The Unexpected Irony of the Positive Thinking Movement


Janet RichmondThe very thing you think would not happen with the Positive Thinking Movement is the very thing that has begun to crop up. Thinking positively has unwittingly created a backlash of sorts in that it sometimes has become a reason to judge others. Many of us have heard someone say “I can’t do it” (whatever the “it” is for that person) and then don’t we often jump in and say, “Don’t be negative. Don’t program your failure before you start” (or something along those lines). Often this comes from real caring as we don’t want that person to give up on themselves or to be discouraged. However, let’s think about those words.

First, “don’t be negative” immediately finds fault, implying that the person is doing something wrong. Secondly, the statement dismisses how the person really feels. The assumption is made that a negative feeling needs to be ignored/bypassed/instantly dismissed and instead, a solution to the problem is often suggested. And third, the advice offered is not something that could actually resolve the problem because often it is not a viable solution. If consciously deciding to do or not do something always worked, then we would never need to neutralize anything. Therefore, this kind of statement feels as unhelpful and hurtful as the statement (that we have all heard from time to time and most of us don’t like) of “just get over it.”

More extreme examples would be when we say things like, “She’s just so toxic I can’t be around her.” Or often there is a decision made along the lines of, “I just can’t deal with any more negative people in my life and from now on I’m just going to surround myself with positive people.”

The goal generally is then to get away from a person/s because they are “bad” for you in some way. Yet what I hear is a judgment that someone’s negative behavior, attitudes or words means that they are a bad person. This reminds me of something I learned when my first-born arrived. I was a single parent and as such read everything I could get my hands on as to how to parent. There was much to learn but one thing even now sticks out in my mind. It was the idea that when a child is misbehaving – whether having a temper tantrum, hitting the child next door or purposely wrecking havoc in some way – that we need to be clear with the child that it is the behavior that we don’t like and disapprove of and not the child. It is important for the child to know that we love him or her no matter what. Of course, all children will misbehave in some way. However, the problematic behavior does not define the child as a bad person. It only defines the action.

This is in essence what I’m trying to explain with the derogatory term “negative people”. As adults, the ‘misbehavior’ can become more extreme and more potentially hurtful including emotional, physical and psychological abuse. So it is easy to lose sight of the fact that it is their behavior we do not like. However, like with the child, the behavior does not define the totality of this person, though it sometimes is the knee-jerk reaction we have. When we call people “negative” please understand that this label dismisses the whole person in one blow.

I’m not saying that anyone should stay around people who hurt or abuse. But even though it’s important to take yourself out of the line of fire from behavior that is painful, it doesn’t mean that we need turn around and be hurtful and judgmental back. In fact, there is nothing positive about doing that because what we are doing here is finding fault and thus, we are being negative ourselves.

Also, we don’t like being judged by others either. It hurts and the judgments lack understanding, empathy, and respect. The underlying foundation as to why someone behaves the way they do is so complex that we have no way of knowing (because we can’t look into another person’s soul and mind) what that person is actually going through nor could they know the same about us. And in time, if we thought about it, wouldn’t we most likely not feel good ourselves for having placed those toxic and negative labels on someone else? In reality, these people are as wounded as we are, though they find their own way to cope with the pain, hurt, confusion or self-loathing. Thus, they lash out for their own reasons, like we all have lashed out many times in our own lives or have handled our pain in some other potentially though not intentionally hurtful ways.

My point is that it would be a shame to abuse the highly important concept that ‘thought is powerful energy’ by using thoughts/words as a weapon. In a very real way, judging others as negative also becomes a justification to cast ourselves in the role of the good person and the negative one in the role of a bad person. It’s divisive in nature. In a very real twist of irony, the whole trend to think positively ends up justifying our negative judgments of others!

Lastly, the pervasive attitude that negative thoughts/actions/behaviors are proof of a negative person even have us judging ourselves: “If I were just more positive maybe some good would come into my life.” And with this thought, we pour on more self-criticism and self-attack. The effect of finding fault and blame is the same except that we are now using it against ourselves.

Bottom line: let’s become more conscious and aware. Let’s use some understanding in the same way we have become understanding of the behavior of alcoholics, people with OCD or people who are depressed. Becoming conscious and aware is not the same as excusing the behavior and making it right. But it brings the whole person (including ourselves) into the Light of acceptance and understanding.

– By Janet Richmond,
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