

I have seen eleven years worth of bodywork clients who, when encouraged to open up and express how and what they truly felt, released stress and tension and opened themselves up to the possibilities for their healing. If I had usurped their process of true expression with something like, “Don’t feel that way. Everything is fine. Just think positively,” I would have interfered with the sacred process of self-empowerment and self-knowledge through authentic expression of what is.

When we can get to a place of acknowledgment of what is, when can then see the wide expanse of what might be.

So I am not a positivity-hater by any means. I use positive affirmations when I feel the urge, thanks to my friend Dorothy and the Self-Affirmation Queen Louise Hay. But I also trudge through the muck of my emotions and allow the tears and paint smears to have their space to be, to express, and, if I’m ready, to help me let go and transform.

in authenticity,



About Courtney Putnam

I first came to healing work through art and writing. Creating collage art and poetry in particular allowed me to deeply understand the benefit of self-expression in the healing process. But, I also began to see the benefit of bodywork (manual work in the form of massage and energywork in the form of Reiki) as keys to unlocking the emotional stresses we hold in our bodies. I became a Reiki practitioner in 2002, received an MFA in Creative Writing in 2003, received my massage license in the spring of 2006, and became a Reiki Master in 2010. In my practice I bring together these three areas -- the body, the mind, and the spirit (or energy body) -- so others may experience profound and positive change in their lives.
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3 Responses to The Problem with “Positive”

  1. Carol Jo Horn says:

    Well said!

  2. Binky says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. It is so refreshing to hear the truth spoken.
    I think that doctors promote this “stay positive to heal ” thing so they don’t have to hear their patients complaints. I think it’s so sad that people are told to not speak their truth. Seems to me that it makes things worse.
    I could go on and on but will spare you.

  3. says:

    Yes nicely said. Intention from the heart in the way we live is the tuth about who we are, the way we think and our emotions. By the way – nice new blog too.

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