It started back in the early 70s when I was a young graduate student in psychology, working in the trenches at a mental-health center where clients had deep-seated emotional problems. At that time, Born to Win by Zig Zigler, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie were flying off bookstore shelves and becoming bestsellers. The message of this new generation of positive-think gurus was to be more positive and most everything would work out just fine. That might have been true for some, but it was a useless—if not harmful—message for most of my clients.
Don’t get me wrong, positive thinking was a welcome concept. Hundreds of thousands of people evolved into more kind, congenial, mindful, and optimistic versions of themselves. And, there was no question that self-help was a powerful, effective, and affordable alternative to psychotherapy. People learned that they could change the course of their lives by reframing things in a better light.
Positive thinking became the rage in pop psychology and was embraced by the masses with a religious fervor. As with most trending self-improvement approaches, however, there were hidden and potentially dangerous biases that did as much harm as good. For one, anybody who chose not to drink the Kool-Aid or who didn’t put a positive spin on things could be shamed, judged, humiliated, and/or castigated for being “negative” (that is, lazy, ignorant, unmotivated, uninspired, and morally inferior). The tool that had helped so many individuals pull themselves up from self-limiting victimhood, despair, helplessness, hopelessness, and pessimism was being used as a weapon. Natural raw emotions such as sorrow, disappointment, anger, concern, confusion, and uncertainty were diminished, dismissed, discarded, and pathologized as signs of weakness and failure. These feelings, the messengers of our inner worlds, were shunned. Ashamed and afraid, a great many of us learned to suppress our negative” emotions by shooting the messenger. But when we “acted” positive and upbeat, no matter how superficial and staged these emotions really were, we were admired.
The resurgence in positive thinking in recent years has me turned inside out once again. Millions of people have been empowered by books such as The Law of Attraction and The Secret—and society has benefited in so many ways from the teachings of genuinely enlightened self-help gurus. But, once again, we’ve gone and oversold positive thinking as the be-all, end-all. And then, when the secret sauce doesn’t work as advertised, people are made to feel that they’ve failed. Told to “just try harder” and being given a false sense of hope, they eventually find out that everything they‘ve read isn’t true. Some issues are more resistant to change than others, and positive thinking doesn’t always work.
People who think that putting a positive spin on things is always going to be the solution are only fooling themselves and others. Life asks us all to stand strong in unwelcome moments of sorrow, emptiness, lost-ness, unknowingness, uncertainty, and fear when we must summon the strength, courage and faith to go on. There are times when forcing ourselves to think positively is no match for letting go with a good old-fashioned “Aw, shit!” By being real with ourselves and others and confronting life’s challenges and adversities head-on, we experience a natural, organic positivity that comes from deep within and lights our way.