The Curiously Oppressive Power of Positive Thinking
by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, Content Intern
Occasionally, I read articles and see memes that suggest that loving ourselves and our bodies involves believing in the power of “positive thinking” – a belief that dictates that if we just believe in ourselves enough and put out positive energy into the universe, good things will happen. Following is an example of this type of meme:
[The graphic shows a watercolor-style picture of a woman with her eyes closed and her hair swept up. The text reads: “Believe in what you want so much that it has no choice but to materialize.”]
I have to admit a certain attraction to these kinds of graphics. After all, the way in which we carry ourselves in the world sometimes can have an impact on how people respond to us. For example, most people in our culture will respond more positively to a person exuding confidence than a person who is mired in self-hatred. So there is something to be said for increasing the possibility of positive responses by putting confident, self-loving energy into the world.
But for me, these memes go too far, for a number of reasons.
First, there is a vast difference between increasing the possibility of good things happening and actually guaranteeing a positive outcome. Loving yourself enough to exude confidence is one thing; believing that you can make your dreams come true through an act of attitudinal will is something else entirely. The former is an attempt at playing the odds; the latter is an example of a belief in being able to control what is essentially beyond us. A belief in one’s dreams is an essential ingredient of being able to realize them. However, no dream is guaranteed to materialize, no matter how badly one wants it to.
Moreover, for disabled people – as for any group of marginalized people – these kinds of messages can become oppressive, because they feed into the idea that if only we tried hard enough, or had a good enough attitude, we could single-handedly make our lives better. For disabled people, this way of thinking can take the pernicious form of being blamed for the state of our own bodies, as though we somehow caused our disabilities with poor psychological habits and could somehow cure them with the proper way of thinking. It leads away from self-love into self-blame.
Disability studies scholar Susan Wendell calls this kind of thinking evidence of “the myth of control” – the belief that one has the power to completely control the life of the body (Wendell 1996, 94). Likewise, writer Susan Sontag notes that the mid-20th century saw the flourishing of the belief that a person’s emotional and psychological states were responsible for illness; people had cancer, the story went, because they were “inhibited” and “repressed” (Sontag 2001, 39), and prone to “emotional withdrawal… lack of self-confidence and confidence in the future”(Sontag 2001, 55). The result is that people encounter blame for becoming ill, on the premise that they have the wrong state of mind, rather than receiving support and love while going through a difficult time. This type of blame is just below the surface of the following “positive thinking” graphic:
[The graphic shows a beach at sunset, with colorful stones in the foreground and blue water going out toward a yellow sun and an orange and blue sky on the horizon. The text reads: “The Universe is not punishing you or blessing you. The Universe is responding to the vibrational attitude that you are emitting. – abraham hicks.”]
Despite the disclaimer that one is not being punished or blessed, the graphic makes each person entirely responsible for his or her fate. Put out positive energy, and the universe will respond in one way; put out negative energy, and the universe will respond in another. So if something bad happens, it’s your own doing. This graphic in particular, and the whole notion of “creating your own reality” in general, ignores the many levels of structural oppression that keep people from realizing their dreams, no matter how much good energy they stream in to the world, and ends up blaming people for their own victimization.
People with disabilities routinely run into barriers that make realizing the life they want impossible. These barriers are not of our making and cannot be overcome by means of a positive attitude. A person in a wheelchair who is homebound because he lives on the fifth floor of a building without an elevator cannot, though the power of positive thinking, get to the first floor and onto the subway to a job. A young woman routinely denied employment because of a facial disfigurement cannot, through a powerful rush of spiritual energy, stop people from limiting her opportunities. The 85% of people with autism who are unemployed cannot, by adjusting their attitudes and hoping for better, make remunerative employment appear.
I know that some will answer these assertions by pointing out that individual disabled people have, in fact, overcome structural barriers. The implication is that if one disabled person can do it, then all disabled people should be able to do it. But that sort of thinking ignores the fact that exceptions to the rule are, in fact, exceptions because larger structural inequities make overcoming these barriers uncommon. The notion that, by force of will, we can always overcome structural barriers reinforces the pervasive American notion that individuals bear all of the responsibility for the outcome of their lives, and that society as a whole bears no responsibility at all. But disabled people, for all of their effort, still live with dizzying levels of unemployment, poverty, hate crime, and discrimination. No amount of positive thinking will keep someone from refusing you a job or committing a hate crime against you if they’re bound and determined to do it.
Ultimately, the driving force behind the “power of positive thinking” meme is the word “power.” If you’re powerful enough, you can make anything happen. But what about those whose bodies are not powerful? What about those who are vulnerable? What about those who are tired, isolated, and struggling? What about those who are ill? What about those who lack proper support? How do they make their dreams manifest?
My answer is this: Given that all bodies are vulnerable and go through fluctuating states of ability, disability, energy, fatigue, wellness, and illness, we cannot rely simply on our own individual power. Rather, we must collectively help make one another’s dreams manifest. We must remove the barriers and the inequities that keep people from realizing their dreams.
It’s not enough for each of us to do it for ourselves. It’s up to all of us to do it for one another.
Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York, NY: Picador, 2001.
Wendell, Susan. The Rejected Body: Feminist Philosophical Reflections on Disability. New York, NY: Routledge, 1996.