On the use of positive thinking to demean and belittle

First off: sorry I’ve been so absent, despite all my promises to be posting every day. Life and stuff, I’m going to try to start posting more regularly soon.

Second off: Context. This is something I just posted on Facebook, but it got a little long so I thought it could have a home here, too. I posted along with The Negative Side of Positive Thinking over at FWD/Forward: Feminists With Disabilities for a Way Forward after having yet again ran across an article insisting that “you’re the only reason you’re miserable/can’t get anywhere/do anything with your life.”

I would share with you my initial comment on this article where it showed up in my Facebook feed, saying something along the lines of, “I’m only on the first sentence and already this is disregarding the very real fear and discrimination some people face which inhibits them from fully living the life they want to live, especially given our current political and social environment?” I honestly can’t attempt to recreate the person who shared the article’s response without being hella flippant, so I’ll leave it at this: it seemed to boil down to positivity is how she gets through her day-to-day and it helps her in raising her family. Which is lovely and all, but kind of doesn’t change anything about the way the world actually works and the kinds of struggles other people are facing day in and day out. I highlighted this in my response by citing such things as mental illness, physical disability, minority status, etc. as all being factors that might make the daily grind a little harder for other people.

Obviously, it didn’t go well, as the comment and subsequent thread have been surreptitiously deleted (how dare you have a dissenting opinion in this thread, and how dare you get a mite bit snarky about it!). Which is why I unleashed on my own wall with this ranty-rant about the ways in which “positive thinking” can be problematic and harmful, and a suggestion for how to use positive thinking instead:

“I made a rambling, ranting post about this very subject almost a year ago, but I would like to do so again: this whole “power of positive thinking” thing can be incredibly harmful. If thinking positively helps you as an individual to motivate yourself and feel better about your life, fucking awesome, keep at it you rock star. If you are one of the few people who actually derive and act upon motivation brought by positive thinking, more power to you (studies show that positive thinking can actually hinder a person’s progress, but this of course isn’t universal). The problem comes when you start assuming that the power of positive thinking which works so well for you should necessarily be a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone regardless of what struggles they might be facing. Then your “power of positive thinking” becomes demeaning, belittling, and alienating. It turns into, “If you’re having a hard time it’s your own damn fault.” It turns into shitting on people who have less or have harder than you simply because they have less or they have harder and obviously it’s their own damn fault.

I get so confused why so many people who subscribe to “the power of positive thinking” type philosophies seem to prefer to spit in the faces of people who live with mental illnesses, physical disabilities or chronic illness, trauma, or oppression rather than lending a helping hand. If you’re so fucking positive, wouldn’t you rather make a positive change in the world than to condescend to someone who is just trying to survive their day to day? Wouldn’t you rather help than kick someone while they’re down?

The reason this is so important to me and really gets under my skin is because most of the people I care very deeply about struggle with something, be it a mental illness, trauma that still effects them, physical illness or disability or disease, or oppression. And in this particular social and political climate, when I myself have experienced fear as a woman and a religious minority but more importantly when I have and continue to witness people that I love experience even greater fear as members of the LGBTQ+ community or as people of color, it seems more important than ever to not just bury our heads in the sand of “positive thinking” but to take action. To support each other and fight for each other, not to sneer at those who are more marginalized than us just because we don’t have first hand experience of the oppression they face and therefore assume they should be able to “get over it.”

I suffer from depression. A lot of people I care about suffer from one of or some combination of the following: bi polar disorder, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, PTSD, depression. Telling us that we “just have a bad attitude” is so fucking dismissive and belittling, and it reveals a deep misunderstanding of what mental illness is. I am a rape survivor, and in the past I have worked with people who are survivors of rape, domestic abuse, and more. In my current position I work with children who are in the process of learning how to be survivors because they were born into poverty with which comes a much higher risk for physical and sexual abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, hunger, and neglect. If you tell us we “just need to count our blessings” you are wholesale disregarding the very real struggles we have or are facing, the very real battles we have fought and overcome or are fighting and overcoming every day. It’s indescribably disrespectful and shockingly lacking in very basic human empathy.

Again, if positive thinking helps you, good! I’m very glad that it works for you, and I hope that it keeps working for you for a long time to come. But please, for fuck’s sake, do not use it to demean, belittle, and dehumanize people who are having a harder go of it than you. Use it to empower yourself to support those people who are having a harder go, to give them the comfort and compassion they need to refuel and keep going. I can’t believe that I have to say this when talking about “positive thinking” but if you’re going to use it for anything, please, use it to actually do something positive for the people around you.”

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