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Five Reasons to Deplore Positive Thinking

July 1, 2013

self-help graphicThis post has its origins in a furious row I had with a good friend after an ayahuasca ceremony almost a year ago. Partly what incensed me in the row and further fueled its flames was my friend’s dogged insistence that I should think positively about the situation.

At the time I said: “I’m going to write a critique of positive thinking. It’s overrated”. It’s taken me a while to get there but here it is.

So, first, what is “positive thinking”?

Here is one definition I found:

It can be described as the practice of embracing the affirmative in our thoughts, our feelings, our actions, our reactions and our speech.

Positive thinking is a mental attitude that admits into the mind thoughts, words and images that are conductive to growth, expansion and success. It is a mental attitude that expects good and favorable results. It is strategy that can be used to make you feel good about yourself.

sayings on thinking-positive

Here are two further quotes from a positive thinking site:

“Get going. Move forward. Aim High. Plan a takeoff. Don’t just sit on the runway and hope someone will come along and push the airplane. It simply won’t happen. Change your attitude and gain some altitude. Believe me, you’ll love it up here.”  Donald Trump

“Manifesting is a lot like making a cake. The things needed are supplied by you, the mixing is done by your mind and the baking is done in the oven of the universe.”  Stephen Richards, Think Your way to Success: Let Your Dreams Run Free.

So how could anyone possibly object to this? Its almost as American as freedom, apple-pie and motherhood. Here are the five reasons:

1. Origins

Power-Of-Positive-Thinking-Norman-Vincent-Peale-Audio-CDIt’s significant to see where positive thinking came from before it was embraced by new age philosophies.

Positive thinking is generally credited as coming into the world as the brainchild of the minister and prolific author, Norman Vincent Peale.

His book, “The Power of Positive Thinking” was first published in 1952. It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 186 consecutive weeks, and according to the publisher, Simon and Schuster, the book has sold around 5 million copies.

Peale has impeccable right-wing credentials. The Wikipedia article about him says:

Peale was politically and personally close to President Richard Nixon’s family. In 1968 he officiated at the wedding of Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower.

President Ronald Reagan awarded Peale, for his contributions to the field of theology, the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the highest civilian honor in the United States) on March 26, 1984.

The Rev. Billy Graham said at the National Council of Churches on June 12, 1966 that “I don’t know of anyone who had done more for the kingdom of God than Norman and Ruth Peale or have meant any more in my life for the encouragement they have given me”.

In 1960 Peale, as spokesman for 150 Protestant clergymen, opposed the election of John F. Kennedy as president. “Faced with the election of a Catholic,” Peale declared, “our culture is at stake”.

That last statement does not seem very positive.

And just in case there is any further doubt of his connection with the ruling WASP elite, Peale was also a 33 degrees Scottish Rite Freemason.

2. Denial of the Shadow.

Nuclear-Bomb-Mushroom-CloudMy principal objection to positive thinking is that it has an overly simplistic and naive view of human psychology. Put succinctly, it denies the depth of the dark side of human nature.

This was pointed out way back in 1955 in an article by psychiatrist R. C. Murphy, published in The Nation, titled “Think Right: Reverend Peale’s Panacea.”

This passage from his article is so good, and the language so eloquent, that I’m going to quote it at length.

“With saccharine terrorism, Mr. Peale refuses to allow his followers to hear, speak or see any evil. For him real human suffering does not exist; there is no such thing as murderous rage, suicidal despair, cruelty, lust, greed, mass poverty, or illiteracy. All these things he would dismiss as trivial mental processes which will evaporate if thoughts are simply turned into more cheerful channels. This attitude is so unpleasant it bears some search for its real meaning. It is clearly not a genuine denial of evil but rather a horror of it. A person turns his eyes away from human bestiality and the suffering it evokes only if he cannot stand to look at it. By doing so he affirms the evil to be absolute, he looks away only when he feels that nothing can be done about it … The belief in pure evil, an area of experience beyond the possibility of help or redemption, is automatically a summons to action: ‘evil’ means ‘that which must be attacked … ‘ Between races for instance, this belief leads to prejudice. In child-rearing it drives parents into trying to obliterate rather than trying to nurture one or another area of the child’s emerging personality … In international relationships it leads to war. As soon as a religious authority endorses our capacity for hatred, either by refusing to recognize unpleasantness in the style of Mr Peale or in the more classical style of setting up a nice comfortable Satan to hate, it lulls our struggles for growth to a standstill … Thus Mr Peale’s book is not only inadequate for our needs but even undertakes to drown out the fragile inner voice which is the spur to inner growth”

Positive thinking denies what Jung called the shadow and therefore the power of the unconscious. It becomes another way of asserting the centrality, colonizing power and control of the ego.

Moreover, by denying this aspect of our nature, and seeing it as ‘negativity’, the shadow goes further underground where it is likely to wreak more havoc. In a good article on the shadow from the Psychology Today website,  Dr. Stephen Diamond, who incidentally is described as (I wonder where you study for one of those?), says:

“The shadow is most destructive, insidious and dangerous when habitually repressed and projected, manifesting in myriad psychological disturbances ranging from neurosis to psychosis, irrational interpersonal hostility, and even cataclysmic international clashes. Such deleterious symptoms, attitudes and behavior stem from being possessed or driven by the dissociated yet undaunted shadow.” 

3. An Affront to the Soul

Here, as before in this blog, I am drawing on the profound psychological thinking of James Hillman.

To cut a long, brilliant argument from his book ‘Revisioning Psychology’ very, very short, Hillman says that our soul is displayed in our psychological symptoms, those bothersome aspects of ourselves that the ego would like to eliminate – because they threaten its assumed supremacy – and that our spirit would like to transcend. Yet it is in these symptoms that soul, depth and meaning can be found in our lives.

As Leonard Cohen sings: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Money-and-the-Law-of-Attraction-8-CD-Set-9781401918774Positive thinking, and its contemporary variants like ‘The Law of Attraction’, suggest we can have complete control over the reality we form.

On one of the at least fifteen (and still counting) Facebook pages based on the Law of Attraction, the preposterous proposal is made to: “Click on the “Manifestation Blueprint” tab to get our proven step-by-step blueprint for attracting anything you desire”.

Whilst my experiences with La Madre Ayahuasca have shown me that our thoughts and feelings do indeed powerfully shape our reality, it is entirely another step to suggest that we, that is predominantly our ego, can master this reality. Shit happens. Divine Grace exists outside of our control.

As the theologian John Krumm said of Norman Vincent Peale’s ideas:

“Very little is said about the sovereign mind and purpose of God; much is made of the things men can say to themselves and can do to bring about their ambitions and purposes……..The predominant use of impersonal symbols for God is a serious and dangerous invitation to regard man as the center of reality and the Divine Reality as an impersonal power, the use and purpose of which is determined by the man who takes hold of it and employs it as he thinks best”

35285_136007153099060_7907637_aApart from the intellectual poverty and arrogance of these ideas, they are an affront not just to my soul, but to the anima mundi or soul of the world – the two of which ultimately coincide.

 4. Political neutrality.

This perspective that we create our own reality (which we do) conveniently ignores that our reality is also shaped by political, economic, cultural and social forces – that is it is bigger then just me.

In a series of recent ceremonies with La Madre Ayahuasca, I was spending a lot of time in what I first assumed was my personal subconscious. I was rather distressed at what a trashy place this was – no important insights, let alone transcendental experiences.

Then in one ceremony, I saw that what I assumed was my personal subconscious was also a wider collective realm, not as interesting or deep as Jung’s collective unconscious, full of rich symbolism and mythology, but more like the film ‘Matrix’ where I was plugged into what I can best describe as social programming devices.

Viewing this as a purely personal world is a clever sleight of hand (by who?) which obscures the social nature of this world. I am still hesitating to go the next step which is to see this as part of the conspiratorial (reptiles? illuminati? aliens?) mind-control program.

5. Link to neo-liberal capitalism

capitalism-cokeRelated to the fourth reason above, positive thinking is the ideal ideological accompaniment to unfettered neo-liberal capitalism. I have already made this connection in relation to the kind of language we use in a previous post.

A philosophy that emphasizes extreme individual freedom to choose, acceptance of the social and political status quo and refusal to see how the world is socially and politically shaped, expansion and growth with no sense of limits,  distaste for and denial of genuine suffering,  dovetails very nicely with the global neo-liberal economic project.

I’ll leave almost the last word to Bill Clinton who said the following on hearing of Norman Vincent Peale’s death:

“The name of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale will forever be associated with the wondrously American values of optimism and service. Dr. Peale was an optimist who believed that, whatever the antagonisms and complexities of modern life brought us, anyone could prevail by approaching life with a simple sense of faith. And he served us by instilling that optimism in every Christian and every other person who came in contact with his writings or his hopeful soul.”

By contrast, in an article in the New Republic, July 11, 1955, the mental health expert and Harvard Scholar Donald Meyer said Peale was a con-man and a fraud. He tellingly makes the point that:

“In more classic literature, this sort of pretension to mastery has often been thought to indicate an alliance with a Lower rather than a Higher power.”

  1. Michael Guy permalink

    I agree that it is fatuous to imagine that positivity can exist in reality without its balancing and inter-penetrating negativity. La Madre Incidentally has showed me that graphically, however positive thinking means something different to me.

    There are people in my life whose nature or habit is to unnecessarily concentrate their focus on the possible negative outcome of every situation, such that they live in constant fear and defeat.
    Sadly these people frequently also have a carefully constructed plan for how their days should pan out, any deviation from which tends to result in anger, and more fear.

    The faith that one has the inherent ability to take life as it comes, and challenge a negative potential is what I regard as positive thinking.

    My interpretation of positive thinking does not preclude the existence of evil, only that it is neither inevitable nor immune to our choices in loving consciousness.

    While the shadow is paradoxically created by light, it is also dispelled by it.

    In one of my ceremonies, I was contemplating the very question of birth and creation and the inevitable demise and decay of all material and living things, represented in a kind of fractal animation.
    At a certain point, I was feeling somewhat weighed down by the destructive aspect of the cycle when all of a sudden, without any ‘warning’ Bugs Bunny jumped into view with his carrot, protruding teeth, and irreverent shout of “What’s up Doc?”
    Of course I had no choice but to burst out laughing! I loved that piece of education.

    • CosmicDrBii permalink

      Thanks Mike for your thoughtful, considered response. I did not mean to dismiss positive thinking out of hand. Clearly there are times when having what may be called a positive attitude helps. I was wanting to get at it as an ideology which I think it has become and critique the superficiality of most of the writing about it.

  2. Peggy Langdon permalink

    Thank you Michael Guy. You said what I was thinking much more eloquently than I could. There is evil and negativity in my world and I can be part of it or challenge and change that which I am able. As to Bugs Bunny I had a psychiatrist tell me one time years ago that Bugs, Donald, the Road Runner were the cause of my problems as they were so violent. Hog Wash!! Love laughing at my own seriousness….

  3. Kev Borman permalink

    Notwithstanding the previous valid comments, I thought your piece was superbly researched and convincingly written Paul. Thankyou.

  4. Chris K permalink

    Thanks for writing this Paul. I agree with what you say. Personally, I see most ‘positve thinking’ as a form of denial. And in regard to personal growth is just as bad as negative thinking.

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