Earlier this year I was called out for being overly negative and critical in a personal piece I had written. And while I was initially a bit jarred by this reader’s blunt feedback, I let it sink in before I responded, and I began to see her words as an opportunity to examine my general outlook and the messages I try to convey with my writing. Although I sincerely believe that there are so many positive things about my life, positive thinking has never been something that’s come naturally to me. Maybe it’s my personality or my upbringing, or maybe it doesn’t even matter what I attribute it to, but my first instinct when I encounter something new or something that evokes anxiety in me is not to think positively or to try adopting a sunny outlook. Rather, it’s to formulate a sarcastic remark or to say something that’s either self-deprecating or dark as a way to lessen the unpleasant feelings that come up.
I try not to hide behind my sarcasm or self-deprecation or wear it like a badge of honor, but I feel that when those aspects of my personality and humor are kept somewhat in check and used mindfully, they can actually be “positive” personality traits that enhance the relationships I have with myself and with others. My use of dark, snarky humor has actually helped me cope with fear, uncertainty, self-doubt, and shyness. It’s helped me come out of my shell and build friendships and relationships with people I would have otherwise shied away from. It has also allowed me to approach scary, daunting situations with an outlook that’s far more “positive” and advantageous than just clinging to pure fear or anxiety, which were often my default emotions throughout childhood.
Through my yoga teacher trainings and my years as a psychology major, I found myself reading countless “spiritually-themed” pop-psychology texts that hail the power of positive thinking and of changing your thoughts or shifting your perspective. There is definitely some value and validity to many of the ideas embraced by this school of thought. If I find myself caught in a downward spiral of intensely negative thinking, I do find it effective to pause for a moment and take some space to focus on what could be positive or useful about the situation I’m in. If I find myself at odds with a co-worker, I will try my best to shift my thoughts toward his strengths and what I admire about him (after first saying something incredibly judgmental and sarcastic in my head, of course). If I’m dreading a social situation, a work-related event, or something else that usually incites dread or anxiety in me, I will often try to think about something I enjoy or appreciate about the people I’ll be interacting with or the work I’ll be doing. Most of all, I try to look for the humor in situations that seem daunting, frustrating, or depressing; and that’s usually enough to put me in an emotionally better place, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
We start to venture into dangerous territory when we blindly accept new-age philosophies on positivity and “deliberate creation,” which are outlined in books such as The Secret, You Can Heal Your Life and the works of Jerry and Esther Hicks. These sermons on creating a happier, more positive life with the power of your thoughts get further distilled and distorted when they’re quoted and referenced by certain yoga teachers, spiritual workers, and therapists. I won’t delve too deeply into the details of these texts, but the overarching theme seems to be that you can change anything or create any kind of circumstance you desire for yourself simply by directing deliberate, positive thoughts and attention to whatever it is you’re seeking. A corollary to this way of thinking is to not focus a single ounce of your attention on anything that could be perceived as negative or “fear based.” Quick anecdote: I was in charge of ordering retail items for a yoga studio I used to work for and was told by the owners that I couldn’t order a shirt that had the word “Fearless” printed on it because saying or acknowledging the word “fear” is not in line with deliberate creation. Yup.
The people I’ve encountered who take the power of positive thinking a little too far actually do both themselves and others a disservice in several ways. First, by completely ignoring the darker emotions and proceeding to naively pour shiny, positive thoughts on everything and everyone they encounter, they are neglecting to prepare for the worst. Because let’s face it, tragedy or disaster could strike at any moment and bad things do happen to good people, and good luck to you if you think your happy, sunny thoughts will be enough to see you through to the other side. Second, a deliberate creation approach to life seems to place undue blame and judgment on others for the circumstances they’re in. Who’s to say that a single mother struggling to make ends meet and provide for her children or someone who’s struggling with severe illness put herself in that situation by what she created with her thoughts and attention? Or, on the flip side, that your friend who just got a big promotion and raise at work got herself to that point by positive-thinking her way there? Sure, thinking positively can have an impact on your life’s circumstances and outcomes, but it’s part of a much larger, more complex puzzle that we’re not fully in control of.
The comment I received from the reader I mentioned earlier included a quote that reads “where your mind goes, it grows,” and she stated that if I kept focusing on negative, critical thoughts, I would only create more negativity for myself. I agreed with her to a certain extent. If I were to only focus on what I hated about my career or life circumstances and allowed myself to get stuck in this pattern of thinking, I’d have a pretty tough time gathering my inner resources to effect any kind of positive change. However, I think there is a tremendous amount of value in expressing things like anger, frustration, and distaste. Getting these emotions out into the open can often clear the way for major changes to happen, and I found that when I finally put them into writing, I was able to step away from a few things that were holding me back and hindering my happiness. If I had only focused on or written about things I love, not only would that feel forced and disingenuous, but those “negative,” “critical,” feelings would have eventually found their way to the surface, erupting in a messier, more explosive way.
So in an effort to live a happier, more balanced life, I’m learning to embrace my “dark side” without letting myself completely succumb to it. My sense of humor will always be a little snarky and self-deprecating, and it will always be there to see me though difficult, uncomfortable situations. I can simultaneously be grateful for the many things in my life that bring me joy and critical or even a little angry about things in my life that suck. The key is to neither suppress those negative feelings nor allow them to swallow you whole, but rather to use them as a catalyst for effecting change and growth. So instead of this ludicrous, new-age trend of forcing our thoughts to be 100% positive, let’s acknowledge our fear, frustration, and fury when these things arise and get them out into the open in a healthy way so we can make room to achieve some realistic, attainable goals for ourselves. Let your mind go where it goes; just redirect its path if you know it’s heading too far down a dead end or into the clouds.