Frustrations of “positive thinking”

A million books (and quotes, and viral photos, and little inspiring trinkets) can educate you on how to “think positively” to make the most out of any given situation.  You can take deep breaths, you can chew each mouthful 32 times, you can feel the current of the air against your skin, you can embrace the moment, you can repeat, silently or out loud, any number of positive mantras.  And yet there remains a glaringly obvious hole in the theory.

“Thinking positively” will not actually get you out of a bad situation.  Sure, if missing the bus makes you feel like the world has ended, some breathing techniques and mantras and thought tricks might provide a temporary fix.  It will not help you to understand why a seemingly mundane event has caused such a drastic reaction, nor will it mysteriously re-mould time so that the bus was never missed in the first time.  But a plaster is better than nothing, at least until you can get the splinter out.

Which leads me to the point.  “Thinking positively” cannot bring a bus back to the stop you are now waiting at.  Taking deep breaths will not prevent you from experiencing excruciating pain.  Chewing 32 times will not cure you of depression. Feeling the air’s current is pleasant, but it won’t change your relationships with other human beings.  Repeating any number of mantras, silently or out loud, will not change your dead-end, minimum-wage, soul-sucking, alienating job and offer you the life experiences of your wildest dreams.  Life does not work like that.

If we are talking mental health symptoms and situations, “positive thinking” may temporarily (and yes, helpfully) remove you for minutes or hours from the feelings and thoughts you are experiencing.  Unfortunately, no amount of “positive thinking” and cognitive magic tricks are going to provide a permanent solution, nor will they actually address the problem beneath the problems.  Furthermore, mid-crisis, you most probably don’t need the added stress of thinking that you can’t even think right!  If you already know that your thoughts are not rational, you can’t fight them with rational thought, because you have already second-guessed what your “positive” side is going to say before s/he has had the chance to chant it.  It doesn’t make sense to think about your thinking when it’s the thinking about thinking that you think is causing you grief.

If we are talking other life situations (relationships, for example) then this “positive thinking” stuff can also be outright dangerous.  Take a person in an abusive relationship.  The advice should not be “concentrate on the image of the sea”, but “get the hell out of there, as quickly and as safely as you possibly can.”  No amount of thinking will save you from what is, quite correctly, perceived as a terrible situation.  Can you think your way out of poverty?

The “positive thinking” club puts the emphasis on the person experiencing the distress, taking away the onus from the contributing factors.  If you have had horrible experiences, and are told to simply “avoid triggers” or “count to ten” or “think about why this affects you so much” then you may feel as though you are being blamed for your own problems, which you did not actually create, having not actually chosen for yourself the horrible things you experienced.  You should not be focusing only on “thinking positively” but on processing and understanding what happened and experiencing the range of related emotions, which may or may not include an element of putting a positive spin on the process, but which certainly does not hold you responsible for your own pain.  Yes, the power to heal may be yours.  But if you are not able to wield it, it is not your fault, nor a sign of weakness or faulty thinking, that you have not yet healed.

Positive thinking, minus the scare quotes, can be an incredibly powerful tool.  This is particularly true when evaluating a thought that is influenced, not only by your mind/ thinking habits/ perceptions, but by your environment.  It can be very positive to learn to accept your body in a culture that continually tells you (most especially if you are female) that your body is somehow not up to scratch.  It can be positive to remember that worth is not measured by productivity, and productivity not always measured in physical output, in a capitalist society.  It can even be positive, despite my earlier sarcasm, to learn to focus on the small and the quiet things, to remember that in any given moment, nothing is usually especially wrong.  But you need to balance this with honest evaluation of what your actual situation is, and how you can make actual, real-world, literal, not Snap-chattable, changes if you need to.



Recently, someone I know to be an otherwise compassionate and intelligent person made a comment that seemed to be minimising the seriousness of Bipolar II. The comment itself is not really important, and it’s possible that I read the tone wrong (although I did not mishear the content). The way it was made reminded me of a friend I once had who dismissed bipolar as a “casual illness.”  It wasn’t that the comment was made in an unkind way; it struck me as uninformed.  This surprised me, because it was not said by someone I would expect to be uninformed, and not said by someone I have known to be dismissive; yet the comment was both.

Essentially, the person suggested that Bipolar II is not a “serious” illness and doesn’t cause “severe vulnerability”, as compared with other illnesses which are much harder to “recover” from (my thoughts on “recovery” are available here and I believe, and have seen, that people can and do experience recovery from and within all sorts of illnesses, even those deemed most severe).  I hear this kind of thing a lot: “just” depression, “just” [insert any number of illnesses].  But in my experience, “just” depression, “just” Bipolar II, are things that can actually kill.  As in, quite literally, cause death.

What I wanted to say/ should have said/ didn’t say to this person, is that I don’t have the luxury of taking bipolar lightly. On more than one occasion, I have almost lost my life because of it.  On more than one occasion I have lost friends, jobs, opportunities, because of it.  I will probably be taking medication for the rest of my life.  I will always be sensitive to the changes in my mood, the way a sailor learns to be sensitive to the wind.  I cannot afford to take any period of wellness for granted, and  I can’t afford to be flippant about it.  If you can, then count yourself lucky, and educate yourself on the topic before you say something.  (The person, by the way, did acknowledge that there were things that s/he didn’t know about bipolar/ depression.  Which is absolutely fine, most people are not walking medical encyclopedias.  But if you don’t know something, it is probably better to do a superficial google browse before dismissing as casual the illness of a person you know has that illness, in front of that person).

I know where I’m fortunate, by the way.  I know that (especially at the moment, not being consumed by any particular mood) I am lucky, and I have zero interest in playing a game of comparisons.  I am also aware that some people are impacted much more severely by bipolar (I or II) than I am (currently).  My point isn’t that my particular mental state, at this particular time, is better or worse than that of anyone else.  My point is that it isn’t the name of the illness that should shape your perception of it.  “Personality disorder” or “bipolar” or “schizophrenia” or “PTSD” are all different conditions.  The severity of each varies from person to person- not necessarily from diagnosis to diagnosis.  No two people, with the same diagnosis, will be impacted in the same way by it.  People can and do have periods- even long periods- of stability within the trajectory of their illnesses of any kind.  Some illnesses have higher “recovery rates” than others, some have lower “relapse rates”, the likelihood of recurrence varies.  But you should never put the word “just” before anything.  It disrespects the experiences of the person with the problem.  It makes you look like you don’t really care.