The Negative Side of Positive Thinking
“I don’t have time for positive thinking. I spend all of that time thinking negatively.” –Kathy Griffin
I might as well come right out and say it: I highly dislike the whole positive thinking movement. I would say “I hate it,” but that might get me accused of being bitter, cynical, negative, and many other colorful things in the comments. I do not dispute that I am, at times, all of those things. However, the fact that so many people take the construct of “positive thinking” as the big-T Truth on how people other than themselves can (apparently) improve their own circumstances by thinking “positively” is something that I find very troubling and a little bit scary, and also a bit naive.
You’ve probably heard of positive thinking and its (supposed) benefits. You’ve also probably heard of things like The Secret, which is a self-help book and DVD (and they have other products, too, including a daily planner and something called an “affirmation journal”). For those of you who have had the good fortune to not have come into contact with The Secret, the basic premise is something that sounds pretty innocuous at first, if you don’t examine it too closely or think about it too hard: there is something called “the Law of Attraction,” which posits that the individual can attract their own good or bad circumstances in life just by thinking about them.
I want to stress the part about the “bad circumstances” here. If you swallow that bait–which, like most bait, conceals a dangerous trap–here is what you are buying into: I can attract good things by using my thoughts. If I think positively, I will attract good things.
However, the other side of such a dichotomy is–to put it mildly–really creepy, at least for those of us who have health issues and other problems beyond individual control. I will use myself as an example here: I have fibromyalgia. According to the dubious logic employed in The Secret, I have somehow attracted this. And, according to The Secret, I can think my way out of it. I can be CURED!
Oh, wait. My condition does not have a cure, and thinking one’s way out of a chronic condition is generally not recommended by certified medical professionals. However, according to the “Law of Attraction,” if I don’t think my way out of my condition, or can’t, then I basically deserve whatever happens to me. I brought it on myself, after all.
Therein lies the problem: This type of philosophy places an untoward emphasis on the individual: You control your reality. You control what happens to you. You control how much money you make. You deserve the best. Solving problems or helping others is beneath you, because it is all about you. You’ve got the world on a string, (sittin’ on a rainbow!) and it’s yours for the taking. Why help others, when you can just attract everything you want with your thoughts?
By now, you are probably starting to see exactly why this way of thinking is so troubling, particularly if you are a feminist, have a disability, are aware of social justice issues, or are not C. Montgomery Burns and therefore obsessed with your millions (and not much else).
What is so problematic about The Secret and many other self-help products is that they, however indirectly, make the status quo feel better about itself. People who buy into the “Law of Attraction” philosophy are not actually changing the world; no, that would take actual work. Instead, sayeth the Law, why not just think about changing the world, and let The Secret’s specious (and incorrect) use of quantum physics do the rest? See? Wasn’t that way easier than, ugh, going out and doing things?!
Telling someone to just “think positive” will not help her or him. I know that’s a rather harsh statement to make. I have had people “helpfully suggest” positive thinking (numerous times, I might add) in order to help with my illness. It is supremely frustrating, and it also makes me want to ignore whomever has offered that particular fool’s gold nugget o’wisdom. I get that people are scared of illness, disability, and death, and I understand why they are scared. But shaming people–particularly those with disabilities, chronic pain, mental health issues, and other chronic conditions–into silence by “helpfully” suggesting that they “think more positively”–and thereby shutting down the conversation or any room for the PWD to defend hirself–is not a solution. Rather, it just reinforces the it’s all about me claptrap that so much of the self-help industry traffics in; such “helpful suggestions,” oftentimes, are really meant to make the person who offers them feel better about hirself, and are not offered out of concern for the PWD or whomever else is unlucky enough to have been outed as a non-Positive Thinker.
After all, when someone offers those types of “helpful” suggestions to a non-Positive thinker–particularly PWDs or other people who have been marginalized by various cultural institutions–what she or he is saying starts to sound like, “I don’t take your experiences seriously. I care about expressing my opinions about your life and how you live it, so I can feel like I’m doing something and thus feel better about myself.” So, in effect, it really becomes all about them once again. And, in their minds, it is all about them, because the latest self-help craze told them so!
I will end with a quote from disability scholar Susan Wendell:
[T]he idea that the mind is controlling the body is employed even when physical causes of a patient’s symptoms are identified clearly…The thought that ‘she could be cured if only she wanted to get well’ is comforting…to those who feel the need to assign a cause and cannot find another, and to those who want to believe that they will avoid a similar disaster because they have healthier, or at least different, psyches. (The Rejected Body, 1998)