The problems of positive thinking

I see a lot of pieces online about how we can improve our lives with more positive thinking. Practice gratitude. When you are angry with someone, look at how you are projecting your negativity onto them. Minimise your problems. Love everybody. Now, if the only problems in your life exist because you’re a miserable, negative sort of person who projects this onto others, feels no gratitude and has no love in their heart, this may in fact work. In some situations, it can get you killed.

The trouble with glib positive thinking prompts, is that they do not have any nuance, or any capacity for detail. They also make you wholly responsible for your life experience. Yes, you can change any experience by changing how you feel about it. If you are being bullied at work, or beaten at home, you can make this easier to bear by feeling grateful for even having a job or a partner. You can tell yourself that it’s not so bad, and that you are creating the problem by projecting your negativity. You can love them unconditionally. This will destroy you, one way or another.

Then there are the positive thinking ideas that reassure us that we’ve chosen this life-experience for a reason. There is something we must learn. And ‘God’ would not have given us more than we can deal with. Fantastic, not only is you life awful, but you chose this before you were born, and your deity thinks you can take it. Again, people who stay in dangerous situations can and do end up dead. Every time I read an assertion that the challenges are here for us to find loving answers to, I want to scream. Some people, if you stay around and love them, will take you apart, metaphorically, literally… Sometimes the only lesson to learn is how to get out as safely and quickly as possible. It’s worth being very careful about this one, because leaving a dangerous situation can trigger rage, and statistically you are most likely to die at the point when you try to escape. Help and a good plan are essential.

New Age fluff is fine if the biggest problems in your life are that can’t have everything you desire, your ego is not stroked enough, and you have no idea how to be satisfied with what you’ve got. If your problems are first world issues of excess luxury and too much advertising then yes, those positive thinking prompts may be good for you, and won’t do any harm. If you go to bed afraid of the person who lies next to you, then lying there in the darkness trying to figure out why you are projecting this negative emotion onto them, will keep you there, and keep you hurting and frightened. If you’re being shouted at, if your days are a barrage of criticism, mockery, and humiliation, if there are normal things you do not dare do because you fear the consequences… stay away from the New Age noises. You do not need more love and patience. You do not need to accept that you chose this life course and have work to do. You do not need to buy into the idea that it is somehow your life’s purpose to deal with a person who makes you want to die.

Every time you read some statement about changing your thinking to improve your life, please, please add a mental footnote: This only applies if you are not dealing with a psychopath. This is only true if you are not surrounded by assholes, by petty, mean-hearted gits, or by those who enjoy knocking other people down.

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, polyamourous animist, ant-fash, anti-capitalist, bisexual steampunk. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

22 responses to “The problems of positive thinking

  • Sharon Rawlette

    You are so right to add this incredibly important “nuance” to the positive-thinking propaganda! Any philosophy can become a prison if we don’t apply it carefully, by taking a good look at our own specific circumstances and using our own judgment. More important, I think, than positive thinking, is loving oneself. Realizing that one deserves to be loved and cared for, in a genuine way. We shouldn’t use our positive thinking skills to keep ourselves in bad situations but to help us believe that other, better situations are possible, and to help us see the road to get there. Thanks for writing about this important topic!

  • Iulia Flame

    This only applies if you are not dealing with a psychopath.

    Hear, hear! As a veteran of many such dealings–I concur with both of the above conclusions.

    This is especially important for women/girls to know–as the playing field is not equally stocked.

  • Lenora Rose

    Excellent points all. “This only applies if you are not dealing with a psychopath” is an excellent rule for so many situations.

    To me, a major strike against positive thinking is also that it adds an extra burden to anyone suffering an incurable or difficult disease. A cancer patient may gain some benefits from being overall positive (There seem to be some studies suggesting a connection), but when they need to break down for a bit, telling them there’s a reason some higher power gave them a horrible disease or that it will go away if they keep thinking positively is at best not helpful and can be actively detrimental to long term endurance and long term positivity.

    And telling a clinically depressed person to just think more positively is not only potentially physically impossible, it’s a really cruel game to play.

  • Running Elk

    Excellent post, as usual 🙂
    Funny part? Those that really need to hear this got as far as the title. As “positive thinkers” they can’t be getting dragged down by the negativity involved in reviewing the problems of their adopted “philosophy of denial”.
    Worst part? Pedalling this nonsense has made a few very rich individuals who have neither want nor care for those who face the consequences of such flaccid thought on a daily basis.
    Unfortunately, in the circumstances that you have outlined, the need to get the message across of managing life as a fire drill (when alarm goes off, get out, stay out, do not return for personal belongings) is a difficult one for most people to adopt, and isn’t even one that the peddlars of the New Age seem to recognise a need for; yet, until they accept that Life isn’t about dancing with the fairies, what hope the rest… ?

    • Nimue Brown

      I’m lining up some things on dancing with the fairies, as well 🙂

      • angharadlois

        I look forward to reading about dancing with the fairies 🙂 – I would say they are far wilder and more demanding than the odd bit of wishful fancy-dress usually allows for… Human life can never really be about dancing with the fairies; almost every folktale in existence warns us of that. Striking a balance between our world and theirs is often a difficult, dangerous business…

        And, yes, I think all of the above is very worth saying. Although learning from and sometimes challenging negative thought patterns can be a very good thing, it does not necessarily follow that ‘positive thinking’ is always the answer. A grounded, realistic view of what works and why is almost always the best approach – although it sounds much less snappy, and probably sells a lot less!

      • Nimue Brown

        It will be fun, promise. Going to be chatting with Morgan Daimler, with whom I have some very unlikely things in common…

  • corvusrouge

    As far as I can see, the problem is not with positive thinking as such, but is as much to do with the expectations created around how the concepts are marketed and pitched at the consumer. In a consumer society where the latest film or gadget is always the best and greatest yet seen, over-reactions in the form of reviews and recommendations promise greater satisfaction for the outlay of more cash. So the inevitable resultant disappointment spreads into other aspects of life.
    Now, I am not disagreeing with you about the seemingly inappropriateness of some of the new age crap out there, but I have to say that the context you suggest here says as much about where the individual is at that time as it does around some of the rubbish espoused with some of the “positivity” brigade.
    My ex father-in-law was one of the few individuals that I have encountered who emmited a negative energy strong enough to change the atmosphere of a full pub upon entering it. Negativity can be such a strong vibe if one is not in a good position to counter it (and sometimes the hardest task is recognizing the source and the effect the negativity is having upon yourself) so I have to take issue with you here in so much as laying the blame at the door of positivity is not really the issue. The issue is how one deals with the context and whether applying the techniques in a blanket fashion in the expectation that a “one size fits all” solution will gain results across the entire emotional spectrum of your life is reasonable.

    • Nimue Brown

      In part the limitations of writing a short blog post on a huge subject, but I entirely agree with what you’re saying, thank you for extending the discussion out to these wider and very relevant points.

  • syrbal-labrys

    I always like to challenge the “God won’t give you more than you can handle” crowd by asking them, if that is so, why do they almost invariably not watch the news (cause it is depressing) and cocoon themselves in controlled environments where even a thunder god might have trouble gaining entrance and attention. Because, in my experience, the love and light brigades seem to always control the ingress of reality to a degree that the Soviet powers that were would have envied! Seems to me they don’t take too many chances of any ‘god’ handing them ANYthing TO handle!

  • Eilish Niamh

    I agree in general with what you are saying. The new agey stuff can be taken way too far. When I was still with my abusive partner, I read countless self help books on how to be a better person to make it work. Every relationship book I read went something like, don’t be one of those fools who walks away when something is just a bit hard. You don’t want to be someone who fears commitmant, who can’t take a challenge,… and I thought of course, I would be humiliated if I couldn’t take putting up with another person when he was challenging, I accept challenges, that is in my nature. So I stayed. Mistake number one: when you’re dealing with a psychopath, narcissist, abusive partner, walking away is *not* giving up or a reflection on your fear of relationships. You need to leave. Mistake number 2, and now I’m going to disagree with you somewhat: we really should approach situations with love, even when dealing with a psychopath, but that does not mean putting up with the psychopath! It means loving ourselves enough to leave. Though it’s cruel to victim blame and tell someone she opted for abuse before birth, it’s not far out to insist that unconditional love is possible. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do to a person is leave, never see them again, walk away. And then unconditionally love yourself. Sometimes it seems our selves get cut out of the unconditional love discussion, as if we are supposed to be foolish martyrs, when in fact prudence agrees with our instincts here, and when like me you find it within yourself to finally know you are worth your own unconditional acceptance and walk away, you do the most loving thing at all. And having said that, I wholeheartedly concur that positivity only philosophies make a mockery of our shades of grey world, which is too complex for such simplicities.

    • Nimue Brown

      I can’t argue with the idea of unconditional love from a safe distance! Love towards self and compassion for self are thing I know I do not think as well about as might be ideal, so I’ m always glad when people with a clearer perspective are able to pile in and comment on that. Thank you for sharing.

  • ohnwentsya

    Reblogged this on Spirit In Action and commented:
    Indeed even many channeled sources are adding in the caveat that they are not saying to martyr yourself, that loving  and setting healthy boundaries are essential to progress on a spiritual journey. 

    I really appreciate this post and am glad you made it. I hope it will be found by many who might otherwise be sidetracked by the “its all good” crowd.

    I tried following the advice of a spiritual discussion group I read when dealing with a dangerous situation once. Had  I realized sooner that unconditional love may be spiritually beneficial but is not exactly a panacea for interpersonal conflict in all cases I might have avoided a great deal of unfortunate difficulty and injury. 

    It sounds ridiculous written down here but it is all too easy to believe a dangerous and horrifying situation might really be something we are personally responsible for-and thus have some actual power to change thru changing ourselves.

    It is seductive to think our reality creation can include both attracting and repelling  nightmares in real life as part of our own spiritual journey. 

    That perspective conveniently ignores the free will of complete asshats to BE complete asshats until such time as they personally choose to change. 

    Sometimes as my cousin likes to say “hands on magic” is required. 

    Whether that means a carefully wielded weapon or simply physically removing yourself from a negative situation;  taking physical action is not an “unspiritual” or unloving response to a physical threat.

    I believe that the “its all good” perspective may be a misinterpretation of a real spiritual truth. 

    At a certain level of enlightenment, acceptance of all that is with love is natural. It doesn’t as far as I know change what IS tho- only the awareness of the arhat that it is but a fragment of the mind of God in which all that exists is made of love.

    Imho acceptance of what is does not in any way preclude common sense actions to deal with what is.

    Ie awareness that the Nile floods feed the soil and are thus “good” never prevented any sane person from walking to higher ground instead of drowning.;-)

  • locksley2010

    The way I see it, in regards to ‘the Gods don’t give you more than you can handle….’ that’s not how they work. I certainly do not believe we choose our lifetimes, but I do believe that the Gods give us choices to help ourselves, even survive and it is up to us to take them or not. They do not control our destinies, that is up to us, but they can and do give us opportunities to allow us to better ourselves and our situations. And if we choose not to take their chances? We become wrapped in the negativity of our chance, circumstance… like you’ve written before, the biggest thing we can do when living with a psychopath or being surrounded by assholes is say ‘NO!’. But then the deciding factor is of course choice…

    • Nimue Brown

      Very much agree. If you are sure its part of a higher plan, you might stay and try to figure it out, and miss the god-given opportunity to flee for safety.

      • locksley2010

        Bingo! A bit like that joke where a man sits on his roof when his home has been flooded, a rescue helicopter offers a ladder and the man refuses saying “God will save me”. An hour later a rescue team using a a make shift raft and ropes as a pulley system offer to take the man. He refuses and says “God will save me”. Another hour passes and a few people in a rubber dinghy offer to take the man. He refuses again and once more says “God will save me”. Eventually the flood gets so high the man drowns and finds himself in Heaven, meets God and asks: “I… I died!? Why didn’t you save me?” To which God shakes his head and says to the man: “I sent you a helicopter, a rescue team and a boat, what more did you bloody want!?”

  • Liz Ward

    Great post – was directed here by literaryvittles who left a comment on my latest post – I just wrote about something very similar. This is a great post, I agree with you. I’ve always found it very hard to do the whole ‘think postive!’ thing, mainly because I’m not really that kind of person. It’s exhausting trying to be something you’re not – trying to be a carefree, happy go lucky person who avoids anything negative, or thinks that every problem I encounter is of my own doing, therefore I have to think about how I can make it better. Like you say, that kind of thinking can often be very dangerous. It’s like saying that oppression (sexual, racial, disability etc) is our fault. It avoids seeing what systems are responsible, and doesn’t hold them accountable. I do find it helpful to be grateful/practice gratitude, and find joy in the little things in life, but I also think being practical and seeing things with clear eyes is very important.

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