Tag Archives: positivity

Positive thinking and gaslighting

I recently ran into the suggestion that people who have experienced gaslighting are unlikely to cope well with positive thinking strategies. It was a real ‘lightbulb’ moment for me. I find positive affirmations incredibly stressful and panic-inducing. I do ok with very small ones – statements like ‘it is ok not to be perfect’ and ‘shit happens’ and ‘you can get through this’ don’t stress me out.

But, the kinds of things I’ve had recommended to me – like standing in front of a mirror and saying ‘you are beautiful and I love you’ to my reflection makes me feel physically sick. Even thinking about it twists my gut up.

Being gaslit involves taking onboard things that conflict with how you understand reality. For the person who has escaped that, being able to protect your own version of reality is incredibly important. Even when that might not be helping in other ways. I can say ‘that is a face, and it will do’ to my reflection, but that’s all. 

A while ago I tried experimenting with ‘positive’ affirmations and I ended up in a state of crisis and distress. Part of this is that a gaslit person will often have had to deal with being told that things were fine, normal, safe, reasonable and appropriate when that simply wasn’t true. I am better off with lower self esteem that feels real to me than telling myself I am great and facing the breakdown of my reality, again.

Realising this also raised for me some things about how CBT doesn’t work. I expect CBT with a therapist is an entirely different ballgame, but my experience was of being given a workbook. The workbook was based on the assumption that everything was ok really, and that I was panicking about nothing. That wasn’t the case, so what was supposed to be therapy felt like gaslighting. 

There can be no meaningful interventions if we don’t allow for the possibility that things aren’t ok. Saying ‘my life is good’ when your life is clearly hell, isn’t going to make you well. Imagining that there’s nothing to be afraid of when you have genuine reason to fear for your safety, isn’t going to fix anything. If the only problem is what goes on in your head, then maybe positive affirmations will help you. But, if what you have exists for reasons, you aren’t going to magic it away by doing something that feels like lying to yourself.

Community Positivity

Positive thinking tends to be presented as a solitary, private practice to benefit the individual doing it. What happens if we make positive affirmation a deliberate part of how we treat each other? It’s much less self-involved, it does more good, and people who affirm each other will have more confidence, better self esteem and more joy than people who hide away on their own telling themselves that they are confident and happy people.

Pay compliments – if someone does something good, praise them and tell them how much you like it. If someone is struggling, tell them you think they’re managing well and putting up a good fight. Remind people of the good things they did in the past.

Cheer victories of any size. Celebrate the successes of people you care for, enjoy knowing about their good fortune, take delight in things going well for them.

Tell people that you love them. Tell them if they matter to you, if you care about them, value them are glad of what they do for you and their being in your life.

Affirm their responses. Tell them that their reactions are valid and make sense, that they are entitled to their feelings, that they deserve good things. Hold space for those more challenging feelings, too. Let it be ok to be sad, or angry, or struggling. Don’t ask people to be totally convenient for you.

When someone is struggling, say ‘I hear you’ and ‘I care’. Listen to what they need, offer help on their terms not primarily on yours – do the things people say they find helpful, not what you imagine should help. Be willing to learn if you don’t understand what’s going on. Don’t argue with their perception of things but instead validate their being the expert on what is going on in their life. Be kind.

We won’t always understand what another person is going through and they won’t always be able to explain. Help them by showing care and respect, by being ok with not knowing, by validating that they can still be acceptable even if they can’t explain things. Be willing to do what is helpful without having to understand why it is helpful, and say so.

Small things are also good. A like, a thumbs up, a smile, a smiley, it all helps. If you don’t have much to spare or much idea what to do, a small gesture is still a gesture worth making.

Positivity and Self Harm

Some time ago I decided that maybe the problem is me. I’m too negative. I don’t practice gratitude enough. I invest too much energy in feeling sorry for myself. A better, more positive attitude would, surely, make me happier and nicer to be around?

So I scoured the internet for positivity memes, and I wrote them in my diary. Every time I felt the panic or despair coming on, I’d read them out loud. Everything happens for my highest good. My life is full of blessings. I am grateful for how good and rich my life is. That sort of thing, and other statements like it.

I did this for some days.

It did not result in me feeling happier, better, or more positive. It did however give me increasing feelings about the invalidity of my distress. I did not become more grateful. The final stage of this resulted in me crying, hysterical, howling things like ‘my life is so great and I feel so happy right now’ while pummelling my fists into my body. Which compared to the violence I wanted to perpetrate on myself at that point, was fairly mild. I had to be physically restrained, and it took me some considerable time to recover.

I can’t recommend it.

Trying to paste inauthentic ideas and feelings over the top of distress does not make the distress go away. It adds to the distress. If I hadn’t been in such an awful state to start with, I would likely have remembered that I think this kind of positivity is toxic. But I was desperate and in a great deal of pain, and I felt like the problem was me. This kind of ‘positive’ thinking perpetuates the idea that you, the individual, are the problem. Not your context, not your socio-economic status, not your health or the people around you, but you personally and how you ‘choose’ to think about things.

Not everything can be fixed by changing how you think about it. In some circumstances, trying to tell a more positive story might be a really dangerous thing to do. It certainly didn’t go well for me.

Not being in control of your thoughts

CW abuse mechanics

There is a popular, but highly flawed positivity concept that goes ‘even if you can’t control anything else, you can control your thought and reactions’. It sounds good. It sounds plausible, and empowering, but it isn’t true.

If you aren’t familiar with the mechanics of conditioning, hop over and read this piece on Pavlov’s dogs – https://www.verywellmind.com/pavlovs-dogs-2794989

Conditioning is a process that trains minds and behaviour. The individual being trained does not need to be aware that they are being taught to react in certain ways. You hear the bell, you salivate.  Reinforced by rewards and/or punishments, conditioning teaches your body to respond without your brain even having to get involved.  If you’ve been taught this way, changing your responses is really hard. You have to first figure out what you’ve learned and what causes your behaviour and then you have to either unpick it or replace it. It is easer to replace conditioning with new conditioning, but the process of making new rules and enforcing them is a hard one.

If you’ve lived through abuse, or gaslighting then someone has trained you to respond to certain situations in specific ways. A lot of work goes into that training, destroying a person’s sense of self, their confidence, their ability to hold boundaries or say no. You can come back from there, but it isn’t easy. You can only control your own thoughts and responses after doing a great deal of work to rebuild your mind.

If you have PTSD then your responses to triggers are difficult through to impossible to control. Trauma impacts on you, and you are unable to escape it.  It may be possible to get some control over this – with time, safety, counselling, and a lot of work. For many people, the triggers never quite go away no matter how hard they try to fix themselves.

It’s hard to change your thinking and responses if what you’ve internalised is everything your culture reinforces every day. It’s hard to think differently without examples, role models, maps. Not impossible of course, but bloody difficult. Changing your thoughts is really hard if you have no idea what you could think instead.

You may not be in control of your thoughts and responses. If that’s true for you, then it is possible to change to at least some degree, but not in the way glib positivity statements suggest. Rebuilding, and retraining a mind is hard work and takes a long time. Dealing with learned responses that happen in your body is slow work, and painful, and the bigger the trauma, the harder it is to get over it.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that we have mammal bodies. We have our animal body chemistry, with the flight, fight, freeze and appease responses wired in. We have urges and hormones, and we won’t always know what’s going on with that. We should be able to control our responses so that those things don’t impact on other people too much, but we may not be able to control what goes on in our heads as the chemistry washes through our brains.

Be patient with yourself, you are a soft mammal, not a perfected thinking machine and sometimes being a mammal is a bit messy.

Cautious affirmations for awkward people

The idea of affirmations is that you regularly repeat a strong, positive statement, and in repeating it you become it. The trouble with this kind of affirmation is the bigger the gap between your disbelief and the enthusiasm of the statement, the harder it is not to have it feel like an exercise in futility and self mockery. Having tried it, that reaction doesn’t help, and the faster it becomes unbearable the less useful it is.

I can’t stand in front of mirrors and tell myself I’m beautiful. I barely cope with mirrors, I find looking at myself uncomfortable. Saying ‘I am beautiful’ a few times every day would be distressing to me. So, what alternatives are there? Below is a list of body statements that I have used repeatedly and found helpful. They aren’t very ambitious, nor fantastically positive and that’s part of why I can work with them in the first place. My cynicism is not kicked off. If I can establish these thoughts as a baseline, I can be more functional and less distressed by myself as a physical presence. That’s enough.

I am ok.

I am tolerable to other people. I can be accepted.

I have a soft animal body, just like everyone else does, and being a mammal is ok.

What this body feels is real and allowed and I respect those feelings.

I am allowed to rest if I need to. Resting is a good idea. I am allowed to rest when I am tired or in pain.

I have a value aside from how I look.

I am a finite resource. I have limits, boundaries, edges. These limits are what stop me from being a pile of squidge. I do not have to go through life acting like I am a limitless resource capable of doing anything. It is a good idea to be realistic and sustainable.

I can’t do everything and this is ok.

Much of the time my body is good enough to do a lot of the things I want to do. This is actually good enough.

In theory, an affirmation is supposed to be wholly positive. So statements like ‘I am beautiful, I am worthy of love, I am a joy to behold’ would be more in the usual style of the approach. However, if you’re starting from a place of really not feeling good, those blasts of positivity can be too much. It may be more useful to acknowledge the problems. Trying to get an upswing of some sort into each repeated phrase is important. The key ideas to work with is that things might not be as bad as you think they are, that self-judgements can be let go of a bit, and to draw attention to the bits of you that you can be ok with.

‘I have pretty hair and I like my clothes choices’ may be a useful thought  if you can honestly hold that. It may not tackle deep body issues, but it creates a place of acceptance and ok-ness, and that’s a great comfort improver. If you need to get out of headspaces full despair and self-loathing then a more cautious, less bombastic kind of affirmation may be the way to go.

Exploring the limits of positive thinking

Positive thinking is all too often sold to us as the solution to all life’s troubles. It’s an approach that has some utility, but if we don’t recognise its limitations, it becomes a form of tyranny, a method for victim blaming and a way of hurting people who are already hurting a lot. The idea is of course that a positive attitude changes everything; with exams and job interviews cited as examples of how this will work. And yes, in exams and jobs interviews a positive attitude will help you. In war zones, with a knife at your throat, starving, or watching a loved one die, it’s not just useless but insulting.

There is much to be said for asking whether good, or potential good exists within a situation. In times of mild upset and modest difficulty, the challenge can be a blessing in disguise and a positive outlook can bring that to the fore. However, if a situation is truly hideous and doomed, a positive outlook can keep you slogging away when you should be running away. It can deny you the space for needful emotional processes – when important things are lost to us, we need to grieve first before we try and move on.

If there’s no good to be found in a situation, then we waste energy looking for it, or we delude ourselves trying to manufacture it, and this doesn’t help in the slightest. Further, the person who is undertaking to think this way may be less alert to dangers, and to strategies that suit the scenario. The eventual, inevitable realisation that it really is hopeless may lead to a more profound despair than the less optimistic person will ever face. An approach of planning for the worst while hoping for the best, for example, can give you a much more realistic grasp of a situation’s many possibilities, and prepare you for more eventualities.

If you can solve all of your problems by taking a more positive approach to them, then the problems aren’t that big to begin with. It’s worth noting that the greatest exponents of this notion tend to be healthy, affluent, white, western and generally privileged. If your problems stem from a sense of entitlement, a lack of gratitude, and a ‘poor little me’ mindset then yes, positive thinking can save you. But only then.

If there is something you can make the best of, looking for it will help. It is possible to be happy even while being really quite poor, if you have an attitude that allows you to find the good. Material wealth is not, after all, what happiness is all about. If your essential needs for food, shelter, warmth and safety are not being met, no amount of positivity will transform that into a good situation –practical change needs to be sought.

Perhaps the place we most need positive thinking, is around the idea that things can change. Positivity applied to what we’ve got, if what we’ve got is awful, can lead to cognitive dissonance. We have to be realistic about how things are. Positive thinking applied to what we might be able to do, is a whole other game. How many people who could change their lives, communities and environments don’t act because they don’t think it will make a difference? All the people who don’t vote, protest, petition, or take action? All the people who accept what’s being done to them out of the belief that nothing better is possible. Believe that better is possible, and the lies of politicians and the gains of big business appear in a very different light.

When it comes to who holds the power, thinking positive about what you’ve got allows that to stay just as it is. Thinking positive about what we might collectively and individually do, has the power to change things. Positive thoughts alone are never enough. We need positive actions.

Positive thinking for the slightly unhinged

In theory, positive thinking ought to be a good thing – by its very definition if you do it well, it’s got to be good. All too easily, it becomes a way to explain the people who aren’t winning, rather than looking at wider factors (poverty, access to resources, education, opportunity, disability, race, sheer bad luck and all other such things of that ilk). It can be a way of denying what’s going on.

I can track a process, where I fall into dark and destructive thinking. And then, as part of that process I notice what I’m doing, and I recognise that I’m on a real downer, pessimistic, defeatist, and the like. I can readily latch onto this as an explanation for why everything’s going awry. I am causing it to go awry (like attracts like, right?). The problem is that I’m not grateful enough, blind to the good stuff, looking the wrong way, focused on the wrong things.

And so my own lack of positivity becomes a stick to beat myself with. Because underneath it all is a self-destructive inclination that will use any weapon it can get its grubby hands on. And I can turn anything into that sort of weapon. I suppose that if your urge is to find a means to push away, or put down the inconvenient and the uncomfortable, then pointing at the lack of positivity is a comfortable solution, and so there can be a quiet complicity between those who wish to explain the damned and those who do not know how to do other than damn themselves.

I can only be genuinely positive if I start from where I am, in a state of honesty about how I feel and what I’ve got. From that honesty I can recognise the good bits, without getting mired in bitterness, resentment, or being too down to see anything good. When I recognise where I am, I have more scope to be hopeful about the room for productive change, and see the potential for good bits. I don’t convince myself that all will be well and glorious, but I can get a sane balance between the hope and the anxiety, and I can be passably functional.

If I try to make myself be positive about things where I don’t genuinely feel it, the results are generally messy. Fake positivity brings on the bitterness, the self-loathing, and a keen sense of futility. The attempt to seem, or to foster a sense of positivity can breed in me the most toxic reactions. ‘Fun’ can start to sound like a threat.

A measured, realistic kind of positivity makes it possible to appreciate the good bits, without going mad. As with most things, its about balance. For me its also about what’s socially acceptable, and it’s about putting down the weapons I’ve been using to hit myself with, and recognising that maybe I don’t have to keep beating myself up for not being cheerful and carefree enough.