The theory that thoughts create reality has become somewhat popular lately. The buzzwords ‘affirmation’ and ‘manifestation’ have been popping up everywhere. This current movement of people recognising themselves as creators of their own reality is intended to be an empowering one. But to what extent does this concept of ‘mind-hacking’ intersect with the idea of thought control?
It goes without saying that if you wake up and say: “Wow, this is gonna be a shit day(!)” that you’re not giving yourself the best opportunity to have a good one. And that if you constantly see the worst in people and don’t give them an opportunity to pleasantly surprise you, you will see this negative belief reflected back to you constantly. I think we can all agree that having a generally positive outlook on life is beneficial.
But what about when things go wrong?
How do we balance our affinity for using affirmations to build us up and bring us hope with the crucial practice of sitting with painful emotions and watching all the scary thoughts they bring with them? Sometimes I need to switch the affirmations off and sit with the lights off in the pits of despair and allow myself to grow through it. And I don’t want to feel guilty about that.
Last week I had some intense emotional processing going on. At some points, I was sitting with the subconscious fear that I would never experience love again, that I didn’t have any resilience of my own, that my heart had simply run out of strength and would be broken for good. That I allowed myself to wail through these emotions and fears does not mean I was subconsciously creating a future in which these fears would be realised. And this is an issue I have with a school of thought about affirmations.
I don’t believe that every single negative thought or feeling creates something negative in the future. And to strictly adhere to that idea could in some instances be construed as abusive. It’s not a far cry from the sexist “man up” and “boys don’t cry” assertions we still hear today.
I believe that sitting with pain can potentially uncover resilience, compassion and wisdom. How can we feel compassion for our fellow man if, at the wave of a hand, we simply say “well, it’s the life they’ve created” or “they’re feeling that way by choice”? This idea of a blissfully happy utopia, free of any fear or doubt is not only unsustainable, it’s unrealistic.
“The ancients took a different line on happiness. As Oliver Burkeman observed in his excellent book The Antidote, the Stoics were particularly keen on being mindful about all the disastrous things that might happen to you – if only to understand that they probably wouldn’t be as bad as you thought. Now instead of Seneca, we have new age gurus who tell us if we think positive thoughts we will float around on a pink cloud and get what we always wanted.” – Tim Lott, for The Guardian
Acknowledging the power that each of us has in our own lives (at least in the West, don’t get me started on how the cults of manifestation and affirmation are typically revered by those who were pretty privileged to begin with) is in its essence a very inspiring thing. But the fact that this belief can so easily be exploited to shame those experiencing misfortune; to abandon compassion for others in place of self-concern and to adopt a lofty and hostile demeanour under the guise of positivity (something that I have seen one too many times from ‘spiritual’ people on the internet); shows to me that this belief also has the potential to be dangerous.
And that’s another thing. What is it with the lack of critical thinking and discourse in the spiritual community? You know, I actually feel like a ‘negative nancy’ for even writing about all this. And I think that’s quite telling. We shouldn’t let ‘happiness fascism’ or seemingly enforced positive thinking stop us from raising concerns that we feel need to be raised.
While it doesn’t make sense to fixate on painful emotions or negative thoughts all the time, none of us should feel guilty or wholly responsible for inevitably getting stuck in a negative loop every now and then. This idea that every negative experience in our lives was created by us and us alone and that if we’d only control our minds a bit better, we’d never experience hardship ever again is just…so off-base, in my opinion. This fanaticism I see sometimes about affirmations and manifestation that implies that a painful experience is some form of punishment for that one negative thought you had that time is honestly a bit fascist.
“In a sense, vigilantly struggling not to think about something or someone forces part of your brain to be on guard for that thought. Holding it there, even subconsciously, keeps the thought alive, and sometimes it escapes out of the prison it’s being kept in and erupts into your active thoughts. This is mostly likely to happen when you’re under stress, mentally overwhelmed or just plain exhausted.” – Kat McGowan, for Psychology Today
Although I do enjoy utilising affirmations to change my mindset and improve my self-esteem; in some instances, furiously combatting negative thoughts with affirmations can prevent us from working through the underlying emotion that is begging to be looked at. I think there’s some degree of integrity to the idea of taking emotional responsibility for our lives but in emotions and life circumstances, as in all things, there is balance. There is simply not the potential for good without bad, light without dark, happiness without sadness.
“Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” – Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
And so the point I’ve been trying to make in this blog post is that affirmations are not the answer to every difficult thought or experience in life. Affirmations are, for me, part of a large mosaic of different self care strategies and methods of coping with life that all serve different purposes at different times and in different capacities. It is really not as simple as “bad feeling creates bad experience”. And to always assume so does more harm than good to those doing their best to cope with the ever-changing seasons of life.
Thanks so much for reading. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!
– SMUT. ❤ xxxx