“When I feel down, I just whistle a happy tune, and I feel so much better. I don’t understand why Sara won’t just do that.”
This is something my grandmother actually said to my therapist and social worker at a family conference while I was at Riggs. This was after 16 years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse; after 4 suicide attempts; after 12 years of self-harm and eating disorders; after at least a dozen hospitalizations. But she and the rest of my family think that I choose to be sick.
The cult of positive thinking drives me insane. I know it works for some people, and that’s great. I am truly glad they’ve found something that works. But I don’t want them preaching to me any more than I want any other religious group to preach to me.
It’s something that really sets me off–I don’t like using the term “trigger,” but I can’t think of an apter word for it. I know people want to tell people what works for them, be it positive thinking or church or meds or therapy or whatever else. But my experience with “positive thinking” and my family of origin is that it was used to invalidate my pain and to blame me for my suffering. I was told over and over again that I was causing my own pain because there was a simple cure, positive thinking, that I was refusing.
The fact is that positive thinking just doesn’t work for some people. It’s not because we’re not trying hard enough or because we don’t want to get better. Our brains just aren’t wired to work that way. We can’t flip a switch and stop thinking our thoughts. It’s the emotional equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and humming real loud so you won’t hear someone tell you something you don’t want to hear.
I think my main problem with positive thinking preachers is that, intentionally or not, they’re engaging in minimization of pain and victim-blaming. “You can’t say those things or you’ll make it come true.” “Don’t think about yourself like that.” “You have so many good things in your life, and you should focus on those instead of the painful things.” These are not verbatim quotes, but I’ve heard these same basic statements more times than I can count. Look carefully at them. They’re all so black and white, right and wrong, should and shouldn’t. They tell you, in essence, that your thinking is wrong–that you are wrong. These statements are blaming you.
For me, that subtle blame and implication that I’m wrong for thinking the way I do is just gasoline on a forest fire. Believe me, I don’t need anyone else’s help criticizing myself–I’m excellent at that already. The preachers of positive thinking only make me feel worse, and I suspect that’s true for a lot more people than just me. Shouldn’t we instead be striving to accept all of ourselves, all of our thoughts, all of our feelings? And isn’t that truer to ourselves, to accept that we are enormously flawed but still okay? Should the point be to fill ourselves up with inflated positive thoughts that often have little resemblance to reality, or should the point be to find sanity and balance through all of our experience, positive or negative, without judging ourselves?
It’s not my fault. I’ve just never been able to whistle, no matter how hard I tried to learn. And that’s okay with me, at least most of the time.