The Life You Save May Be Your Own

DID, knitting, sci-fi, and strong opinions

I Can’t Whistle April 2, 2012

“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.


9 Responses to “I Can’t Whistle”

  1. ligeandcrew Says:

    Yeah. That is true for a whole lot more people than just you.

    We once had a friend whose counselor told her to put her fingers in her ears, shut her eyes an go la-la-la when ever she was hearing something, from inside or out, that she didn’t like. Including anything her kids were saying – and the youngest one was seven.

    Freddie says it’s a form of magical thinking and a delusion of control. You can think/pray/will anything away if you only believe strongly enough. Suuuure you can. (Actually, that would be pretty nice if it was true! But it’s not true.)

    Forest says you’ll never see an animal do this in the wild. Freddie says the people who can make this ‘work’ are delusional and have enablers – and are crushed when reality breaks through.

    Me, I just get the creeps when people get too serious about this. I think you’re right spot on.

    But then come to think of it, I’ve never been able to whistle either.

    Whistling, huh ? Who knew. Maybe if I went out and bought a whistle…
    – Dodge.

    • weordmyndum Says:

      Wow, what the hell kind of therapist would tell someone to do that? Probably one who got his degree out of a box of Cracker Jacks or some shit like that.

      I guess people are entitled to their beliefs as long as they don’t try to push them on me or anybody else. I mean, people are entitled to believe in positive thinking or alien spiritual guides or the Bible or the Flying Spaghetti Monster (my personal fave). But I’m not gonna go shoving what I think down people’s throats, and if they try to shove theirs down my throat, I’ll just end up puking it back up all over their shoes. Metaphorically speaking.

      Maybe we should both buy whistles.

      • ligeandcrew Says:

        I’m liking this thing about buying whistles! Let’s get really loud ones. Then if somebody starts spouting nonsense, we can just blow their eardrums out. Say, you know, that probably would make me feel a little bit better. 🙂

      • weordmyndum Says:

        A good solid ridgehand to the ear is also good for busting out eardrums. I have a permanent hole in my left eardrum from that. Object lesson in why you shouldn’t spar with a guy twice your size who doesn’t pull his hits when point sparring with a girl. I mean, my ears were already fucked all to hell before that, but that didn’t help. 🙂

  2. I get this all the time, and it’s one reason I’m always feeling guilty. I know my life isn’t that bad and that it could be worse. That just makes me feel even more angry at myself for feeling depressed, like I have no reason to be depressed. My family approaches it by asking if there was some life incident that made me feel this way. Unlike you, I haven’t experienced physical or sexual abuse. I’m sorry to hear that you have. I do think I experienced emotional abuse, though, from my parents, but then I feel even worse when I blame them because they care. They aren’t bad people, and they did the best they could.

    I was usually told to just get over everything. You feel nervous around the other kids? Well, suck it up. You can get over it if you try hard enough. But I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried. Then I wondered if I was too weak or if I really wasn’t trying hard enough.

    My mom likes to push religion on me. I think it’s because she went through some depression and religion is what made her feel better. “With God, everything changes.” “You need God in your life.” (Those are paraphrases.) I believe in God, but not any religion. I won’t get off on that tangent. Well, that’s nice for my mom, but that doesn’t work for me. In high school, I went through a religious phase, and that didn’t help.

    Another reason I don’t engage in positive thinking is because I feel sort of like it’s self-delusion. I don’t want to view the world through rose-tinted glasses; I want to see it as it is. I know I’m too insecure to strike that happy balance at the moment, but I don’t think positive thinking is the answer. Also, like you said, I can’t just turn off my thoughts. They just pop up.

    • weordmyndum Says:

      Pretty much anyone could have it worse. It makes me crazy when people throw that around like it will suddenly make me snap out of depression. All those comments do is add guilt and shame to the depression, creating a feedback loop. Just because someone else’s pain is worse, that doesn’t mean mine doesn’t exist and doesn’t matter. Just because someone else has two broken legs and I just have one, that doesn’t mean my leg doesn’t hurt or doesn’t deserve to be treated.

      The thing about abusers is that they’re not entirely terrible people. Sometimes they’re not even mostly bad people. It’s all shades of grey. Just because your parents didn’t intend to hurt you doesn’t mean that they didn’t. Also, not being physically or sexually abused doesn’t mean your depression isn’t legitimate. Depression isn’t always logical and doesn’t always correspond to adverse life circumstances. Sometimes it does, but often there is no cause anyone can pinpoint.

      In my opinion, minimizing or invalidating someone’s distress, especially a child’s, is a form of emotional abuse. It happens so often that we think it’s normal and okay–but it’s not. I’m sorry you’ve dealt with that too.

      • You make good points. And I know most people are shades of gray. It would just be easier to blame them if they were worse people, lol. As a kid, I did feel like much of what I felt was invalidated. I was a serious, somber child as well, so I took it all to heart.

  3. Well said!

    It IS invalidating.
    It can evoke a whole lot of shame… and what for? natural emotion and experience? Something that is inevitable and uncontrollable. That is really dangerous.

    I got it all of the time too. I think that there are a lot of people who are confronted and uncomfortable with “negative” (for lack of better word) emotion. It has been my experience that it’s usually people who have trouble tolerating their own emotions, who then invalidate others emotions too. It’s too in their face when they’re trying to ignore that aspect of life. That’s their problem, not yours.

    Keep working on acceptance (though i know it’s hard with such people around you continuing to invalidate). It sounds like you know that denying and ignoring doesn’t equal quality life.

  4. Oh, positive thinking… *sigh*
    Positive thinking is equal to “wishful thinking”, and in all sciences that means hoping for something you most likely won’t get. Realism, on the other hand, isn’t too nice but it has a better chance of success. (But that’s just my opinion, of course…)
    My parents tell me “you brought your disease on yourself, because of the way you think.” They made the comparison with cancer: if you get cancer, you can’t help it, if you get a mental illness, apparently you have brought that on yourself.
    It’s paradoxical, because both are in fact “physical” diseases…

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