Jul 12, 2009

Negative Thinking Gaining Ground

Male Figure and Shadow

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I've been writing about the power of negative thinking for some time. Here's a quick roundup:

I've been particularly hard on The Secret, because I find its espousal of denial as a spiritual practice downright dangerous. New research reported in Time adds still more credence to the idea that attempts to suppress negative thought patterns, and rescript them in positive terms, are extremely counterproductive.
The study's authors, Joanne Wood and John Lee of the University of Waterloo and Elaine Perunovic of the University of New Brunswick, begin with a common-sense proposition: when people hear something they don't believe, they are not only often skeptical but adhere even more strongly to their original position. A great deal of psychological research has shown this, but you need look no further than any late-night bar debate you've had with friends: when someone asserts that Sarah Palin is brilliant, or that the Yankees are the best team in baseball, or that Michael Jackson was not a freak, others not only argue the opposing position, but do so with more conviction than they actually hold. We are an argumentative species.

And so we constantly argue with ourselves. Many of us are reluctant to revise our self-judgment, especially for the better. In 1994, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a paper showing that when people get feedback that they believe is overly positive, they actually feel worse, not better. If you try to tell your dim friend that he has the potential of an Einstein, he won't think he's any smarter; he will probably just disbelieve your contradictory theory, hew more closely to his own self-assessment and, in the end, feel even dumber.

This, to me, speaks of a deeper problem than the obvious deduction of the researchers. That is, that it plays to our dualism, and actually entrenches us further in our tendency to split. One of my larger criticisms of the emphasis on "the positive" is that it rips yin from yang and actually prevents us from experiencing wholeness. It keeps us riding the see-saw. Ultimately, we need to integrate our negative, or shadow, self in order to be whole. We can't just keep splitting it off and denying it, if we want to heal our deepest wounds.

In this newest study, researchers took on the issue of low self esteem; one of many manifestations of what we call "the God-sized hole."

For the new paper, Wood, Lee and Perunovic measured 68 students on their self-esteem. The students were then asked to write down their thoughts and feelings for four minutes. Every 15 seconds during those four minutes, one randomly assigned group of the students heard a bell. When they heard it, they were supposed to tell themselves, "I am a lovable person."

Those with low self-esteem — precisely the kind of people who do not respond well to positive feedback but tend to read self-help books or attend therapy sessions encouraging positive thinking — didn't feel better after those 16 bursts of self-affirmation. In fact, their self-evaluations and moods were significantly more negative than those of the people not asked to remind themselves of their lovability.

I found something very similar, when I was experimenting with "new thought," during the heady "new age" era of the '80s. The action of reciting positive affirmations only served to make me more conscious of my internal opposition, and brought on feelings of depression. The scolding of "cancel, cancel" every time I articulated a negative thought, caused a sinking, twisting sensation, in my gut. I don't think those well-intended souls have any idea how personally invalidating it is to be constantly shamed for simply speaking your truth.

I was fortunate to be working with an excellent energy healer, who was quite grounded in the gritty realism of twelve step. She gave me tools to explore my resistance to those affirmations. I think this process is decidedly missing from a lot of the pop "new thought" vehicles like The Secret, which emphasizes the importance of thinking only positive thoughts. The problem many of us have had with that paradigm is that it's impossible, which this new research would seem to validate. In fact, those "negative thoughts" are very persistent. You can't simply shout, or repeat, them down. As I wrote here, they must listened to and acknowledged, in order to really bring about transformation and healing.

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