A Little Rant about “Positive Thinking”

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A song that loosely relates to this- feeling strong without feeling positive. – http://soundcloud.com/starshipjenerprise/before-the-flower

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There have recently been a whole slew of “positive thinking” things in my Facebook feed. I’ll admit it. They irritate me. Here’s why.

Controlling Thoughts

Anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in meditation practice knows that thoughts arise whether or not we really have a conscious say in them. They come up. When we watch them, we realize that they sometimes have patterns and some level of predictability, but other times they don’t.

Some of us have really powerful imaginations. My own imagination seems to have moods of its own.

One day I’m imagining great things for songs, stories, posts and pictures. Another day, I’m imagining terrible things about my own demise or other disasters. Is that my fault? Am I not “positive” enough?

Value of Intention

I think that there’s a great value of intentionally thinking about some things. Like how it would feel to have a successful book, or how it would feel to not be afraid of singing in front of someone. Sometimes intentionally having these thoughts can make it easier to take steps of action towards those goals, or to loosen the grip of habitual self-depreciating thoughts.

But there are limitations, and also, I believe, dangers to clinging to this too strongly.

Limits of Intention & Effort

To keep propagating the idea that we can control our thinking to any large extent is just a little obscene to me. There is so much more to our experience than just thinking, and the thinking itself is one of the hardest things to control. Plus, if you try to force your brain into a certain pattern that is just not taking, maybe it’s the relationship to the thoughts that can be worked with.

I know for me, when I try to run away from my anxiety or negative thoughts, they sometimes get much worse and more powerful. When I see them and breathe into them, letting them be, they tend to have more of a chance to dissipate, or at least to not ruin my day with anxiety. But if I try to change them into “positive” thoughts, it feels rather like trying to wear jeans that are a size too small just because I want them to fit.

Find me one person who has successfully jumped on the “positive thinking” train and never looked back. But if you do find them, please just take a picture for proof but don’t bring them anywhere near me, because they would probably be rather irritating.

The Dangers of This Expectation

To me, the danger of this movement is similar to the danger that the media creates when it portrays people looking happy, healthy, young, and flawless all over the television. People start to assume that they are damaged for not being like that. They start counting calories and judging themselves harshly for not having the illusive “just got out of bed” look when they really just got out of bed.

The idea that “thoughts create reality” makes some sense, but on the other hand, what I tend to see is a lot of rather privileged people saying this as if their own blessed lives were of their own making. Sometimes, they were. But sometimes tragedy happens, regardless of how positive the person was during their lives. Other times, life turns out perfectly for those with lots of “negative” thoughts.

The Temptation to Think Thoughts Control Things

It’s fun to think that thinking controls our reality, but it also feels that such a belief is giving the holder an illusion of control over their fate that they really don’t have, while also creating an onslaught of shallow positivity that clings to itself for fear of waking up to the messy reality that sometimes shit happens no matter how much we didn’t think about it.

I think my point is this. If you are similarly bombarded with these “positive thinking” pictures with curvy handwriting and bright colors, and you find yourself feeling bad for your continued indulgence in the occasional negative thought, please don’t beat yourself up anymore than you would for not having Pantene-commercial hair even after using the same shampoo.

Controlling thoughts and feelings is very hard, if not impossible. Cultivating acceptance and actions that bring us where we want to go is a little more doable, at least for me. I just don’t want people to move from feeling bad that they aren’t perfect like people on TV to feeling like they are being too negative and inviting disaster into their lives because of it when really, disaster comes sometimes. Relating to the moment in a friendly way cuts to the chase and helps those negative thoughts have less power over our experience, without trying to fight them off for the sake of being positive.

There’s my rant. Thanks for reading.

I’d love to hear your experience. Maybe I’m seeing the whole “positive thinking” thing in a skewed way, and projecting my own negativity onto it. Maybe you can share how it’s worked for you, or how you think I’m wrong about what I think of it.

Feel free to rant below! πŸ™‚

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31 thoughts on “A Little Rant about “Positive Thinking”

  1. I want to come back and read this more thoroughly when I have the time but I had to at least speed read it because it’s something that has been nagging at me for some time. A Psychology professor who specializes in trauma therapy said that the problem with these positive affirmations and mantras for some people is that it triggers their inner critic and instead of it making them feel more confident it actually has the opposite effect on them. I wrote an article about it a while ago but it still bothers me, mainly because I have tried that many times and things don’t change the way these “gurus” say that it will. That or I’m just impatient. It’s a lot easier for Deepak to believe it because he had an upbringing that afforded him having his education paid for an had his own medical practice at one time. What about the millions who don’t have those opportunities?!

    Here’s my article: http://www.examiner.com/article/optimism-is-it-the-key-to-happiness

    • Thank you for sharing! I like your article, and the distinction between art and art therapy is really intriguing. The whole affirmation movement seems like most others- there are some kernels of truth, and then there are some really extreme points of view that overlook how reality tends to happen. Like you say- the glass is half full and half empty, there’s nothing wrong with either way of looking at it, as long as you are looking and not denying the existence of the other point of view. Thanks so much for sharing that link!

  2. I used to be tied into the belief that we should be striving to think only happy thoughts. However when I started studying tantra I encountered the aphorism that “The Lion is Entitled to His Roar.”

    Now if I feel anger, sadness, &c. I try to accept them as a natural reaction to circumstance and neither reject nor privilege them.

    • Thanks Dave, that seems like a great method. Rejecting or privileging them doesn’t seem useful, but accepting them really does let them happen and go much more smoothly than getting in a fight over it. The lion is entitled to his roar- I like that! πŸ™‚

  3. You can’t substitute positive thinking with good old common sense. There is positive thinking and then there is putting your head in the sand. I am a firm believer in positive thinking and believe it has helped me in numerous ways. But I’m also a realist. Bad shit happens. Sometimes terrible shit happens. It has happend to me too often to count. I don’t dismiss these things. I don’t bury my head in the sand about them. I confront them head on. I cry, I get down, I get angry, I blow up. But in the end my positive side comes out and after I vent all the bad, I put in all the good. It works for me. Just because someone uses the power of positive thinking, does not mean that person is someone who denies the bad stuff. It’s there. It’s always going to happen at some point. Whether you dwell on the bad, have self pity forever, go into a deep depression over the bad and just concentrate on it, well it seems to have a life of it’s own. I refuse to give the bad stuff that much power over my life. That to me is the true meaning of “positive thinking”.

  4. I think having a positive attitude is much more powerful than simply exercising positive thinking. There is a difference. Thanks for sharing this post. Good reading.

  5. Susan is right – a positive attitude can go a long way. Positive thinking always smacks of self-programming to me…something akin to a religious doctrine that narrows common sense into an expectation of perfection that bears no resemblance to reality.

    • It’s so interesting to think of all the subtleties that I missed as I was writing- like the difference between thoughts and attitude. I guess it always tends to come down to “moderation”. πŸ™‚ Thanks for your thoughts Andrew, I agree!

  6. Fantastic and refreshing post!! I’ve got a post coming up on 28th also ‘ranting’ πŸ™‚ You will love it: ‘Sticking to your own blueprint’ is the title, I will try and pop by again and let you know (if I remember) if not, take a look.

    I recently fell FLAT on my face because of many things but I do feel that this misguided ‘Positive Thinking’ ‘Law of Attraction’ poop had a big part in it – or rather, my choice to believe in it (and not truly understand its meaning).

    Much Love,

    Matt xx

    • Aw thanks for coming by Matt! Please let me know of that post when you make it, but I’ll check in a few! There are so many ways to work with that law of attraction…it’s really amazing to think of how any single doctrine or idea can be taken so many different ways. I think so much comes down to us all being susceptible for the desire for a quick fix, and we end up taking to something very fast without really fully absorbing it or thinking of possible repercussions..at least that’s how it works for me sometimes..thank you so much for reading and relating! πŸ™‚

  7. I am doing some recovery, and have considered that some people say to feel the pain or work through the trauma/grief/fear while the positive affirmations are also out there. You address both in a very balanced and very articulate way. One problem with the mental attitude angle is that when in the trenches of depression, for example, one can’t marshal that kind of thinking by act of will. Maybe can’t even remember that positive thinking is possible! Thank you for a very insightful post! Diane

    • Thanks for reading, Diane! I think that’s a great point regarding depression. When I used to have many more OCD-type thoughts than I do now, they would just get so darn powerful when I’d try to fight them tooth and nail. It’s just good I think for people to have an option- the ‘positive thinking’ if they want, and other things if they prefer, rather than feeling like they are ‘broken’ in some way for not being able to stay 100% positive. Thank you so much for reading and writing πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

  8. My husband talks about this very thing all the time! It’s a passion of his πŸ™‚ You should read Oliver Burkeman “The Antidote”. I think you would like it. Great post. x

  9. Jennifer, this really doesn’t qualify as a rant. I’m sorry. You’re just going to have to try harder. Which I guess means that you’re still being too positive in being negative about being too positive. I’ve been pastoring people in churches for over thirty years, and how better to capture the religious scene I’ve witnessed than with your words: an “onslaught of shallow positivity that clings to itself for fear of waking up to the messy reality that sometimes shit happens no matter how much we didn’t think about it.” In fact, that should appear in the dictionary definition of “sermon.” Half the Psalms are negative in tone and content – and that would, of course, be the half that no one reads. And you’ll never hear a sermon series on Lamentations. I have long felt there should be a Christian calendar with thoughts like, “Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?” and “My soul is full of trouble and my life draws near the grave.” I would make it, but no one would buy it. A healthy attitude towards life springs from soil that embraces all of reality, not just the highlights we might choose to think about. No matter how positively we might think about it, shit is still shit and it still happens. But maybe, just maybe, there’s a pony in there somewhere.

    Don’t think I quite made it to a rant either…

    • I read your comment hours ago in my email and had a very good belly laugh about “being too positive in being negative about being too positive”! Maybe someday soon there would be a great market for your calendar πŸ™‚ I fully agree “A healthy attitude towards life springs from soil that embraces all of reality, not just the highlights we might choose to think about.” I may quote you on that and put it on my blog’s Facebook feed, if that’s all right. I love it. I’m really glad you liked this, I’m always curious about what you will think! πŸ™‚

      • Absolutely. I won’t even ask for royalties. Thanks again for this post today. It came at a very good time. I think it was a Kafka quote: “a literary work must be an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us.” Your posts do that for me on a regular basis. Today was one of those times. You got things flowing again. Not bad for a rant (or an almost rant).

  10. Pingback: Positive Thinking – Part 4: Fine Tune Your System | Can U Identify With This?

  11. I think you’re correct. Negative thoughts can be extremely powerful and getting rid of them requires a lot of effort on your behalf, but there’s no guarantee you will do away with them. I LIKEd this article and added a link to it at the end of my post: Positive Thinking – Part 4: Fine Tune Your System. I would appreciate you looking at it. Thank you and keep up the good work.

  12. Pingback: Positive Thinking Key to Success | Santisha

  13. Pingback: I Think, I’m Okay « Brandon Bored

  14. Pingback: graspingthoughts » Finding Good Thinking

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