Even in 1966, when The Beach Boys were extolling the virtues of good vibrations, the power of positive thought was nothing new.
“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happenin’”Beach Boys
Dale Carnegie wrote How To Win Friends and Influence People in 1936. It later became a course of personal improvement based on positive behaviors, hailed by business executives the world over. And it was Benjamin Franklin who wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac, “Tart Words make no Friends: spoonful of honey will catch more flies than gallon of vinegar.”
More recently The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne (2006), took the premise of the law of attraction and ran with it, selling the idea (by way of 30 million copies of the book) that the vibrational frequencies of our thoughts go forth into the universe and fetch back like vibrations—positive thoughts attract positive results.
It seems positivity also attracts nay-sayers. Lately my social media feeds are full of chatter decrying the scourge of toxic positivity and the harm it causes in the spiritual community. In my opinion, it’s fast becoming a one sided conversation driven by those who feel they are being pressured to mask behavior or personality traits seen as negative, in order to be accepted.
In polite society, there are certain conventions regarding behaviors generally thought to be offensive. Let’s face it, you probably don’t burp, fart, or pick your nose in public regardless of how pleasurable it may be for you, or because you do it at home all the time and shouldn’t have to change who you are to be accepted. You know good and well such behaviors will draw criticism and avoidance.
Where does your right to act or speak as you feel, come up against my right to not be offended—or even feel uncomfortable? How does your comfort level, trump mine? Frankly, if your attitude is bumming me out, what compels me to engage with you?
If I see one meme a day, I see twenty, declaring that the poster is not a phony or fake and if you can’t take them as they are it’s your problem not theirs. But it’s not my problem at all. I can walk or click away, and maybe you don’t care if I do. Great, we’re both getting what we want. If it’s my page or my group, I can ask you to get with the program or leave. That’s when you cry foul.
Own Your Own Crap
Everybody certainly has the right to act and speak as they feel. However, there is no protected right to impose your true self on those who choose not to participate in the exchange, in real life or on social media.
I’m married to a man who sees his world through a lens of negativity—he points out everything that he sees as wrong, somehow lacking, below standard, or otherwise irritating to him. Whether or not his constant negative commentary is justified (by chronic pain, life threatening illness, profound grief over the loss of his only son, and probably complicated PTSD) is irrelevant. He chooses to focus on these things, and by verbalizing it in an endless stream of complaining, he imposes it on me. It’s exhausting, sometimes maddening, sometimes unbearable. I’m constantly shielding and deflecting his behaviors. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about what the stress levels are doing to my own health.
I married him, for better or worse, in sickness and in health. More importantly I love him and have compassion for his struggles. I’m no saint, he tolerates a lot too—probably not the least of which is my incessant positivity. I’m not walking away. I choose to put up with his crap, which is one reason I won’t tolerate yours—I’m already fulfilling my quota, thank you.
We live in expanding rings of community, with self at the center, surrounded by family, then friends, work groups, social groups, and so forth. The further you move from the center, the more you have to moderate your behavior to get along in a crowd.
Being told that you are a buzz kill, a kill joy, a Debbie downer, a gloomy Gus, a drain, an energy vampire, a pessimist, or any other epithet denoting negativity is not toxic positivity. At the other end of the scale are the Chatty Cathy’s, the Pollyanna’s, those accused of being naive, sticking their head in the sand, being in denial, wearing rose colored glasses, too loud, too hyper, told to tone it down, take it down a notch . . . all for being too optimistic.
I have heard every one of those at times in my life. Does it sting? Oh my, yes. Could it be said with more tact, maybe compassion? Yes, certainly. Does it cause me to moderate how I act? With some people, in some places, yes. I’m pretty sure that’s a lesson in social awareness.
Accusations of toxic positivity as I most often see them, are a misnomer at best. It’s an umbrella term covering the new age, love and light, power of attraction schools of thought that abound in personal development, healing arts, and spiritual practice from witchcraft to evangelical Christianity. A few recognized thought leaders include Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, motivational speaker Tony Robbins, and Joel Osteen, minister of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.
I mention these three because all have drawn criticism from their detractors and contemporaries both. Williamson is being called a whacka-doodle, Robinson has been held up as a snake oil salesman of the worst kind, and Osteen is accused of bypassing the scripture of fire and brimstone to preach a false gospel of prosperity and positivity—despite heading up the fastest growing non-denominational Christian congregation in the United States.
I’m not here to debate the validity or value of these self appointed gurus’ offerings. I don’t necessarily subscribe to their pitches. For all the followers, there are as many haters. It boils down to a cup of tea—maybe it’s your cup of tea, or maybe it’s not. Offering you a sip is not the same as forcing it down your throat. If it feels that way, maybe you should reconsider hanging out with people who think it’s the nectar of the gods.
This is not to say that toxic positivity does not exist. At its core, toxic positivity is a problem of insensitivity and lack of compassion. Telling a clinically depressed person to cheer up, or suggesting they wouldn’t need medication if they just tried to be more positive is not only insensitive, it’s just plain ignorant. As is telling members of marginalized and minority communities, where systemic discrimination blocks upward mobility and success, that they need to stay positive and try harder.
Equally toxic is the implied (or direct) suggestion that if positive thought brings positive results negative thoughts attract negative results. Of course, that’s utter nonsense. As Rabbi Harold Kushner put fort in his best selling book, bad things happen to good people all the time. It’s nobody’s fault, it is not some divine punishment, it is not the action of a vengeful God or gods, or the powers that be.
- Fact #1: Good and bad things happen all the time.
- Fact #2: These things happen as a result of our decisions and actions.
- Fact #3 These things happen through indirect forces we have no control over.
- Fact#4 All three of the above facts can co-exist; no one is no more true than the other.
What About The Exceptions
Does positive thought have any efficacy at all, then? I choose to believe it does.
There’s this funny little quirk of our brain and how it processes information—it’s not so good at distinguishing between real and make-believe. For example, watch a scary movie and you’ll feel your pulse quickening and your heart racing. Your body systems are also being flooded with stress hormones preparing the body to flee or stand and fight. All of this happens even as you repeat to yourself, “it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.”
The same glitch has been used by competitive athletes for decades, under the headings of self fulfilled prophesy and mental conditioning. An olympic skater might go over their routine a thousand or more times in their mind, imagining each glide, spin, jump and landing, envisioning perfection in every detail, willing it to happen just that way.
Even the practice of making vision boards, providing a constant visual reminder of what you want to manifest, fools your mind into thinking it’s already a reality. Though you may not be consciously aware of it, you begin to make choices and act in ways that facilitate your goals. Or even more simply, the familiarity of the images compels you to have those things in real time. Whichever it is, I’ve manifested a good many material things in my life by first attracting them with thought.
Diversity in personality and behavior is one of the things that makes us all unique. Fly your freak flag, or your grump flag, or your love and light, positive attraction, unicorn pooping rainbows flag, and allow others to do the same. Maybe don’t join a camp if you don’t feel allegiance to its flag.