The odds aren’t stacked against you, you’re just thinking wrong.

Heard that before? I have, unfortunately at a time when I was being paid to listen to it. Apparently the truth isn’t actually the truth, it’s my truth and may not actually be true at all. Okay, so my perceptions of what is going on around me affect what I think about things. Right. Okay I’m jiggy with that. But let’s not stop there lets apply that to our whole lives! So, didn’t get that job you wanted even though you thought you interviewed really well for it? There must have been something wrong with your attitude. Didn’t get that flat that you wanted? It’s not that the real estate agent took one look at you and crossed your name off the list because of how you looked, it’s that you went in there with a negative perception about getting a place in the current market. Any other obstacle in your life? Well obviously you just aren’t thinking in the right rosy glowing terms. The basis of this thinking model was that we are all self sabotaging ourselves by thinking negatively before we even start, and if we just think positively then we will get what we want.

At this point I pointedly asked him if this was the same as saying that you are sending your thoughts out to the Universe to get what you want and you only get bad things like cancer if you think bad thoughts? He huffed and puffed and said no, but I think if you take it to its logical extent that is exactly what it is. YMMV.

Later I also asked him about discrimination. He said that a lot of the places he worked in people thought that was the reason but in 95% of cases it wasn’t true. He had nothing to back up this assertion. I call bullshit on this. Of course there was the obligatory person there to say ‘but this has never happened to me!’ There wasn’t quite an audible hiss from many of the other women in the room but it was close.

Basically what I got out of this was it is your perceptions of what is happening that affects how you deal with things and that most of the time what you think is standing in your way is imaginary. So, you think that you didn’t get the job because the panel was all white men and you are a woman, or POC, or PWD, or a parent, or a single, or gay, or trans, or queer, or fat, or one of any number of reasons someome might discriminate against you? It’s all in your head! You must have gone in there with a negative attitude and killed off your chances before those old white men got the chance. Some young bloke getting promoted ahead of you? It’s just his positive attitude and nothing to do with an old boys network. Remember, 95% of workplaces didn’t discriminate at all in a statistic fresh from someone’s bottom.

I’m just not sure why we need anti-discrimination policies you know. Obviously it would just be easier to send everyone to positive thinking sessions and then blame them for failing or negative thinking when someone else with less skills and experience gets promoted past them. Or they suffer from workplace harrassment. They just aren’t taking it in the right spirit!

I’m not suggesting that positive thinking doesn’t have a role to play in our lives. I use positive thinking as a motivator quite a lot. But I also know when to recognise that no amount of positive thinking is going to get me what I want. Positive thinking is never going to make me a world class gymnast. Only a time machine and a completely different childhood and possibly different parents could accomplish that. But silliness aside we do need to accept that at times there are systems and ideologies in place that systematically discriminate against people and it isn’t something that the people being discriminated against can control. How someone being crap to you affects your mental health might be down to how positively you can think about it, but it doesn’t change the fact that someone is making the effort of being crap to you.

Authors note: I haven’t been passed over for a job or had an harrassment complaint ignored, so this is not sour grapes. This is just incredulity and horror that this type of crap is still being promoted and in fact this person’s entire business model was based on this. I would have thought there was enough crap around making white men feel good about themselves but apparently not.

Categories: Culture, culture wars, gender & feminism, Life, work and family


19 replies

  1. I love[1] the victim-blaming that’s inherent in this particular ideology. Basically, anything bad that happens to you is All Your Fault, because you weren’t thinking right, and if you just approach life with your mind set correctly, nothing bad will ever happen. And of course, if something bad does happen, well, you just weren’t thinking positively enough, obviously.
    If you pray hard enough, you can get water to run uphill. How hard is hard enough? Well, hard enough to get water to run uphill.
    Then again, people like this shonky salesman are the type who tell me that my depression is the result of my not thinking positively enough (thus getting the cart of cause firmly lined up in front of the horse of effect). Because clearly, two depressed parents, three out of four grandparents with depressive issues (one of whom actually wound up being institutionalised for their depression), a number of aunts and uncles with depression, a fair likelihood of a heritable component to the family’s depressive history, and a complete lack of day to day role models for non-depressed behaviour had nothing whatsoever to do with anything. Nope, all my own fault.
    Clearly if I just thought a bit more positively, and approached things with a positive attitude, I’d be able to get past the whole depression thing[2]. Right. I’ll just get straight onto that. Someone want to give me a lesson or two in how to do it? See, one of the fun things about depression is the wonderful way it brings all the dark clouds with it, and tends to cover over the silver linings very effectively. I also get all cranky and irritable – even angry, would you believe? Oh, but that’s another nice little dictum of these “think positive” people – getting angry about perceived injustice doesn’t actually accomplish anything; getting angry about perceived injustice is universally negative; getting angry about perceived injustice is unattractive.
    To which I say: people getting angry about perceived injustice brought about every single social reform from the end of absolute monarchy onwards.
    [1] Pronounced “loathe to the very depths of my being; despise with the passion of a thousand flaming suns; abhor completely and in utter totality”.
    [2] Actually, I tried thinking positively on a day where I was having a bad succession of suicidal thoughts. I wound up very positive I wanted to kill myself and put myself out of my misery.

  2. Urgh, I had a similar discussion with someone the other day, who said that if you’re homeless/on the dole/have depression/etc you’re obviously just not trying hard enough to get your life in order. Because you know, cycles of poverty and abuse etc totally don’t actually exist…
    (They just need to think more positively, right?)

  3. There is so much *magical* thinking that has accreted around the concept of *positive* thinking. There is strong evidentiary support for changing the way one thinks about oneself via cognitive behavioural therapy etc, because the sort of *destructive* thinking that one is worthless/unlovable/repulsive etc definitely does self-harm, and it is possible and very beneficial to lose the habit of negative self-talk and replace it with affirmations that one is OK and deserves to be happy, because then one can start to build one’s own happiness.
    However, none of that is magically going to make sure that one “wins” at a job interview (or getting a date). Severe insecurity will be palpable and offputting and might well cause an interviewer to shuffle to the next prospect more quickly, but simply being assertive and confident isn’t automatically going to make one the first pick either.
    Positive thinking techniques can and will make one a happier and more productive person who copes more effectively with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This is a good thing.
    Positive thinking techniques cannot make anyone a super-person who gets whatever one wants. People who think that it might really need to watch the episode from the IT Crowd where Douglas Reynholm had such “success” with the Space-star Ordering techniques of the Spaceologists.
    Nice critique of the Positivity Self Help trend from an Irish student newspaper.

  4. p.s. just thought that I need to clarify – positive thinking is not a cure for anything, it’s just a useful strategy for coping with some aspects of detrimental cognitive arrays. Depressives cannot cure our depression through Positivity, but CBT-style positive thinking strategies can make navigating depression less debilitating and offer pathways to nuggets of satisfaction/productivity/happiness amongst the troughs.

  5. Closely related, I think: if you just used the exact right words and tone to express a critique, people would listen instead of dismissing it. In both cases it’s ignoring the content of the situation and focussing on the interpretations.

  6. Or even, is positive/magical thinking another way for perfectionists and control freaks to get their jollies (if all the circumstances were perfect, this result would be perfect too)?
    @tigtog – I might be misinterpreting, but would another way of saying that be that CBT and positive thinking is more about reacting to things, rather than acting on things? It prevents you falling into the self-hate cycle when setbacks occur, but doesn’t change the world so there’s no setbacks – it gives you a flame-resistant shield, but doesn’t slay the dragon?

    • TAK, I’m far from an expert on CBT, I’m merely someone who’s found it useful for coping with some problems I have, and have seen the techniques help my autistic children. Your reaction vs action schema seems right – it gives you tools for responding (a) self-protectively and (b) productively to aggravating stimuli, but it can’t give you control over the stimuli arising.
      I like the flame-resistant shield metaphor, because a shield is something you need to learn to employ effectively, and until picking it up ready to deploy becomes first a habit and then a skill, then you’ll get spillover effects because you’re using it clumsily, but the longer you train with it the better you will get.

      • P.S. Just to go right back to the OP, the thing that CBT does not do is tell anybody that “the odds aren’t stacked against you, you’re just thinking wrong”. The strength of CBT lies in recognising that yes, some odds are absolutely stacked against you, here’s tools for coping with the majority of odds that you have no control over, and here’s different tools for changing the far fewer odds that you do have some control over.

  7. I’ve had the ‘positive attitude’ spiel given to me before at job training and other situations and it’s always irked me a bit. It often comes across to me as just a way to stifle complaints, legitimate or otherwise.
    Doesn’t constant positivity feel isolating to anyone else? I know I’ve been in situations where I felt like something was wrong or uncomfortable but didn’t say anything because I thought it was just in my head. But then someone else says the negative thing I was feeling and it’s incredibly validating. Then we can also deal with the problem instead of just putting a smile on the situation.

  8. The reverse of this is even uglier. If the poor, the sick, and the suffering have themselves to blame, and there’s no such thing as actually bad odds — then it follows that the wealthy, healthy and privileged actually *deserve* every cent, every day of health and every privilege that they have.
    It’s utter nonsense ofcourse. Pure dumb luck (or lack of same) accounts for more in life than attitude ever did. When 95% of those *lucky* enough to be born in Norway end up better of than 95% of those *unlucky* enough to be born in Zimbabwe, the reason is not that all those Zimbabweans have such sucky attitudes.
    The reason is that circumstances matter. A lot. And most of the time, you personally cannot do anything much to change them to any significant degree.

  9. Perhaps the people to whom ‘discrimnation has never happened’ just thought this was true, but it turns out that in 95% of cases that discrimination is what happened? Or, does perceiving wrongly only work in one direction?

  10. That’s what I couldn’t work out FA, it seems that perceiving wrongly only ever worked in the direction that I was wrong and he was right. Surprise, right?

  11. @Gunnar
    Welcome to HaT. Yes, it seemed to be saying that there were no real barriers to everyone progressing, just negative thoughts getting in the way. Therefore everyone who was in management was there because they did all the hard yards to get there and the fact that most of them are white and male has nothing to do with it.

  12. While one person’s definition of positive thinking might mean not mentioning / “complaining about” a problem, another person’s definition may mean doing something to fix that problem – taking initiative.

  13. But to do that you have to admit that the problem exists in the first place, which is the issue that I had with this training. The complete insistence that any problem that you saw was your own perception and not necessarily reality.

  14. Great post, Mindy. I spent a few weeks in a similar situation to Helen Garner’s The Spare Room when an old friend of mine was in the terminal stages of cancer. She was fairly deeply into woo by that stage. She mentioned one day she felt she’d failed because as a proponent of woo, she should have been able to fight the cancer off.
    I just felt rage when she said that, rage at the woomeisters of the world. Please tell your friend this story.
    (I kept my lip zipped, also, when she mentioned she didn’t vaccinate her kids. No sense in arguing with a terminally ill person, and not kind to them either. Hopefully her husband has done that since.)

  15. Great post! So good to read others are monumentally annoyed by this kind of magical thinking.
    I think it shows how deeply many are affected by Christian culture, even when not actually believers in the whole theist stuff.
    My daughter, at a public state school I might add, was told during ‘religious studies’ in primary school when asking why did God not answer a friend’s prayers, that God only answers prayers of those who truly believe. So there you have it in a nutshell.
    Our schools are the mills to ensure a steady stream of ‘believers’ in this kind of nonsense will continue to be churned out every year. My, at the time, 8 year old, was incensed that an adult could believe this kind of tripe. It made for many interesting discussions.

  16. Yvonne: Your 8yo sounds kinda awesome. Last time I had a chat with the Lad (age 9) about religion, about being free to believe in any gods or no gods, he clasped his hand to his chest and said “My only allegiance is to Loki.”
    (Sometimes I suspect he wasn’t being at all facetious.)

  17. Lauredhel,
    You have a smart 9 year old! My groovy little girl is now 18 and doing her ‘big trip’- on her own. Left when she was 17, leaving her first ‘big love’ behind, after informing me I was a hypocrite when trying to steer her towards an organized tour with lots of other people! It was a moment when I realized how some values can ‘backfire’ a bit. Wavering between being sh#t scared and proud. Enjoy the marvelous journey of your 9 year old towards adulthood. My own lad is already 23 and he is pretty awesome, even if I say so myself. The time just flies.

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