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The limitations of 'positive thinking'

February 15th, 2016 | by NUSU
The limitations of 'positive thinking'

Study after study has shown that thinking positively can have a genuine positive impact on your mental and physical health. Replacing self-limiting beliefs with optimistic ones can help you achieve more. Treating yourself like you deserve love, respect and happiness reinforces the internal idea that you do. If only we could all stop standing in the way of our own happiness. So what could be wrong with encouraging positive thinking, self-motivation and the like?

Well, nothing – if positivity is a viable option for you. If you really are the only thing in the way of your own happiness. If you really can achieve anything by setting your mind to it and trying. But what about if you belong to a social class for whom reality is getting by on the bare minimum and just about being able to carry on existing, and treating yourself is an idea so unrealistic it’s almost laughable? A race that gets paid consistently lower by employers – the ones that don’t systematically discriminate against you in the hiring process? What if your gender is constantly erased by societal norms, invalidating your experience? Positivity is all well and good when you’re privileged. When you’re not, the message that you can be your own solution – because you are your own problem – can feel like a slap in the face.

In an increasingly secularised society, pro-capitalist neoliberals are trying to turn vague and apolitical messages of self-care, self-love and positivity into a new opiate of the masses – only to far lesser avail, because their promise of “it gets better” is becoming more and more obviously an insulting lie. Everything will work out if you just believe – and are rich, white and cisgender. Being straight and male helps too. And people who aren’t quite so lucky are noticing.

While it may be true that sometimes the problem is the way we’re thinking, a lot of the time it just isn’t. In one of my Cognitive Behavioural Therapy groups, I was told that my problem – believing everyone was judging me on my appearance and deciding whether I was a worthwhile human on that basis – was imaginary. I explained to the (male, well-meaning) therapist that, with respect, I am a woman, so no it wasn’t. Similarly, my assertiveness group was full of well-off white people, for whom there was genuinely nothing standing in the way of their control over their lives except their confidence, or lack thereof. Whenever a person of colour came to a session and gave real examples of external causes barring them from happiness, the therapist was at a loss. This “be your own solution” model simply didn’t work for them, because they weren’t their own problem in the first place. Society was.

Thanks to various societal factors to do with accessibility as well as the sickening frequency of employment discrimination, most therapists are rich, white, straight, cisgender and able-bodied. This could partially explain (though not excuse) why their advice is so often individualistic, introspective, apolitical and often fundamentally unhelpful: it just doesn’t occur to them in their position of privilege that some of these ideas of not being worth anything, of deserving criticism and loathing, might come from outside. As a well-off, white, straight, cisgender and able-bodied woman, my own experience of this has been minimal, but even I have known psychiatrists who will tell me that what I’m feeling – often an internalised version of male gaze – all comes from in my head, and then will make small talk about various sexist laws or events in the news and exclaim “can you believe it?!”, to which I will always respond “well…yes”.

What is there left that we can do then, now that these messages of self-care, self-love and positivity are revealed to be counterproductive and offensive? The solution lies in activist self-care; self-care that takes a specifically political, intersectional stance, that recognises these problems come from without and the only way to face them is with recognition and solidarity. In a world that tries to reduce women to never acting and always being acted upon, all movement is revolution. In a world that tries to suppress POC (People of Colour) out of existence, there is rebellion in selfhood. And self-care isn’t self-indulgence, it’s self-preservation, and that’s an act of political welfare. The self-preservation version of self-care is helpful, laudable, and indeed essential, both to activist circles and to life under oppression. Many intersectional feminist groups (including Newcastle feminist society) put an emphasis on self-care for this reason. But we cannot let this idea be appropriated by neoliberal pro-capitalists, in a form so watered down it’s like some homeopathic placebo that doesn’t heal anyone in any real way from the sickness of oppression.

Nina Keen

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