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)

About Annaham

Annaham (they/them) is a feminist with several disabilities who occasionally updates their personal blog. They currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area with their partner, and an extremely spoiled Yorkie/Pom mix named Sushi. You can reach them by emailing hamdotblog AT gmail dot com.

32 thoughts on “The Negative Side of Positive Thinking

  1. I hate the insistence on positive thinking as well, for lots of reasons. First, there’s the magical thinking inherent in something like the Law of Attraction, and as a person who’s actually studied quantum mechanics a little bit, I get very shirty with people invoke (their own misunderstandings of) it to justify said magical thinking.

    I also hate the coercive aspect of it; it’d be one thing if positive thinking were just one strategy, that people might decide to use if they thought it worked for them, but having it be the dominant theme of discourse about disability and personal misfortune kind of restricts your options to 1) get on board the Positive Thinking bandwagon, or 2) shut up and quit harshing everyone else’s mellow.

    And I totally agree with you (and Susan Wendell) that the function of such discourse is usually to make the speaker feel better about hirself, both because ze’s “helping” someone who’s worse off than ze is, and because ze’s convincing hirself that it (whatever “it” is, take your pick) could never happen to hir.

    (Also, are you planning to read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided? I haven’t yet, but she does deal with a lot of these issues in that book, particularly her experiences with the culture of compulsive cheerfulness she encountered when she was diagnosed with breast cancer).
    .-= Lindsay´s last blog ..How *NOT* to Do Superhero Halloween Costumes =-.

  2. I agree with this – generally.

    The kind of positive thinking associated with The Secret and the Law of Attraction and certain spiritual movements is absolutely offensive and oppressive, and has definitely been used against me wrt my disabilities.

    However, I do think it merits noting that there is a more realistic form of positive thinking that doesn’t say “you will be cured if only you think positive thoughts”, but instead is more along the lines of “thinking positively can help relieve stress, help you to cope better with your circumstances, be more able work on making improvements that are within your power”, etc.

    For example, I appreciate reminders from friends when I’m having a bad day that making a list of things I’m grateful for will cheer me up a little and get my brain re-focused on managing my chronic illness in a healthy way instead of slipping into a depression about it.
    I don’t appreciate family members lecturing me about how if I would only buck up, think my illness away, or pray that I could be healthier, I could be cured.
    Very different things there.

    I only jump in to say this because the GOOD kind of positive thinking has actually helped me a lot, and I’d hate to throw the helpful and meaningful baby out with the offensive and oppressive bath water. 🙂
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..Welcome to my crappy brain =-.

  3. Lindsay, you are right on about the coercive aspect. I didn’t even consider that, but it totally makes sense. And yes, I am planning to read Ehrenreich’s latest! 😀

    Interesting point, Rosemary, and you’re totally correct–there *is* a more realistic form of thinking positively, but since I’m a total cynic, I tend to lump “positive thinking” in general with crapola like The Secret. Perhaps I should not have let that cloud my judgment so dang much.

  4. I think The Secret is literally the most harmful self-help philosophy ever. It is the ultimate in victim-blaming. “Is someone suffering, in pain, being subject to violence? It’s her fault! She brought it upon herself! If only she had thought more positively.”

  5. Fortunately I’ve not encountered this one so much here, other than among a few family friends of the more affluent variety, for whom it seems to be a bit of a pseudo-religious system to help the rich feel less guilty about having money.

    The whole law of attraction thing feels just like the rubbish our Mormon relatives come out with about the causes of our illnesses … swinging between ‘you chose this before you came to Earth to provide a more challenging and interesting life’ in the positive moments and ‘This is all a consequence of your sins, repent and get better’ in the negative ones and I have just as much contempt for it.

    This whole movement needs to curl up and go away so the useful kind of positive thinking can win out over the ridiculous magical sort.

  6. Also, if you tell a person with any form of a depression to “just think positively!”, you are an absolutely terrible excuse for a human being.

    I think one of the things that really makes me angry about the whole “think positively!” thing is that positive thinking, being optimistic, can be a very dangerous trap for disabled people, especially disabled people on limited spoons, especially especially for disabled peoples on limited spoons who are still getting used to that fact.

    I spent four years being optimistic: “I’m sure this time it will work! This time I’ll manage! This time I will still be going to my lectures at the end of term! This time I’ll actually study for my exams!” only to have the same thing happen again. That’s four years down the drain when I could have been learning actual coping mechanisms. Even now, I have to be *extremely* careful to be realistic, not optimistic. Sure, it’d be cool if I could make pizza, seeing as I love cooking and the recipe seems as if it’d be really fun – but I really don’t think I have the spoons to manage that, at least not on my own. It’d be nice if I could look up a local feminist organisation and engage in some activism, but my course comes first and I have a bad enough track record on that that I’ll have my hands full not failing. I’d really like it if I could get a cheap set of drawers from IKEA so I could finally pack away the last of these damn boxes – but, realism time, it’s quite a way away and although I made it there a few weeks ago my spoon levels have gone down far enough that it’s just not going to happen. Any contingency plans?

    What positive thinking nets me in the end is a trail of plans that never went anywhere, ideas I bounced around for months until they became obsolete, unfinished things, a whole lot of me spending spoons I need elsewhere on optional tasks, and – ironically – *huge* amounts of anxiety and negative emotions from beating myself up about all the things I didn’t do. Being realistic about things from the start saves me so much hassle.

    Because for some of us, there is no “I can do it if I just try hard enough!”.
    .-= Kaz´s last blog ..Why, Feministing. Why. =-.

  7. Fridawrites wrote an excellent post about The Secret earlier this year here

    Positive thinking should always being about making the very best of what you’ve got, and working towards change in those aspects of life which are actually changeable. There’s a lot to be said for playing mental tricks on oneself when coping with chronic illness, especially pain. But that’s far more complex than just “think positive”. And it’s about coping, not curing.

    I guess one retort to such advice would be something along the lines, “Well of course I apply positive thinking, otherwise I might think my situation was as desperate as maudlin pessimists like you seem to see it.”
    .-= The Goldfish´s last blog ..Unfit for Office =-.

  8. Gods, yes! When I told my father that I had a chronic pain condition for which there was no cure, he told me to think positive and I’d get better – and it hurt like hell. The worst is that I know he meant well, but at the time I was struggling to come to grips with the reality of a really bad situation, and the last thing I needed was a mythical carrot being dangled in front of me if I “just” had the right thoughts.

    This is policing not just of our bodies, but of our thoughts. Horrifying.
    .-= Heather Freeman´s last blog ..Say you’re drowning…. =-.

  9. Yes, this, a million times this!

    There is a difference between seeing the positive side of having my particular disability (yes, I don’t have many friends or much of a social life, but I play four instruments and read like it’s an olympic sport) and forcing myself to think cheery thoughts in a misguided attempt to make myself better.

    Yeah, better. I know that isn’t going to happen, and quite honestly, I crash and burn badly enough without this rubbish being spouted at me and making me feel even more of a failure.

  10. Great post.

    There’s a chapter about health at the end of Skinny Bitch. (Which is a horrible book and most likely incredibly triggering for anybody with a history of eating disorders — I bought it before really knowing what it was.) Pretty much the entire point of the arguments there is that emotional and psychological issues affect not just general health, but the health of the body parts related to the emotional or psychological problem. So there were examples like a woman who stayed in a bad relationship and got breast cancer because staying in the bad relationship meant she wasn’t taking care of the “womanly” part of herself, and so obviously her breasts would be affected. I really felt like writing the authors a snarky letter asking what emotional problem I must have that affects all my connective tissue. A problem with connecting with people? If I make more friends I’ll feel better? If I work on seeing the world more clearly, will I not have to wear glasses anymore?

  11. This is a great post and an excellent point. I really appreciate that you began to point out the dichotomy of The Secret’s logic. Taking it a step further, though, brings us to the scary proposition that we may have actually caused these things in the first place because of initial negative thinking. And I’ve already spent hours in therapy on related points.
    On a lighter note, I maintain that cynicism can be a great coping mechanism.
    .-= byrde´s last blog ..It Sucked and then I Cried by Heather B Armstrong =-.

  12. Years and years ago, Indie Goddess (my co-blogger at IJ) was a member of a church she loved. She loved most of the people there and felt at home. As her illnesses became more serious and debilitating, they spent a lot of time praying over her and anointing her. And when she didn’t get better, they told her she didn’t have enough faith. She just needed to have more faith and she’d be healed. I think the “positivity cures all things” movement is a lot like that (or is basically the same thing, wrapped up in religion). In our current situation, I try to maintain some level of positivity or optimism when we talk about the things that are hard, but I know that right now, things are difficult and no amount of cheerful thoughts is going to fix them.
    .-= Writer Writing´s last blog ..Privilege =-.

  13. It was inevitable that The Secret was going to become an enormous (if not lasting) success in the United States. And especially with Oprah Winfrey. There’s a lot to respect in her personal story: she really did come from an abusive, very poor, disadvantaged family and is now one of the wealthiest, most famous, most influential individuals in the world. She believes in the power of positive thinking because she feels like it worked for her: on her way up, she visualized her success and she achieved it. She also worked incredibly hard, is highly talented and charismatic, and got very, very lucky and managed to find or create a possibly unique (no one else has replicated her feat, though not for lack of trying) niche for herself. She believes in visualization, affirmation, positive thinking because it correlates with her own success.

    She also constantly portrays the exceptional as normative, with the shaming implication that since a few people can overcome the difficulties that they face (institutional discrimination, lack of access, physical and mental conditions) everyone should. And those who can’t have failed personally and individually. Y’all might expect I take issue with this.

  14. I was actually just playing with writing a post on this topic. I 100% agree with your assessment of the “LOA” shite (it’s like an opposite-pearl: congealed shit around a teeny tiny speck of something valuable). And I absolutely co-sign this from Kaz: “if you tell a person with any form of a depression to “just think positively!”, you are an absolutely terrible excuse for a human being.”

    And yet, mindfulness and reframing my “negative” thoughts and deliberately “choosing joy” and other forms of “positive thinking” are absolutely essential to my surviving bipolar depression. Are they a cure? No, I will always be bipolar, and I will likely always have to deal with it on a daily basis in one form or another. Did a lack of “correct thinking” cause my mood disorder in the first place? Nope, not gonna accept that blame either. And it is not not not a matter of “just think positive” and it’ll all get better: retraining my thoughts is a FUCKLOAD of really hard work, and it’s not at all about visualizing rainbow-pooping unicorns.

    But because of my experience with those tools, which routinely get lumped in with victim-blaming dribble like LOA, I cannot just dismiss all “positive thinking” as crap.

    It’s a fine line, filled with nuance, which kyriarchy doesn’t encourage (all cynicism all the time or visualizing winning the lotto are the choices society likes to present us with), but it’s one I must walk, for my own survival.
    .-= Arwyn´s last blog ..WFPP Guest Post: Before I was a Mother, I was a Woman . . . =-.

  15. I tend to have a very straightforward approach to comments like “think positive”. On a good day, I’ll snort and say “shyeah, right”. On a bad day… well, on a bad day I’m more likely to start at homicide and work my way up from there. Fercryinoutloud, I’m a depressive. I have a chronic, endogenous mental illness, which doesn’t go away if I ignore it. Trust me, I tried. I tried for sixteen flamin’ years to beat the depression with “positive thinking” and happy thoughts. Didn’t work. The meds may not be perfect, but they work a damn sight better than positive thinking ever did.

    As a person with depression, I find that thinking positive thoughts winds up being harmful in the long run. If I’m all optimistic about what I can achieve in a day, I’ll over-plan. I’ll try to cram too much in. I’ll wind up at the end of the whole thing feeling exhausted, irritable, and annoyed at myself (and I’ll also have dropped at least five things I would have enjoyed from my list of “stuff to be doing” in the meantime). I’ll also be miserable for the next two days due to a combination of low spoons and self-recrimination. If I’m more realistic, I’ll accept I can’t do everything. So I look at my list of things I want to achieve, and cut it by half. I’ll make sure the list is balanced between things I have to do and things I want to do, and I’ll make sure it’s all workable. And rather than spending the next two days in a depressive crash, I’ll actually have enough energy and enthusiasm to be able to do the same amount tomorrow.

    These days, I tend to accentuate the negative, eliminate the positive, stay true to the pessimistic and not mess with Mr In-Between, and it seems to work quite well. For one thing, I’m prepared for most disasters. I also try not to do the sorts of things that Kaz talks about (or at least, not on a regular basis): plan things that never go anywhere; start things and never finish them; beat myself up about not completing things.

  16. “Solving problems or helping others is beneath you, because it is all about you.”

    Not only is there no need to help anyone because it’s all about you, but since everyone’s circumstances are supposedly a result of their own thinking, then you actually CAN’T help them – they have to help themselves by ‘thinking positive’.


  17. Whether it’s The Secret or prayer or “how not to be a victim” checklists, some people just deal with the fact that there will always be factors beyond our control by not dealing with it.

    On the subject of practical positive thinking, I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time right now, and completely separately from that, my disability is presenting itself more strongly than any time I can remember. I focus on the things that make me happy, to the extent that I can. It’s a good life.
    .-= Alexandra Erin´s last blog .. =-.

  18. I agree that positive thinking is overused and cannot “cure” anyone. I’m also tired of being told to “fight” my illness. This generally involves someone advising me to go against what my body is telling me it needs (rest, food) in order to do something “better” with my time.

  19. I think one of the reasons this attitude is so popular is that it offers those with privilege (especially able-bodied/minded privilege but also class etc.) feel that they are immune to partial or total loss of their privilege. It allows them to believe that if they just do the right things and avoid the wrong things then disability and chronic illness will pass them by. Many people have the same illusion about eating healthy foods, exercising, etc. Unfortunately it also as you said leads usually to looking down on those that they believe did not do all the right things (those of us who are disabled and/or chronically ill.)
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Breathtaking to behold: talking back to dismissal =-.

  20. I forget where I read it, but someone characterized Oprah’s fascination with The Secret as another example of her “let them eat cake” attitude toward those less privileged. It struck me as incredibly apt.

    Incidentally, The Secret is high on my list of books that should have been stopped before they went to press, because it’s harmful. It makes privileged people feel better, but, um… correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t they the ones with power? If they feel guilty, perhaps that’s a sign that they should, I dunno, be doing something instead of sitting around feeling guilty? Oh wait, silly me! I forgot; it’s all about THEM.

    (Sarcasm and snarkiness, as well as cynicism, are great tools to have in my toolbox.)

  21. I’ve known people who take this type of thing to such extremes that they really scared the crap out of me. They were maybe the scariest people I’ve known so far. They really believed that all disease is caused by not being positive and serene enough in your thinking (and not just your thinking, your general state of mind/being). So, if you got sick, there was something wrong with your mind even if you couldn’t find how you’d been negative. And if you were serene and positive enoguh, you’d never get any illness, including cancer or AIDS (even if you had unprotected sex with people who have it).

    So if you get a serious, possibly lethal illnes, it was all your own fault.
    .-= Norah´s last blog ..I’m the world’s most irregular blogger! =-.

  22. Writer_Writing – your comment re your friend reminded me of when I was in an abusive marriage. I was a Christian at the time (as was my then husband) and when I told our pastor what was going on he told me I should pray about it. I did and the abuse continued. I went back to the pastor and he told me I obviously wasn’t trusting God enough and needed to pray more and really turn it over to God. After 3 years of abuse I up and left. Best thing I ever did.

    Oh, and I hate The Secret with a passion. Total crap that encourages victim blaming. I think there is a place for optimism but it needs to be balanced with a dose of reality.
    .-= Bri´s last blog ..a big fat hi to F.L.OG. first time visitors! =-.

  23. I couldn’t agree with you more – things like The Secret make me almost explosively angry, just because of the damage they do to PWD: The idea that you or I could think ourselves into/out of our illnesses and that there is somehow something we are not doing? Unbearably frustrating, and adds levels of guilt and fear to an already difficult situation.

    “Though making others responsible for their own illnesses helps us deny our own vulnerability to disease and death, it adds to the burdens of the ill. By placing responsibility for illness on the afflicted, the culture compounds the problems of the chronically ill by adding to the misfortune of bodily pain, psychic distress, cultural censure and social stigma.” (Under the Medical Gaze, Susan Greenhalgh, 2001)

    And the fact that, so often, people are ‘just trying to help,’ and can’t understand why I don’t react well to their suggestions is frustrating as well: my responses to a cousin’s repeated attacks about when I am going to “face my real issues” or “talk myself into getting better” are often sarcastic and bitter (“when you realize that it is your issues, not mine that need to be dealt with” or “when you can suddenly talk your hair into growing back onto your head,” for example), but there are only so many times I’m going to let you tell me I am not doing enough to get better. (As if anyone wants me to feel better more than me.)
    .-= NTE´s last blog .. =-.

  24. And I’m sorry for double posting, but my page reloaded after my comment posted and I just have to say this:

    “retraining my thoughts is a FUCKLOAD of really hard work, and it’s not at all about visualizing rainbow-pooping unicorns.”

    is about the funniest, truest thing I have read in a really long time. Bravo, Arwyn!
    .-= NTE´s last blog .. =-.

  25. I heard that cancer thing before. When I had picked my jaw up off the floor I told the woman who said it how offensive it was to people with cancer and their families and friends. She told me many in her family had died of cancer and that the negativity in her family convinced her that negative thoughts were the cause. But that she would not get cancer because she was more positive than her family was. I thought wow what a way to convince yourself you will be the exception against terrifying odds.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Breathtaking to behold: talking back to dismissal =-.

  26. Curing depression by positive thinking is especially problematic, since if they *could* think positively, they wouldn’t have depression. That’s precisely what depression affects!
    I think The Goldfish got it right. Positive thinking can help, but it’s about coping, not curing. And there’s a difference, also, between being negative and being realistic. I really hate when I describe myself as having difficulty with X or Y, or say I probably couldn’t do Z, and someone says ‘don’t be so hard on yourself!’ or something like that. I’m not being hard on myself, because I don’t invest nearly so much emotion into whether I can do X, Y or Z. I’m just being realistic, it’s not positive or negative.

  27. I missed your post on this topic before. I don’t know about you, but I continue to grapple with people’s reactions to me in this regard, though it’s made me feel more confident to write my beliefs down. Unfortunately, this genre seems to be burgeoning!

  28. Thank you for your comments. I’m against positive thinking. Normally people who think positive have positive things going on in there life so they think they created it which is very naive. They think that if they can do it so easily then anyone can. But thats not true. I have chronic pain, am crippled, have become overweight & can’t get it off no matter what. I get so sick of these posive thinkers thinking I’m doing something wrong & that is why I have all these problems. But the fact is I was born w/ a crooked body which has caused a lot of pysical problems & pain. Thinking positive doesn’t help. We all chose our own charts before we came here on earth & some of us chose easier lives. (the positive thinkers) because they couldn’t handle a more difficult life. Others, like u & I chose difficicult paths to learn patience & understanding, etc. I’d like to see how positive they think when they become cripple, sick for years, get an uncurable illness for no reason at all, etc Any positive thinker I’ve met doesn’t have any of those problems. I have a relative thats into positive thinking, she hurt her arm (just a littly thing) & she said she thought of me & was feeling sorry for herself. Well if that injury stuck w/ her for the rest of her life & caused pain, problems & limitations, I bet she wouldn’t be a positive thinker anymore especially as time goes on & it’s still crippling her life.

  29. I read Ehrenreich’s book, “Bright-sided,” and found it to be quite good. (But then, I have for the most part enjoyed her writings for decades. She is a careful researcher who supports her arguments with relevant cites.)

    Another book that comes to mind is “The Outliers: The Story of Success.” The author makes a plausible argument that “success” (as defined by the dominant culture) has to do with luck primarily, including the opportunity to practice, e.g. a musical instrument, computer programming. Below is a link to the author’s description of that book.

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