The limits of positive thinking

I was discussing the book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America in the comments and thought it deserved a full exploration in itself.

If you’re naturally prone to pessimism and depression like I am, the concept of positive thinking has some merit. I’ve learned that I can stop low moods from blowing up into days-long depressions by stopping my train of thought before it derails. It’s a concept I’ve written about a bit that I call “catastrophizing,” taking one bad thought or worry and running away with it.

I can often choose to stop that process and avoid a lot of the depressions and anxiety attacks I used to experience. In that sense, the reminder that we can control our thoughts has some validity. Certainly, if you also focus on having gratitude for the good things in your life, you can train your brain to notice more of them.

But there’s also the concept of “toxic positivity,” which Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in the above book about her experience with breast cancer. This toxic positivity is also super big among a lot of evangelical types like Joel Osteen, who preaches that you’ll be blessed with wealth as long as you give generously to church. This prosperity gospel has no basis in either the Gospel of Jesus or the laws of reality.

There are a lot of people who say “good vibes only” or people who are big into the Law of Attraction (another type of woo) who discourage negative thoughts. But the effect of those kinds of statements makes you feel like your thoughts are illegitimate, which encourages repression and isn’t healthy.

Mental illness is one thing and there’s only a certain amount of control you can have over those processes.

Then there are things like your spouse having cancer, which just isn’t the kind of situation you can positive-vibe your way out of.

The Law of Attraction suggests that you have control over everything that happens to you. While it’s true that your thoughts are powerful, they’re not that powerful. The Law of Attraction says that all deaths are a form of suicide, for example, which is just ludicrous.

Louise Hay, one of the main promoters of the Law of Attraction as it relates to health, believed that cancer was caused by “deep hurt, longstanding resentments, carrying hatreds, deep secrets eating away at the self.” Ultimately, this is no different than saying that cancer can be cured by apricot kernels or a macrobiotic diet. It’s victim-blaming, saying that the randomness of cancer is one’s own fault.

I had a discussion with my husband last night about religious perspectives about death. As a Catholic, he believes that you can offer up your sufferings to unite with Jesus’ on the cross. Your suffering can be redemptive for others as well. Those were some of the aspects of Catholicism that I always found hardest to understand: both the concept of substitutionary atonement at all and how you could “offer up” your own suffering to lessen that of others. Suffering isn’t a transaction.

My beliefs have always leaned more toward the Buddhist. I tend to believe that life is truly random, suffering is an inevitable part of life, and that when we die, we are ultimately at peace. I believe we are made of energy and that when we die, that energy returns to the universe.

But yet when I lost my favorite cat at a tragically young age due to illness, I was absolutely devastated. I didn’t know how to place it into perspective so my grieving process was messy. Having had no experience in how to handle death in a healthy way, I just let myself feel all those horribly painful emotions, which I think was the most natural thing for me to do.

I had him cremated and made what my oldest called a shrine, with the cat’s urn of ashes and a shadow box with his picture and paw print and lock of fur. I placed it where I could see it from my office, where I spend the most time.

Then one day some months later, I felt comfortable moving his urn and the shadow box into a less prominent place in my office. I realized I had processed enough of the grief that I could think about my beloved cat without crying. I no longer feel as much like I was robbed of time with him, but grateful to have had the joy he brought to me for so long.

And I realized that’s the answer to how to deal with death according to my own spiritual beliefs. You can’t run away from the pain, even though it’s intense and it feels at times like it will overwhelm you. You have to cry and let yourself feel sad until the day when it hurts a little less. You’ll come through it on the other side changed.

We’re mired in this culture of “good vibes only” and #blessed and we collectively run away from any unpleasant emotions. Even little kids are taught to stop crying when they get hurt, told that whatever happened to them wasn’t that bad. It’s like we’re so uncomfortable even seeing unpleasant emotions in others that we teach kids that it’s not okay to feel them, either. Our culture teaches that we should run away from pain, that it’s undignified to show it.

That’s yet another way in which I differed from my own parents in how I brought up my kids. Whereas my dad would scowl and make some negative comment about my little nephew crying when he got hurt in T-ball, I always tried to validate what my kids were feeling. I didn’t bribe them with a treat to make them feel better, nor did I overdo a dramatic reaction. I tried to react to them getting hurt as a part of life that was okay to cry over, but that they could get through it, too.

I realized that I had been trying to squash my feelings about my husband’s cancer so that I could be more positive for him. I do believe that a positive mindset does help in recovery and I don’t want to be a source of negativity. But suppressing my scary feelings when they come up only makes them seem bigger and scarier.

We should let ourselves feel what we feel. Yes, we can sometimes stop ourselves from overdramatizing our bad feelings and avoid further unnecessary suffering. But repressing bad feelings and trying to convince ourselves that everything feels great when it doesn’t is really just lying to ourselves.

It extends beyond the individual, too. Not only are we collectively encouraged to deny the bad things going on in our own lives, we also look away from the suffering of others, like the atrocities at the border. There’s no amount of positive thinking that will get children out of cages, no amount of Law of Attraction that says they had control over being there. Our entire American culture is based on looking away from that which makes us uncomfortable. That’s why a lot of your friends go quiet when you’re grieving.

Sometimes life is just random and sometimes it really doesn’t feel good. Toxic positivity is just another form of telling people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, without seeing if they even have bootstraps. The more we try to “look on the bright side” of things, the more we invalidate real suffering–both our own and others’.




The magical thinking associated with illness

The hardest thing about having multiple sclerosis and my husband having colon cancer is sometimes not actually what we’re experiencing, but that everyone else has this magical thinking about serious illness. And of course, they want to share their magical thinking with you.

I found this article that offered a lot of insight into how the randomness associated with cancer makes people feel a loss of control. In response to that loss of control, they turn to things they can control, namely diet. So you get a lot of advice from people who insist that the way to beat cancer (or MS, for that matter) is through diet. Note that these usually aren’t people who actually have cancer themselves, they’re just afraid of it.

It’s true that some dietary changes are scientifically proven to be associated with better outcomes for colon cancer in particular, like regular consumption of tree nuts and lower insulin levels.

But overall, cancer is still ultimately random in who it affects, who recovers from it, and who dies from it. That’s absolutely terrifying to realize that you don’t have control over something that is affecting you so profoundly.

Multiple sclerosis is much the same. On the one hand, it can rarely kill you (but secondary infections due to treatment itself can), but on the other hand, it also has no cure. There’s some anecdotal evidence that diet can affect it but there’s no scientific agreement about it.

I’m admittedly bitter about dietary changes being presented as a cure-all because I place a lot of blame on that for my husband’s cancer going undetected for so long. Part of that delay was a combination of stereotypical male avoidance of doctors and expensive health insurance.

But the surgical oncologist who did his surgery said it looked like he had years of undiagnosed ulcerative colitis that turned into cancer. And during all those years when he was suffering, he just kept giving up more and more foods, buying into documentary woo about dietary cures. I blame myself for bringing a lot of that documentary woo into our house, since I wrote for the natural health industry for so long.

He largely gave up drinking milk in his teens and was a vegetarian for many years. He spent the past 10 years or so gluten-free. He pretty infrequently ate processed meat. By all accounts, although he did not have a perfect diet, it was free of most of the things the woo-sayers tell you to give up. And he still got cancer anyway.

The randomness of cancer is scary. In fact, that’s the aspect I still find scariest, since I’m a recovering control freak with anxiety that I’m learning to manage.

I was reading cancer forums in hopes of finding support but instead they freaked me out. I read about one person whose husband died of colon cancer (itself scary to read) who ended up also being diagnosed with it herself, which then made me worry about myself as well. Just because I have MS doesn’t mean I won’t get cancer, too.

But MS is also random. Will I be one of the people who loses some mobility but otherwise lives an okay life? Will I someday find some gainful employment I can do? Or will I be one of the ones who ends up in a nursing home in my fifties?

People are just as bad about telling people with MS that diet is the cure as they are to people with cancer. Yet in one of the groups I follow for people with MS, a woman just yesterday said that she followed a vegan, sugar-free, gluten-free diet for years and her MS still got worse anyway.

The randomness of illness sucks. There’s no other way to put it. You can and should do things to try to be healthy. Healthy habits never hurt. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll prevent anything from getting worse. That’s how randomness works.

I’m really, really tired of woo peddlers saying that an alkaline diet or apricot seeds will cure cancer or a low-fat diet will cure MS (or alternately, a low-carb, high-fat diet…not like low-fat and high-fat are complete opposites or anything.)

The hardest part of being sick is how little control you have over it. But when people insist that you do have control over it if you just do the right things, that skirts the line awfully close to blaming people for being sick.