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Barbara & Shannon Kelley

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Think Negatively!

Posted: 08/07/2012 2:29 pm

So, you know that special brand of squelched eye-roll/mini-smirk you trot out whenever you find yourself cornered by your Positive Thinking-evangelizing sister/friend/coworker? Turns out, raining on her parade might be the best thing you can do for her.

In a comical opinion piece in Sunday's New York Times that'll make the cynic in you chuckle, Oliver Burkeman lays out a solid argument for being an Eeyore. The impetus for his piece was last month's debacle involving 21 Tony Robbins devotees who wound up being treated for burns after "Unleashing the Power Within" (read: attempting to walk across hot coals).

(Quoth the fire captain: "We discourage people from walking over hot coals.")

Schadenfreude aside, Burkeman lays out a pretty solid argument for leaving the power alone and instead unleashing the grouch within.

He quotes social critic Barbara Ehrenreich and cites The Stoics and principles of Buddhist meditation when debunking the power of visualization:

Consider the technique of positive visualization, a staple not only of Robbins-style seminars but also of corporate team-building retreats and business best sellers. According to research by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues, visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it. She rendered her experimental participants dehydrated, then asked some of them to picture a refreshing glass of water. The water-visualizers experienced a marked decline in energy levels, compared with those participants who engaged in negative or neutral fantasies. Imagining their goal seemed to deprive the water-visualizers of their get-up-and-go, as if they'd already achieved their objective.

Interestingly, elsewhere in the paper (O, glorious Sunday on the couch!), in a (much-emailed) piece titled "Raising Successful Children," Madeline Levine, practicing clinician and author of Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, takes down not just helicopter parents and tiger moms, but "overparenting lite." It's a topic we've covered before, but Levine mentions an interesting study:
In a typical experiment, Dr. Dweck takes young children into a room and asks them to solve a simple puzzle. Most do so with little difficulty. But then Dr. Dweck tells some, but not all, of the kids how very bright and capable they are. As it turns out, the children who are not told they're smart are more motivated to tackle increasingly difficult puzzles. They also exhibit higher levels of confidence and show greater overall progress in puzzle-solving.

Interesting, huh? Taken together, the two certainly got me wondering. How much positivity is too much? Exactly how deeply rose should our glasses be colored? Where does healthy stop and delusional begin? And, maybe more to the point: Why does this kind of stuff feel, in some (albeit slightly uncomfortable) way, like a relief?

We write often about the importance of embracing failure, how it is not only surmountable, but a teacher. We also write often about the crushing pressure of great expectations and how they can turn out to be more paralyzing than empowering. (And how the message so many of us are fed, that you can do anything you want, is internalized with the pressurizing conclusion that it is better to be something really freaking good.) And so I wonder: how much better off would we all be were the pressure to be positive ratcheted down, even just a tad? And not just because the pressure would be off, but because failure, imperfection and moments of (gasp!) mediocrity are kind of a fact of life.

In her piece, Levine notes that becoming who we are (and being allowed the space to accomplish this deceptively simple task) is kind of the most important work at hand for a fledgling human being (or the people tasked with raising said human being). I'd agree. And accepting and getting to like that person is pretty important work, too. And accepting and liking ourselves is considerably easier if we're not expecting perfection, not least because people -- all people -- are inherently imperfect. (And through no fault of our not thinking positively enough.)

Here's a little more from Burkeman:

Buddhist meditation, too, is arguably all about learning to resist the urge to think positively -- to let emotions and sensations arise and pass, regardless of their content. It might even have helped those agonized firewalkers. Very brief training in meditation, according to a 2009 article in The Journal of Pain, brought significant reductions in pain -- not by ignoring unpleasant sensations, or refusing to feel them, but by turning nonjudgmentally toward them.

From this perspective, the relentless cheer of positive thinking begins to seem less like an expression of joy and more like a stressful effort to stamp out any trace of negativity. Mr. Robbins's trademark smile starts to resemble a rictus. A positive thinker can never relax, lest an awareness of sadness or failure creep in. And telling yourself that everything must work out is poor preparation for those times when they don't. You can try, if you insist, to follow the famous self-help advice to eliminate the word "failure" from your vocabulary -- but then you'll just have an inadequate vocabulary when failure strikes.

Everything's not always going to be great. And that's perfectly fine.


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