The cult of the positive

October 21, 2009

I listened to New York Times writer Barbara Ehrenreich speak at Barnes and Noble last week – her new book Bright Sided has just been published and it’s a damming indictment of the cult of the positive that bedevils America. She spoke with wit and elegance about her diagnosis of breast cancer 8 years ago and the pressure to ‘be positive’ surrounded by a sea of pink ribbons and teddy bears. The first chapter of the book describes in detail her journey through ‘supportive’ fora online – each more insistent than the last that she ‘must’ be positive or else it would affect the progression of her disease.
It’s about time….I’m all for positive thinking in moderation but when positive thinking has, as its shadow side, the implication that fear, negativity and other difficulties and ills that befall us are in some way ‘our fault’ for not attracting positivity to ourselves then it’s time to question what’s really going on. ?
But Ehrenreich is also interested in corporate life – from an interview in Democracy Now
But it really began to take off in a very big way in about the ’80s and ’90s, because the corporate world got very interested in it, got interested in it during the age of downsizing, because it was a way to say to the person who was losing his or her job, just as you would say to the breast cancer patient, “This is in your mind. You know, you can overcome this. If you–if something bad has happened to you, that must mean you have a bad attitude. And now, if you want everything to be alright, just focus your thoughts in this new positive way, and you’ll be OK.”
I can’t tell you how many times I have read people who have lost their jobs in this recession in the newspaper saying, “But I’m trying so hard to be positive.” Well, maybe there’s no reason to be positive. Maybe you should be angry, you know? I mean, there is a place for that in the world.

It does make you wonder – what exactly is positivity a defense for? Splitting feelings into good/bad is a useful defense sometimes but it’s also a disappointing one. Maturity and a capacity to be in a healthy relationship (with ourselves as well as with others) depends on being able to manage the spectrum of emotions we experience. The more attached we are to one end of the spectrum the more interesting it is to wonder what we’re avoiding on the other.

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