The Poison of Positive Thinking


I wrote this morning about a number of friends dealing with major depression recently. One of them (I’ll call her Jane, and you can assume that some of the nonessential details are not as accurate as they could be) has been suicidal multiple times in the years that I’ve known her.

Not too many years after we met, I found out from mutual friends that they’d just bundled Jane up into their car and taken her to the nearest hospital with in-patient mental treatment. She had been talking about being better off dead, and they weren’t taking any chances.

This was the first time Jane was diagnosed with depression. Luckily, she responded to the care and to the medication she was given. Sadly, because our health system treats people like disposable ATMs, she couldn’t always afford her treatment.

That last part changed when Jane was diagnosed with cancer. Surgery was required. It was meant to be step one in a process of reconstruction and rehabilitation. However, this was when we all discovered that Jane, while talented in many respects, wasn’t great at healing. She’s been receiving medical assistance and disability for a while because of this. It sucks, but it at least has the upside of covering the help she needs for depression.

A number of Jane’s friends are into things like healing touch, healing energy, and positive visualizations. Jane herself has been active with medical patients since her surgery, both with an arts group that is organized around these kinds of ideas and in a separate project building art that these patients can participate in. She knows I have strong opinions about the very different philosophies behind these two activities, even though the end result of both is making patients feel less isolated through art.

We once had a conversation that went very much like this:

Jane: So, don’t be mad at me, but I’ve been doing healing visualizations with (other friends).

Me: Why would I be mad at you?

Jane: Well, I know you don’t believe in all that.

Me: Are you still doing what your doctors say you need to do?

Jane: Yes.

Me: Then I don’t see what there is to be mad about. If you feel better sharing that kind of attention with your friends, then feel better, by all means. Just don’t stop relying on modern medicine.

Jane: Oh.

Several months ago, after a few different kinds of intervention failed, Jane’s doctors decided there was not going to be the kind of healing required for reconstruction. It was time to end Jane’s intermediate state, which has been going on for years, and get her to the best post-cancer position possible. This meant more surgery, major surgery.

I mentioned that Jane isn’t very good at healing. This is still true. She contracted a major infection shortly after the surgery that landed her in recovery care for months. After she was allowed to go home, she still wasn’t showing the kinds of healing the doctors hoped to see. She underwent outpatient therapy.

Still, she was in pain. Still she had limited mobility and other limitations due to pain medications. Healing–and the consequences of not healing–were a constant drain on her resources.

Jane fell into another major depression. She was suicidal. During her treatment for the infection, Jane had had a reaction to one of the medications she’d received that had stopped her heart. She started telling people she wished it had been permanent.

Being wise, Jane checked herself in for in-patient treatment for her depression this time. She got things generally straightened out on her mental health. It was rough, and it wasn’t quick, continuing even after Jane was discharged. Still, she and her doctors worked to get her better.

Then Jane ended up in the hospital again just a few weeks later, this time with another opportunistic infection. She isn’t actively suicidal right now, but she’s still down. She’s still not always sure just being alive is worth all this work. But she’s still going.

For someone who has had all this trouble piled on top of her, Jane is doing amazingly. I don’t tell her this nearly often enough, but I’m proud of her. She’s directing her care. She’s getting help when she needs it. She’s making sure to fit in as much living as she can around her problems, and she hasn’t lost her dedication to helping others.

The same can’t be said for all of her “healing energy” friends. At least one of them has apparently gotten tired of throwing all that energy out (wherever it goes) without getting the expected return. In the middle of all this, in the midst of Jane’s pain and exhaustion and depression caused by treatment for cancer and a wonky brain, Jane’s friend decided it was time to tell Jane to shape up.

Jane, you see, was perfectly capable of healing and not being suicidal. She had enough healing energy to do it. She just wasn’t working hard enough or staying positive enough to get better. She’d better not be so selfish as to kill herself in a way that made other people clean up after her.

Yeah, that’s “positive visualization”.

I haven’t sent Jane any “healing energy” or “positive thoughts”. I’ve just visited her in recovery with non-hospital food and gotten her out of hospital and house to eat every now and again. And I’ve told her this “healing energy” is bullshit, that she gets to take all the time she needs to heal and all the space she needs to look after her mental health.

Jane has decided (another reason that I’m proud of her) that this “positive” friend of hers is “not safe” to be around right now. She’s right. These beliefs are only safe as long as they stay in their place, vague and misty. When you start to apply them to the real world…well, it isn’t that Jane’s friend is particularly monstrous (thoughtless and selfish–yes, but not monstrous).

That friend is just following this idea of “healing energy” to its logical conclusion. If this energy really can affect the physical body in the general case, and it isn’t doing anything in the specific case, then it must be being countered. What counters positive energy? Negative energy, of course.

Where might this negative energy be coming from? Wait. Did you hear that? The person who has been through months of pain and stalled recovery just said things that weren’t 100% positive. In fact, what they said about their pain and their exhaustion was downright negative.

We have found the problem! We know where to lay the blame!

Yeah.

Jane is working through this. She’s standing up for herself, just as she has while negotiating her care. It will take her a little while to purge the other toxic beliefs that prop up this idea of that people can affect her recovery by the most abstract of thoughts or moods. The hardest part will be understanding that Jane keeping a positive outlook doesn’t do anything that continuing to stay on top of the details of her care won’t do.

She’ll get where she needs to be for her own health. She’s got a good track record on that score.

The next time I have that conversation with someone though, it’s probably going to go a little differently.

Comments

  1. Millicent says

    Oh boy do I recognize all this. I had to shed my friends who just could not accept that I couldn’t cure my chronic illness by eating an all-organic diet (!) Turns out my energy is too damn negative, and that was interfering with the positive vibes. Yeeeeaaaaahhhh.

    I fee much better without those people around.

    I hope Jane feels better soon. :)

  2. says

    Thinking positive is important. Without it the patient will not fully cooperate and work with the treatment, they might reate a self-fullfiling prophecy.
    But that’s the important thing: it has to be within and about the treatment.
    Without treatment, just thinking positive is a recipe for disaster

  3. kagekiri says

    Yeah, I went through this several times recently.

    First, it was “why are you depressed? you’re so blessed! Just be grateful and then you won’t be depressed!”

    Then, when I told her I was atheist last week, I got “You don’t see God because you didn’t look hard enough/gave up too easily/didn’t read enough Bible/didn’t pray often enough/want to sin.” (yeah, she went through pretty much all of those, trying to see what I did wrong).

    Fricking victim-blaming woo and religion. It’s like privatizing the positive outcomes and socializing the negative ones.

  4. Robert says

    Wow. I am suddenly grateful for the absence of ‘positive’ people in my life. When someone’s first response to my mention of intrusive suicidal ideation is ‘you ARE going to see your doctor* about that, RIGHT?’ I feel truly supported.

    *I happen to have a doctor who I can, in fact, see about this, and who has been following my depression for years.

  5. A says

    Telling a person suffering from depression just to think more positively to improve the situation seems to make as much sense as telling a paraplegic to just walk to avoid requiring a wheelchair.

  6. Tigger_the_Wing says

    It is quite wicked, the way some people are so determined to cling to their beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence that those beliefs are false, that they’ll blame someone going through so much rather than adjust their own views.

    That’s what we get when ‘beliefs’ stop being about how the believer thinks the world works and instead become all about how they make the believer feel.

    I’m really, really glad that you are there for Jane and that you de-bunked the ‘healing energy’ bs before her ‘friend’ went postal. I feel so fortunate that, with several chronic conditions myself (my next surgery, on my heart, is just two weeks away) that house/country/continent moves have taken me away from all my old acquaintances of the woo-ish variety and I have enough sensible friends here that I can avoid being brought down by the sillier ones.

    And, of course, a big thank-you to all the sensible people like you, online and in meatspace, who educated me out of my own tendency to woo-ish thought. (Self-blame for ‘negative energy’ is a horrible thing).

  7. Nentuaby says

    Giliel,

    Frankly, no. In the area of mental health, Positive Thinking rhetoric can easily be actively harmful even when coupled with best-standard-of-care traditional medicine. The idea that one can simply will oneself out of depression is highly unlikely to actually end depression; what it IS very likely to do is create a vicious cycle of crippling guilt at one’s “failure” to do so.

  8. D. C. Sessions says

    Try reading the Book of Job as a treatise on psychology. His neighbors, in particular. Yeah, them. Our ancestors may have had a shaky handle on the mechanisms of the Universe, but they weren’t dummies — especially when it came to observing human behavior.

    Otherwise, as Robert@6 alludes: the most “positive thinking” possible is, “OK, what is the situation and what should I do to improve it?”

  9. stoferb says

    Thank you for this, and the article of Barbara Ehrenreich was excellent. I have a friend who has fallen a bit for this New Age mumbo jumbo. And it’s annoying to read on FB those “gems of wisdom” that she occasionally shares. Fortunately my friend isn’t too involved and she doesn’t have Cancer.

    But these “positive thinkers” have taken it one step further. They seriously believe that if you want to become say wealthy you should “feel grateful” in advance that the universe will make you wealthy, if you want to become healthy you must feel “grateful” in advance for the “healing” that will magically come once you have a positive outlook. Lying to yourself is the new miracle cure!

    The logical consequence isn’t hard to see: If you are honest with yourself you are punished with guilt for not being grateful enough. If you try and still fail you didn’t try hard enough. Poor people appearantly weren’t grateful enough to become rich and chronically ill people have themselves to blame for not trying hard enough. Now we even have an explanation for miscarrige: The embryo didn’t think positive in the womb!

    I soo despise the whole self-help industry and the New Age movement which has brought this lunacy to the mainstream!

  10. callistacat says

    She doesn’t need the extra stress of feeling like a failure or that she’s “doing it wrong” because she didn’t cure herself with the power of postive thinking. Glad she has a friend like you to support her.

  11. callistacat says

    @ stoferb “Now we even have an explanation for miscarrige: The embryo didn’t think positive in the womb!”

    Or the mother didn’t. I knew a woman who was into the Abraham-Hicks new age books and she actually blamed her miscarriage on herself for thinking negative thoughts.

  12. Sarah says

    People who blame people who are suffering by saying “you’re doing positive thinking wrong” are doing positive thinking wrong. To infer negativity from the presence of pain is to assert a false converse.

    I think the proper perspective is to recognize that positive thinking is nothing more than a useful mental hack with a limited domain of application – essentially, it’s a method for changing how we feel about the world. It is not a way to effect change in the world – except, possibly, in situations where our own attitudes really do have a significant effect on outcomes – in such cases, it is sometimes possible to use positive thinking to change our own attitude and thereby influence outcomes that are subject to attitude – generally these would be social situations where intangibles like trust and empathy are critically determinate.

    To generalize from a legitimate complaint about flawed logic and obnoxious victim blaming on the part of mistaken PT adherents into a universal indictment of PT is to kill a straw man and closes the door to many helpful benefits that may be obtained through intelligent practice of PT.

  13. says

    Sarah, I have no idea what concrete benefits you think accrue from “PT”. Chances are excellent, however, that whatever it is you’re talking about is either trivial or not supported by evidence. Feel free to clarify, though.

  14. Mattir says

    Stephanie – some sorts of positive thinking training are part of cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, but it’s basically a way of teaching people to (a) notice when they catastrophize, generalize, etc. without evidence, (b) to distract themselves from said negative patterns, and (c) to focus on things that make them feel better. That’s not woo.

    The “you can heal your cancer by thinking of unicorns” stuff, however, is destructive victim blaming bullshit.

  15. says

    Mattir, being relatively close to the literature on therapy, I recognize that those things are not woo. I don’t see them referred to as “positive thinking” in the literature, though, especially as the important part of CBT seems to be short-circuiting destructive thought patterns. Doing a search, I do see a bunch of wooish sites using CBT practices to prop up their own “positive thinking” ideas.

    So it’s possible it’s a naive construction based on a less-than-clinical understanding of CBT. It’s also possible it’s a “My woo isn’t as bad as all that” statement. I’m not sure which.

  16. Erista (aka Eris) says

    I have cyclothymia, depression, and some other undefined anxiety disorder. I also had and may still have (I don’t know) PTSD. I take all kinds of medication to try to counteract this; it isn’t successful to the degree that I want, but I’m not dead yet, so it’s probably doing something.

    My sister, whom I love, is a Woo master. She has, for years, wanted me to come off all my medications. She feels that they are “poison” and are making me sick, that I would get better if I just channeled my mind correctly and used St. John’s Wart (which is apparently NOT poison for reasons I do not understand). She is also under the impression that I’m doing this because I get some kind of payoff (in the form of attention, etc)

    This makes it very difficult to be around her. I can’t talk about my illness, and I can’t experience any symptoms of my illness without her going off about what I just described (although she’s never actually told me about the attention thing; that I get from third parties). It just makes me so tired. I wish people would stop peddling this crap; it only makes it harder for those of us who don’t have the luxury of pretending it works.

  17. barbrykost says

    I have had friends and relatives receiving treatment for terminal cancer that were told by their medical treatment providers that maintaining a positive, cheerful attitude was important in the treatment. It seemed to me that it was easier on th medical personnel to deal with a positive-thinking patient, but it did not stop the cancer or the dying.

  18. iknklast says

    I discovered during my own struggle with depression that it isn’t just positive energy sorts. Everybody tells you to just shape up. Just get over it. Just get better. Don’t have a pity party. Don’t feel sorry for yourself.

    No one tells other sick people to just get better (well, maybe people who are sending out positive energy…I stay away from those). They recognize that people can’t always will themselves well. But when someone has depression? Oh, they want to have it, of course. Yeah, right.

    My thoughts go out to your friend. I’ve been through the darkest of the dark, and I survived it. I hope she can, too.

  19. iknklast says

    Oh, and maybe you should have her read Brightsided by Barbara Ehrenreich. It’s a wonderful rant, and it might make her feel better about not feeling better. She has a right to be depressed.

  20. says

    Nentuaby

    Frankly, no. In the area of mental health, Positive Thinking rhetoric can easily be actively harmful even when coupled with best-standard-of-care traditional medicine. The idea that one can simply will oneself out of depression is highly unlikely to actually end depression; what it IS very likely to do is create a vicious cycle of crippling guilt at one’s “failure” to do so.

    I think there’s a misunderstanding
    I was not suggesting that you could do that, but I admit that my post was a bit cryptic.
    What I wanted to say was that you need a positive attitude towards your treatment, or else you’ll be working against it, even if only subconsciously.
    That’s true for all sorts of health problems, mental and physical.
    You cannot will your legs into walking again after a stroke, but under the right conditions you can work towards it with physiotherapy. But a patient who does not believe that this will help hir will work less hard than a patient who does, will therefore get worse results, will be proven right in their negative view.
    Mental health issues require a lot of compliance, too. Medication usually doesn’t work over night, there’s no magical switch that a therapist or psychiatrist can switch for your behavioural therapy, you have to work hard on it. And you won’t work that hard if you don’t think that it will have a positive effect.

  21. Sarah says

    In response to Stephanie Zvan’s comment:

    “Sarah, I have no idea what concrete benefits you think accrue from “PT”. Chances are excellent, however, that whatever it is you’re talking about is either trivial or not supported by evidence. Feel free to clarify, though.”

    Saray says:

    Mattir’s comment relating PT to CBT nicely illustrates most of what I would consider the most “concrete benefits of PT”. Are these benefits trivial or unsupported by evidence? To the extent that exerting conscious control over one’s own thoughts and feelings enables a person to achieve a happier mood and outlook, PT can be very beneficial, and for those who suffer from depression or anxiety, a breakthrough to genuine happiness is certainly not trivial. Evidence of efficacy? Sorry, I have none to offer other than “it works for me” which you are free to dismiss if you like.

    To be clear: the kind of PT I’m talking about might be the “weak hypothesis”, in contrast to a “strong hypothesis” that asserts that changing one’s thoughts and expectations will actually change events in ways that can’t be explained through conventional mechanics. I won’t rule out strong PT in principle, but I am not aware of any compelling arguments in support of it.

    But I do think a kind of medium PT of human communications and power dynamics is viable. Some NLP techniques might be a good example of ways that medium PT may be formalized for practical application to human relations, where medium PT would represent a set of abstract observations about human interactions, and NLP is specific a technology developed partially on observations from PT as well as other sources. As an abstract super-principle, medium PT stands on it’s own merits, independent of specific technologies like NLP. Here again, I would suggest that to the extent that effective practice of medium PT leads to better outcomes in human affairs, it could be very valuable in the context of a world now dangerously awash in hostility and division.

    Regardless whether you frame it as “woo” or CBT or something else, there is something valuable in PT that can be used to achieve great good, both personally and interpersonally, and it would nice if more people would familiarize themselves with the ideas and methods, and put them into service effectively.

    Lastly, please understand that I deplore using PT to tell someone who is suffering that their own attitude is a primary driver of the events that are hurting them (even in cases where that may actually be true, calling it out is almost never likely to be helpful). Nor would I ever suggest that anyone replace thoughtfully prescribed medication with positive thinking, nor forgo auto maintenance or anything else like that.

  22. says

    Frankly I’d love for the power of positive thinking to be that awesome. Just imagine seeing a doctor and being told to think of kittens twice daily before bedtime…

    The fluffy world the woo-peddlers believe in must be a wonderful place. It’s a shame nobody actually lives there.

  23. Brad says

    A says:

    Telling a person suffering from depression just to think more positively to improve the situation seems to make as much sense as telling a paraplegic to just walk to avoid requiring a wheelchair.

    Quoted for Truth!

  24. stoferb says

    I think very few would suggest that positive thinking is worthless. It has it’s uses and it’s certainly desirable. It does make you more attractive on the meat-market aswell as the job-market. It also reduces stress which is a major source for both mental and physical illness. So far so good.

    What our modern day self-proclaimed guru’s do with these observations though is to draw conclusions way out of proportion. Some of them have now instituted positive thinking as a miracle cure and a supreme virtue and negative thoughts as a crime and a threat to everything that is good. The consequences of this mental fascism are disastrous.

    First of all it rests on a false premise. That we have absolute control over our thoughts and feelings and are therefore morally responsible for every thought and feeling that pops up. Yes we have a fair degree of volitional control but it’s far from absolute. Afterall we evolved to respond to the ever changing enviroment we live in. Happy thoughts won’t make us flee from danger.

    Because most of us don’t have decades of mental training living secluded in a monestary where nothing can disturb our peace, we have this pesky little problem of thoughts and feelings popping up that are now making us “immoral”. Some of us have mental or physical disorders aswell adding more guilt to the pile. And the economy does not actually reward wishful thinking, it exploits it to the fullest, and the dupes now tell themselves they weren’t thinking positive enough. The end-reslut is loads of guilt and a complete lack of compassion because afterall poor, sick, fat and ugly people have only themselves to blame.

    Finally a point that I think has gone unnoticed. This criminalisation of negative thoughts is very much anti-reason. Critical thinking is itself in huge parts to look for errors and attack them. Lots of “negative thinking” right there. It requires acknowledgement of reality no matter how ugly it is. It often leads to uncertainty which can be uncomfortable. It is also often motivated by doubts. Where criticism, acknowledgement of evil (other than that evil of negativity ofcourse), uncertainty and doubt are crimes, reason goes out the window. This I think is why you can’t reason with these people.

  25. Feats of Cats says

    I think even among the non-woo population a lot of people just don’t know how to talk to depressed people. Many people are trying to treat sadness, not depression, and so they try to cheer you up.

    My boyfriend used to, when I was very depressed, try and suggest things I could do to avoid being depressed. Activities, things I like doing, whatever. And it would make me feel worse that I couldn’t do them. Eventually I told him:
    “When you suggest that I go for a walk or play the piano or garden to get out of my depression, it’s like telling someone with their jaw wired shut, ‘well I can see you’re having trouble eating, but why don’t you try eating steak? or tacos? you like cookies, you should try eating those.’ Please don’t try and suggest things. Don’t list all the reasons I shouldn’t be depressed. Just hold me and let me cry on you and tell me it’ll be better later and you love me.”

    Some people are assholes. Some people want to help but need to be told exactly what you need from them. As far as I’m concerned, positive thinking is for staying out of depression, not getting out of depression.

  26. Erista (aka Eris) says

    @Smhll

    Maybe if I attached foliage to my pill bottles, she’d like them better? Or if I wrapped my pills in organic spinach?

  27. ischemgeek says

    Reminds me of the members of my extended family who alternately advocate wacky diet plans, various gimicky bracelets, meditation, etc, and tell me that I’m just not eating right/being too negative/taking too much ‘allopathic medicine’ (ie, the stuff that keeps me breathing and my ribs not broken from the force of my asthmatic cough – I can cough when I’m in a flare)/etc. My favorite was when an aunt told me that I could will myself well and that if I was still sick than I must want to be sick on some level.

    That said, such a thought process is not unique to the positive thinking types: My first doctor when my asthma flared up had the same thought process. You’re not improving? You’re non-compliant or exaggerating for attention or looking to be sick! There’s no reason that you shouldn’t be responding!

    (maybe the fact that you were treating a moderate asthmatic having a severe flare like a well-controlled mild intermittent asthmatic might have something to do with it, Doc)

  28. says

    barbrykost:

    It seemed to me that it was easier on the medical personnel to deal with a positive-thinking patient…

    Bingo. And the “positive-thinking patient” might not make as many unseemly demands (such as for pain medication) on the poor, poor doctor, who after all signed up for this career while the patient did not sign up for cancer.

    I guess this is somewhat better than the old stigma against cancer that led it to be discussed in whispers and referred to only as “The Big C,” and of course to cancer sufferers being shunned.

    Giliell, I’d like to know how you can just will yourself to believe your treatment is going to work when the odds are strongly against it. It’s like willing yourself to believe in a deity when you know damn well there isn’t one.

    Sarah:

    Sorry, I have none to offer other than “it works for me” which you are free to dismiss if you like.

    And I do.

    I had to get onto SSRIs before certain obsessive, depression- and anxiety-related thoughts stopped for me. Until that happened, I bought into the woo/guilt trip that it was my fault for “letting myself” think those thoughts. /spit

  29. smrnda says

    One of the biggest bullshit ideas to come out of the whole ‘positive thinking’ nonsense is that about everything depends entirely on internal factors. Of course, this is totally unfalsifiable since no matter how hard you try ‘positive thinking,’ any negative outcome means you aren’t doing it right. The idea that whatever negative feelings you might have are actually caused by concrete, real, external factors is outright dismissed from the get-go.

    Progress of any type is impossible without people feeling open to express their negative feelings. That’s what enables us to progress in any way. Technology doesn’t improve unless people express dissatisfaction with existing technologies. Society doesn’t improve except when people can openly critique the way things are.

    Positive thinking is just an empty platitude that people give you because they’re too lazy to do anything.

  30. says

    Ms. Daisy

    Giliell, I’d like to know how you can just will yourself to believe your treatment is going to work when the odds are strongly against it. It’s like willing yourself to believe in a deity when you know damn well there isn’t one.

    Why would you bother with the treatment in the first place if you didn’t believe that there’s a chance it would?
    I wouldn’t use homeopathy, it wouldn’T even have a placebo effect on me.

  31. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    It’s like willing yourself to believe in a deity when you know damn well there isn’t one. – Ms. Daisy Cutter

    I wouldn’t use homeopathy, it wouldn’T even have a placebo effect on me. – Giliell

    I don’t have references to hand, but I’ve heard of:
    1) An atheist who, as an experiment, cultivated a feeling of reverence toward some everyday object, praying to it and so on – I don’t recall what it was. Xe found it quite difficult to stop revering it when xe wanted to.
    2) Studies showing that placebos work even if the doctor tells the patient there’s nothing in the pill but sugar, but “some people have found these help”.
    Both of which hint that what a person believes is not exhausted by what they (sincerely) say they believe: there’s an emotional component that may not correspond to the cognitive.

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