Recently, an old friend told me, “I’m not usually a fan of the self-help, positive stuff.” I laughed, but I knew exactly what he meant. Positive thinking self-help gurus are everywhere, like cockroaches. Sometimes they’re uplifting. Other times they do real harm. How is that possible?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of learned optimism, which helps you cultivate an openness to life. While it’s important to be a skeptic and to approach things with caution, it’s also important to believe that the world is a joyful place and worth taking risks for.
I’m reminded of a woman I met at a ski resort who was describing some of her colossal falls. I said, “Really? I haven’t fallen in years.”
That’s when this petite, feminine woman narrowed her eyes and said, “No falls, no balls.”
Wow. That was me. In one minute, she’d sniffed out my fear. While I didn’t have a desire to acquire the bit of anatomy she’d made reference to, I decided to take a few risks on the slope and challenge myself. I never forgot her. She convinced me that if she could fall and survive, so could I.
So where is this dark side of positive thinking?
One place you’ll find it is in the well-meaning phrases of people who aim to comfort the grieving. I’ve counseled people who have lost a child, a spouse, a parent, a sibling, or a beloved pet. Well meaning friends will tell them, “Everything happens for a reason.” Or, “She’s in a better place.” Or, “God loved him so much, he took him early to be an angel.” Or, “You’ll feel better.”
The urge to comfort someone who’s suffering is natural. We see a person in pain and we want it to stop quickly. But every one of those sayings I listed above have backfired. The mourner is not comforted. They feel angry, misunderstood, and more alone in their suffering than ever.
I believe there are 2 reasons people say those things. One is that they genuinely want to comfort the other person. But the other is that they want to comfort themselves.
Years ago, at a conference of psychotherapists, I heard a talk by the Nobel Peace prize winning, human rights activist and humanitarian, Elie Wiesel. This man had lost his entire family in Auschwitz when he was a boy. He said something I’ll never forget:
“I visit people who endure starvation, disease, war, and genocide. What do you say to someone who has suffered such terrible tragedies? Is there any possible sentence that could provide comfort? This is what I say: ‘I’m here with you and I’ll stay beside you, listening to you. You’re not alone.’ Then I let them talk or sit in silence. I am present for them.”
This advice is similar to the Jewish ritual of paying a Shiva call to the recently bereaved. You silently walk into the house of the mourners without greeting them and you sit down close to them and follow their lead. You let them speak first and you talk about what they want to talk about. You don’t try to distract them from mourning. Often, the best thing to say is nothing at all.
Another place you’ll find the dark side of positive thinking is when people are told they can motivate themselves out of depression, anxiety, cancer, and other physical illnesses or injuries. While an optimistic view of life is useful in these cases, it doesn’t guarantee that things will get better.
Even if the person is a devoted practitioner of affirmations and positive thinking strategies their cancer might still worsen, or they may fall into a deeper depression. The positive thinking crowd, while not meaning to, can make these people feel like failures. That’s when positive thinking becomes another way to blame the victim.
After my divorce, I desperately wanted to fall in love again. I took all the advice — enrolled in classes, hiked, biked, wandered through internet dating hell, met lots of men and had several boyfriends that didn’t work out. The worst thing people said to me was, “When you stop looking, that’s when you’ll meet someone.”
That last piece of wisdom made me want to scream. Eventually I realized that all the advice was making me crazier than I was when I started. I decided to make choices that made sense for me. I stopped looking and started living.
In case you want to know, when I stopped looking I DID NOT meet anyone. But it didn’t matter. I no longer blamed myself for not trying hard enough. I found happiness just the same.
When you’ve done everything you can to improve your situation and you’re still not where you want to be, it helps to realize that life is often random. Most things don’t happen for a reason. They just happen. Positive thinking may make you feel better, or make you feel worse, but it doesn’t change the outside world.
If you believe that positive thinking does change the world, and that philosophy makes you happy, then that’s a great philosophy for you. Just be aware that it can be poison to someone else.
However, optimism can change the way you see life. Although so much is random and beyond our control, in the end we have control over what we choose to think and do. And sometimes, that’s enough.