Positive thinking tends to be the first step most people take to be happier. It seems like a simple tool, and its powers have been lauded by experts and motivational posters. Unfortunately, positive thinking can sometimes do more harm than good.
What is positive thinking?
The term “positive thinking”, like happiness, can describe a multitude of habits or behaviors. It can be used to describe a general attitude of gratitude, which is good, or a happy wish for the future, which is where things get a bit trickier.
The problem is the thinking.
Positive thinking is great, and when it’s combined with doing and being it can change your life. It can change the whole damn world.
But if all you do is think about how happy you want to be or how much things are going to change, that is not enough.
Last week I read A Stolen Life: A Memoir, by Jaycee Dugard. If that name doesn’t jump out at you, here’s her backstory: Jaycee was kidnapped when she was 11 years old and held captive in a backyard for 18 years. During that time she was sexually assaulted and impregnated twice by her kidnapper.
As you can imagine, the book was heartbreaking. It was also riveting and inspirational – and absolutely infuriating.
In the book, Jaycee included excerpts from the journals she kept during her captivity. Many of these entries contained positive affirmations and “dreams for the future.”
Some of the affirmations she wrote while living in her kidnapper’s backyard:
- Only I can make it happen.
- I have the strength to do everything I set my mind to.
- I am a strong and capable person.
- Anything and everything is possible with love.
- Our goals are attainable.
Her most notable and oft-repeated dream for the future:
- See Mom
Reading these affirmations made my blood boil. These were the words of a 25-year-old woman living in a tent in a man’s backyard. She is allowed to go out and shop regularly. She gets on the internet every single day in order to run her captor’s business.
All she had to do to achieve her dreams was get up and walk away.
Now, Jaycee was obviously a victim of physical abuse and major psychological trauma. She didn’t just get up and walk away because she had been told over and over again that it wasn’t safe to do so. She had been chained to walls and kept from other humans for years. I am in no way blaming her for not escaping her kidnappers or for not reaching out to her mom online when she had the chance.
I do, however, want to light those affirmations on fire.
Incidentally, Jaycee’s prisoner taught her about daily affirmations. He taught her that if she could think about being happy, she would be. Apparently, he wasn’t afraid that all that thinking would lead to any action.
And it didn’t. Jaycee was rescued when two cops finally thought it was strange that a convicted pedophile was hanging out with two little girls – the daughters he and Jaycee had together. When Jaycee was brought in for questioning, she insisted everything was fine and only told the police about her real identity and the kidnapping after her attacker had confessed.
Positive thinking will not free you from your prison.
Reading this book, I wondered how many of us affirmed our desire to escape, and maybe even visualized a better life for ourselves, all while refusing to get up and walk out of the backyard.
How often do we write dreams in our journals, but insist everything is fine when we are offered a way out?
How often do we tell ourselves that we can do anything, all while clinging to what we’ve been told by others about what is unsafe or unwise?
How often do we let positive thinking serve as our easy way out when it is only taking action that will save us?
If you’ve been making lists for years and nothing has changed, it’s not because you don’t want badly enough or believe as fervently as possible. It’s because you need to do something different.
Get up and walk out of the backyard.