My name is Toni, and I am a recovering New Ageaholic.
Now, to be fair, most of what is passing for the New Age is actually ancient Eastern philosophy adopted — and sometimes, unfortunately, commodified, commercialized, and culturally appropriated — by the Western world. I am now a devout atheist, but at the height of my New Ageaholism, I would have described myself as a HinBu – a self-proclaimed practitioner of Hinduism and Buddhism with a splash of Orisha for extra flavor. Now, Hinduism and Buddhism do acknowledge the negative aspects of life. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism, after all, is “Life is suffering.” But with my New Agey bent, I was convinced that my negative thoughts were generating my less than desirable circumstances, and I tried everything to dismantle them.
I spent hours sitting in meditation, doing yoga, and practicing breath work to eliminate my negative thinking. In my non-yoga and meditation life, I embraced the teachings of Abraham-Hicks. Whenever I had a bad feeling or negative thought, I’d reframe it to something positive. I actively embodied, “It’s all good,” and I tried to find the silver lining in the most horrendous circumstances. I walked around in a state of false perpetual bliss. Now, this might sound good, but this line of thinking was dangerous for me – particularly as a survivor of childhood abuse.
My sense of bliss was shaken at times. A few years ago, Immaculée Ilibagiza was featured on one of Wayne Dyer’s PBS programs. She was a survivor of the Rwanda genocide. Although she was an inspirational speaker, she said that prayer and her faith saved her to do the work she does now. I found this perspective troublesome because, although I wasn’t there, I’m pretty sure that many of the people who were killed during the genocide prayed as well.
The delusion further began to be shattered when I watched Abraham-Hicks answer an African-American’s woman question about the death of Dr. King. The woman wanted to know how to tell her child about Dr. King without the “vibration of fear” that would arise at the discussion of Dr. King’s assassination. According to Abraham-Hicks, Dr. King died not because of a racist assassin’s bullet but because of the vibration of his fear. In other words, Dr. King succumbed to his fearful nature, and that’s why he died. Never mind that in one of his last speeches he declared, “I don’t fear any man.” By that logic, Hitler didn’t kill millions of Jews; it was their vibration of fear that led to their deaths. By that logic, predators don’t cause crime; it’s the vibration of fear of their victims that is the real problem. It was the ultimate in blaming the victim – but with a blissful smile.
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When I saw that clip, I frankly could no longer believe that my thoughts create my reality and that “It’s all good.” It’s not all good. Some things really suck and feel like crap. And that’s okay.
Now, positive thinking is all well and good, but not when it keeps one from seeing the reality of a situation. I was brainwashed by the positivity movement, which took advantage of my unique ability as a victim/survivor of childhood trauma and sexual abuse to see the positive even in the most harmful situations. The depth of my self-deception was so profound that the glass wasn’t even half full. I was able to drink from an empty cup and convince myself that I was consuming the sweetest, most nourishing nectar. I was practicing the art of minimizing.
Minimizing is a coping strategy. Trying to be positive nearly killed me. I was terrified of my “negative” emotions and did everything not to feel. But the thing is, if you don’t feel the negative, you can’t truly feel the positive. There are two emotions that get particularly stigmatized: anger and grief.
Anger has gotten a bad rap, and I say that has someone who used to have tremendous fear of my own rage. Part of that had to do with my unfortunate family of origin. The only person in my home who could express anger was my borderline mother. Her rages were sadistic and brutal. And I didn’t want to be anything like her. So for years, I’d swear up and down that I wasn’t an angry person. But now, with recovery, I can acknowledge that a lot of things piss me off. Personally, I’m angry about the time and money that I have to put into unraveling the trauma I’ve experienced. I am angry that my twenties and thirties were spent in a traumatic haze. I am angry that I had to deny so much of my own creativity and accept the unacceptable, just to survive. I am angry that, now I do know what I want, I still have to deal with this baggage from the past. On the flip side, though, I can now actually get angry when someone violates my boundaries in word, action, or deed. Since I have found my anger, I now have the tools to tell people, in no uncertain terms, to back off.
I am not only angry about my past. I’m angry about injustice. I’m angry that the hard-fought battles against racism and sexism that I thought were won are now being rehashed and debated as if the last fifty or sixty years never happened. I’m angry because we still have to debate the merits of equal pay. I’m angry because our political system is less of a democracy and seems to be going to the highest bidder. I’m angry about a host of societal ills. As a result, I do a lot of kickboxing. This anger also fuels my writing. It empowers me to speak up when I hear racist, sexist, and other forms of speech that marginalize people. Anger at injustice is a catalyst for me to take appropriate and right action.
Another emotion that gets a bad rap is grief. People in this country have this bizarre notion that when someone dies, the survivors should be done with the grieving process after the funeral. I’ve dealt with a lot of grieving people in my work as a licensed massage therapist. A fifty-something man came to see me who was clearly upset but not in touch with his own grief. While on the table, he told me that he and his siblings had just sold their mother’s home. Their mother had passed away a year before. He said he didn’t understand why it was so upsetting because the home had been on the market for some time. This was the home in which he had spent eighteen years of his life and that he’d shared with his parents and siblings. It was the home to which he had taken his children to visit their grandmother, and now it was gone. Of course he was grieving, but he couldn’t understand why.
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Another time, I had a client who, when I asked whether there were any health issues I needed to know about, told me that she had just lost her baby two weeks prior. She had been nearly eight months pregnant, had gone in for a regular check-up, and the baby had had no heartbeat. She said, with a smile on her face, “But I’m fine now.” I told her that I was sorry for her loss and that, if she needed anything during the massage, to let me know because emotions sometimes do come up.
She then said, “I’m perfectly fine.”
I blurted out, “I don’t see how you could be. And that’s okay.” During the massage, she was completely rigid and on edge. No tears came.
Several articles and books have been written on the negative aspects of positivity. In 2013, Tori Rodriquez wrote an article entitled “Negative Emotions are the Key to Well- Being.” In 2009, renowned author Barbara Ehrenreich published Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Both writers dismantled the illogic of the cult of positive thinking. This need for positivity is a bizarre form of denial that reeks of a more pervasive and unattainable goal – the desire to control everything. The reasoning goes something like this: If I control my thoughts, I control my reality and everything that happens. And I must control my thoughts to make them positive all the time. Therefore, my reality will be positive all the time – forever.
That line of thinking doesn’t benefit anyone and is delusional.
Allowing oneself to feel the full gamut of emotions is what it means to be fully human. Forcing oneself to live in positivity isn’t positive. It creates a muted existence that lacks vibrancy and expression. So, when you’re happy, feel that in every fiber of your being. When you’re angry, use that to set your boundaries. When you’re sad or grieving, allow yourself to weep. Feeling it all is what’s truly all good.