Monday, October 14, 2013

The Secret and the Law of Attraction are Bad for Your Mental Health – Here’s Why


In my twenties I had two undiagnosed mental illnesses – social anxiety and pure OCD. I lurched from one crisis to the next, underperforming at work, leaving jobs when they got too hard and moving into dodgy share houses. My judgement was poor and my thinking was immature. I was incapable of an intimate relationship. I knew I had some kind of ‘neurosis’, but if asked what it was I would have launched into a convoluted description of my hang-ups that would have left you open-mouthed with equal parts of boredom and bewilderment.

After reading Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life, I was convinced positive thinking was the answer. If I repeated enough affirmations I would be healthy, rich and nestled in a secure long-term relationship – all things that were singularly lacking in my life.

For three years I was a cadet journalist with the Hastings Sun. On the weekends I stayed with my parents in Melbourne, and on Sunday nights I would drive down to the Mornington Peninsula, to the brick veneer house I shared with a fellow cadet with anger management problems. She had thrown a coffee cup onto the floor in front of me once during an argument; as it crashed into pieces on the vinyl, I knew our friendship was over.

When I left my parents’ suburban home on Sunday nights my father would come out and wave goodbye to me as I drove off in my white Mazda 1500, which was chronically on the verge of collapse. Filled with numb desolation, I’d drive through sea squalls and lashing rain to the semi-wildness where no friend waited. How brave and foolhardy I was in those days, crossing the rural railway lines with a dodgy engine, a clutch that was about to fail.

Positive thinking kept me going on those Sunday night drives home. I remember the bloody-mindedness with which I set off in that lonely car, its interior a minimalist desert of brown vinyl and radio, which smelt of petrol. Every week as I commenced the journey I set my teeth and wheeled out my tray of positive thinking maxims. Carefully I recited all the things I was manifesting right now – a great job in a groovy workplace close to the city, supportive colleagues, a wonderful partner, a new car that never broke down, an interesting group of feminist friends. The list was Homeric in scope and grew longer every week. Reciting it probably got me along Springvale Road and as far as the entrance to the Mornington Peninsula Freeway. It no doubt included extended spells in exotic European locations, a year living in a great share house in Sydney, enough money to buy my own house in Fitzroy or Carlton, and an interesting left-wing cause to get my teeth into.

At the time I used positive thinking as a way of just carrying on. On the pathetic wage of a cadet journalist working for a rural newspaper, I was wretchedly poor. I had only a small number of friends in Melbourne, but I was too insecure to let go and explore life in Mornington. I felt unmoored and feared my youth was disappearing before my eyes, but I put my head down and stuck at the journalism, as there wasn’t really an alternative. But at least I had a job.

Fast forward to 1992, when there was a serious economic downturn in Australia. I was now working three days a week as information officer for a small community group. I’d fled from journalism the year before, when the panic attacks had started again; I figured that if I was too scared to talk to the CEO of the council I was covering at the time, I couldn’t do my job.

I was now in a more functional share house arrangement, living in a tiny house in inner city Richmond with a playwright who was doing a Masters in philosophy. Eventually her example would lead to the completion of my own Masters degree but in the meantime I was still in thrall to the promises of the New Age.

Then the community group that employed me lost their funding, and I lost my job. With no savings to back me up, I was forced to eke out an existence on unemployment benefit. I used to make vegetable patties from the okara – a waste product in the making of tofu – that I got free from the Tofu Shop up the road.

Positive thinking came in to fill the breach, but this time it wasn’t a willpower thing, but a flight into fantasy. Whenever I walked home from a train station or tram stop along the narrow footpaths of Richmond, past the rows of renovated workers cottages and Victorian terraces, I kept my eyes on the ground in case God or providence chose to put a two-dollar coin in my path among the trodden-over dead leaves and gold bottle tops. Small, thick and gold-coloured, two-dollar coins seemed to embody the fairytale idea of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. This myth is more fitting than I realised at the time, because you can never reach the rainbow – it appears to move further away when you walk towards it.

The memory of this time makes me sad. Could I really have set my sights so low? With so little understanding of the world and my place in it, this faith in the slim abundance of stray two-dollar coins seems disempowered, child-like, embarrassingly unambitious.

The lure of the positive

The positive thinking that I sought refuge in has been thoroughly denigrated by science, and many of the people who espouse it have been exposed as shysters or even criminals. Yet in the individualistic, materialistic climate of the digital age it’s as popular as ever. The astonishing success of The Secret, the 2006 bestseller by Rhonda Byrnes, was due to Byrnes’s brilliant repackaging of the Law of Attraction, the idea that your thoughts alone can bring you unlimited health, wealth and happiness – and their opposite, if you’re not careful.

In 2009, Forbes estimated that the book and accompanying film had made $300 million. According to Wikipedia the book has sold 19 million copies and been translated into 46 languages; the DVD has sold more than 2 million copies. The book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 146 consecutive weeks and was named by USA Today as one of the top 20 bestselling books of the past 15 years. The Secret is above all a triumph of marketing.

Not everything that positive thinking promotes is harmful. The realisation that your thoughts are not you, and that they are spitting out a constant static of negative commentary, is actually a valuable discovery. It’s the antidote that positive-thinking-based books like The Secret get wrong. There are plenty of thought-based treatments that don’t require you to make believe everything’s fine when it’s not, including mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. Below are just some of the reasons why The Secret, the Law of Attraction and positive thinking in general may be harmful to your mental health.

Repression of emotions

Books such as The Secret scare readers about the effects of negative thoughts. One of its many precursors, a bestseller in the 1990s, was actually titled You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought. The suggestion is that negative thoughts will attract illness, bad luck in work and relationships, and ultimately death. The Secret counsels: ‘Your life right now is a reflection of your past thoughts’ and ‘Your thoughts become things’. Louise Hay insists that ‘You are the power in your world! You get to have whatever you choose to think!’

This kind of advice is tantamount to emotional fascism. If you become scared of your negative thoughts, you’ll naturally try to repress them, and the emotions that go with them. Your psyche will start to rebel, and you’ll feel angry and unbalanced.

Carl Jung developed a concept of the shadow – everything that we consign to our unconscious mind because it’s inappropriate, not socially sanctioned or just childish. The shadow is the naughty self, which will not submit to culture or socialisation. It’s a very loose concept and it changes along with shifting cultural mores, but it can easily be applied to affirmations. If you recite positive affirmations all day long, your Jungian shadow will feel ignored and repressed and will try to get your attention!

If you have OCD or anxiety, you might develop an obsessive fear of negative thoughts and the consequences they could bring.

Narcissism

Books like The Secret tell people that their thoughts have a vibrational energy that the universe will respond to, magically delivering whatever they use their thoughts to envisage. This encourages a reversion to the childhood stage of narcissism, to the mentality of two-year-olds who believe they are omniscient and can have whatever they want.

While narcissism is a natural stage for children, it is a destructive worldview when carried through to adulthood. In fact, the very definition of maturity might be the understanding that we do not have ultimate control over anything except our own behaviour. The world may respond to a change in our attitude and behaviour, or it may not. We can’t control other people and we can’t control the ultimate consequences of what we think and do.

Learned helplessness

Back in the early nineties, as I wandered along the footpath in search of two dollar coins, I was wasting time I could have spent dreaming up ways to make money in a depressed economy. From this vantage point I am astounded by my lack of imagination. I see now that the abundant universe of the positive thinking books was actually a kind of parent figure and a substitute for the Christian god that I no longer believed in. My vivid imagination had gotten married to my learned helplessness, and together they made a formidable pair.

The need for challenge

In recent years neuroscientists have discovered that the brain actually thrives on challenges and novelty rather than pleasure alone. Our brains enjoy solving problems and achieving mastery of a skill. A world in which we could have whatever we wanted just by wishing for it would have been bad in an evolutionary sense; perhaps this is why the mythical Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden. Positive thinking doesn’t take these needs into account, instead preaching that the brain has to merely imagine something and it will appear.

Conclusion

All of the above doesn’t mean that motivation, optimism and idealism are bad things. Not at all. What could be called realistic or natural positive thinking has been around as long as cliches such as ‘Look on the bright side’. However, optimism should not be used to avoid rigorous planning. When embarking on a large project, you have more chance of success if you take into account the potential obstacles and work out how you will deal with them.

Nor should optimism be used as a way to avoid reality. There are times when sitting with unpleasant emotions and accepting unpleasant truths is the only sane response to a situation.

With all its mixed emotions, its difficulties and challenges, the real world is infinitely more compelling and worth exploring than a universe in which we manifest whatever our childish egos dream up.

If you’d like to read more on this theme, I’ve published a book on the subject, Why The Secret Is Wrong. You can sample the book here, or on Amazon UK here.







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16 comments:

  1. Hi Slightly Nutty,

    I found your post timely. I just finished reading a chapter on Mindfulness and Acceptance-based approaches in psychological practice for uni. Here's a link to the text, if you are interested: http://www.skills4life.com.au/students.

    All the best there!
    Kate

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  2. Thanks Kate - lots of good info - perhaps even some inspiration for future blog posts! Cheers

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  3. After thought: I wish I could locate the quote, but there was something I read recently about the larger empirical evidence surrounding the notion of "just" reducing the negative thinking (as opposed to increasing the positive thinking) in order to gain a sense of greater well-being in life ...

    Kate

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  4. Makes sense - reducing negative thoughts would put you more in touch with what was really happening, perhaps leaving room for more spontaneity - sounds better than endless affirmations : )

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  5. I don't understand why people keep portraying the Law of Attraction this way. It's not just thinking happily and ignoring life, yet a lot of people who watched The Secret seem to think that is all there is to it, hence why they end up disappointed and broke. Most people (including myself) who practice it know that this is not true at all. Learning to be more optimistic is no different than learning to stop biting your nails. It's a try, try, and try again method that has every benefit in the end. No offense, but I also suffer from depression and I will take the sunny side of life, which has been proven to improve mood, lower blood pressure, and increase the body's ability to heal itself over reality any day. In the months that I have been practicing meditation, mindfulness, and the LOA, I have been the happiest I have ever been in my life. As a matter of fact, everyone around me seems to notice a change in my attitude and life ethic. Sorry that you feel otherwise based on your evidence, but for me and thousands of others, it is working very well.

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  6. I agree with the above. And in addition, the most important thing is to change your limiting BELIEFS. Your beliefs influence your thoughts which influence the feelings you project into the universe. It begins with identifying what beliefs do not serve you and your ideal life and replacing them with empowering beliefs that do.

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  7. just want to send out a huge congratulations to those of you who have mental health issues and can still manage to use the "LOA" to your advantage. good for you. but don't shit on the rest of us who can't.

    when i started going along this path of changing my thoughts, challenging my beliefs, and so on, i got even more depressed. i fell into a bigger pit of anxiety than i was already in before. i didn't know it at the time but it kicked off a huge bout of OCD that had been relatively dormant until the point i started taking this stuff seriously. and hey! i too am hearing thousands of others who share the same sentiments as myself and slightly nutty.

    i think that's all the evidence i need to say it's extremely harmful to SOME people's mental health. entires like this make me feel a lot better and i think are extremely helpful to read, so thank you for this. it too made me realize i was reaching out into the oblivion as a replacement for a god i'm not sure i ever really believed in.

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    1. You hit the nail there! Neither those "positive thinking" scams nor the Christian God that is just as or more evil than "Satan", helped me in any way. I suffered severe depression and OCD, thanks in huge part to my dysfunctional and toxic family, ever since middle school, barely made it through high school and the first semester of college, all "positive thinking" got me to do was fake a smile, and develope a phobia of intrusive thoughts (aka "negative thoughts") or feelings of anger, which was extremely common, that's just what happens when you live with toxic people. I now realize how many fucking people must be feeding Rhonda Byrnes' wallet, same goes for most of these "positive thinking" con artists. They're just as bad as those church shmucks that preach the imaginary "love" of God.

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  8. Thing is, there is a need for clarity and elevated perspectives.
    Its true, if suffering anxiety or any form of emotional unrest the LOA will not work in any form.

    I agree with you slightly nutty, fixation on being non negative thus resorts to repressing and further emotional unrest - it becomes a cycle of which is actually very damaging.

    The you tube clips and books are all very arrogant concerning simplicity of universal connection - clarity cannot come from obsessional attempts nor positive affirming's on continuum. It goes side by side.

    Many self help introductions are all very over the top concerning what you need do, how, where, when.... Its too much and you fall into following principles that do not resonate with you individually.
    The LOA works with a complete faith in yourself and your own belief it will work.
    For one it may mean yoga disciplines are a must, for another it could be visualization techniques, there is not one way, only your way. so many individual ideals that will only work if you feel it is the right way.
    Affirmations need be personal not the commercial and over stated.
    I have managed to self manifest small hence my not coming here with an amazing story. Albeit amazing regardless of size
    I do believe in like attracts like in thought but, in a much more fair manner.
    I also believe we can be negative without immense negativity influxes.

    Nothing materialises just because we think it.... It takes effort, will and faith.
    Good and bad happen externally all the time and should never be blamed on the self for thinking an upset thought (it takes far more passion than that)
    The true manifestation takes time and much willpower.
    For those who fear negative thoughts, (take it from someone who was medicated eleven years for depression - 5 years free of the meds)
    Never ignore negative thoughts, tell them you understand them for what they are and you understand they are just the yin of the yin and yang - or you know one cannot exist without the other.

    Sounds a little odd but, to identify its merely a thought not a desire is a means to at least separating the anxiety if in this particular situation.

    Sorry such a long post and sorry for typos (am on phone)
    Peace and love to all
    They should teach this as opposed to simplistic think and have

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  10. I feel due to the law of attraction theory, it was my fault for getting sick with mental health issues at a very young age. It took me years to get better. I really got better with hypnosis that reprogramed my subconscious mind...so that is something to note....the subconscious mind and what that attracts?

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  12. The law of attraction has definitely helped me but I have not lost common sense. I cannot blindly do everything a book says so I use what works for me from various teachings. If you are in a state of deep clinical depression chances are you cannot practice the principles of the law. You need medical help first.

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  13. If you have OCD (especially pure O like myself) you'll find that the LoA will make your symptoms worse, because not only are you dealing with the distressing nature of the intrusive thoughts themselves, you are now also believing or nudged to believe that those thoughts are rooted in truth and reality, making your anxiety and fear worse to the point where all seems hopeless. In fact the LoA seems to suggest that all the problems/injustice/evil in the world stem from people with OCD, "thinking their crazy and scary thoughts", which as a conclusion is absolutely unjust.

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