Tony Robbins got raked over the coals last month, an incident that spawned a number of articles renewing the discussion about self-help gurus and coaches who preach that anything is possible if you just believe. Some of them continue to surface in social media, giving me the blessed opportunity to get this topic out of the way.
Proponents of “positive thinking” and the “law of attraction” say that you will get whatever you focus on the most. Therefore, if you focus primarily on problems and wallow in negative emotions, you are “creating” or “attracting” more problems and negative emotions for yourself. If you don’t want bad things to happen to you, just don’t think about bad things. If you have negative thoughts or emotions, you must dismiss them and replace them with positive ones–and you’d better do it quick, before you “attract” or “create” something you don’t want.
So. Wanna know a secret?
It’s not that the law of attraction and other schools of thought built around positive thinking are all bull shit, or that all the self help gurus are 100% wrong. However, whatever insights they may have into the way the world really works and how to be happy and secure in it have gotten lost in mass-marketed retail packaging.
The first step in my own journey out of abject poverty was a trip to the local library to check out books on personal development, positive thinking, and the law of attraction. My life up to that point had been controlled by a fundamentalist cult. I didn’t know what wonderful wordly secrets they had been so intent on keeping from me, but I was determined to find them. Adopting an “anything goes” policy, I really did read everything I could get my hands on, resulting in a well-rounded knowledge of self-help ideologies.
Positive-thinking and law-of-attraction gurus promise a certain control over one’s life that can be irresistible to people trying to make sense of the Universe. I felt that draw. I understood why many people would want this hope so badly that they would just buy into these schools of thought without questioning. For me, however, the things I was reading raised some pretty serious questions. Was this “law of attraction” really implying that the poor deserve their suffering because, just like everyone else, they simply get what they focus on?
I withheld judgment on this issue, trusting that the answer would come to me one day. Little did I know that I would have to wait well over a decade.
What strikes me now about mainstream personal-development lore is the overwhelming focus on money and material things. Sure, you might find a smattering of some other basics of Maslow’s hierarchy mixed in (like romantic relationships), but when you think of positive thinking and the law of attraction, what is the first thing you think of?
Money, of course. And why do you think that is?
It’s because we live in the United States of America, and here we play a game called capitalism whether we want to or not. In this game, money is king. When people seek personal development help they are typically looking for ways to win at capitalism. They want ways to “attract” or “create” success and money, which perverse American capitalism leads us to believe are the enablers of everything else we want out of life. The self-help industry, in turn, sells the product it knows these seekers will buy.
The American self-help industry, with all of its ideologies, is built upon the implicit acceptance that capitalism dictates the rules. The assumption that capitalism provides the only possible playing field is never even questioned. What’s more, the primary rule of this corrupt capitalism is: you do not complain. That is, you do not question the system. You shut up, and you work within the parameters given. In order to do this, what do you need? You need the power of positive thinking!
As it turns out, the answer to my decade-old question about the poor and the law of attraction has two parts.
First, the law of attraction that is taught by the mainstream self-help industry not only implicitly accepts that capitalism dictates the rules, it also assumes that capitalism represents a sort of scale model of the laws of the larger metaphysical Universe. It doesn’t. This is why if you ever tried using affirmations about the benevolence and abundance of the Universe only to open your eyes again and again to a slap across the face—well, something clearly wasn’t adding up, and now you know why.
The second part of the puzzle concerns destitute individuals more directly. My blood boils when I hear people say that everyone has an equal chance to succeed courtesy of our superior American capitalist system. Anyone can “make it”, so when they don’t, it’s their own fault for not working hard enough. They must be lazy or expect that they’re going to have something handed to them. The law of attraction as taught by the mainstream self-help industry contains an eerie mirror image of this flawed logic. The implication is indeed there: anyone who suffers poverty is poor because that is what they have created for themselves.
Every wonder how some people can rationalize condemning others to indigence and still sleep at night? Consider this. Both American capitalism and the law of attraction present themselves as fair systems as if each and every individual somehow, sometime, somewhere willingly agreed to participate and can therefore be justly held responsible for his own outcomes. Never does anyone go back to the source and question the original foundational assumption that it’s a fair system. The capitalist system is predicated on our never questioning it’s fairness, and so for many it follows logically the indigent are indigent because…well…they should have played a better game. But when, where, and how did these destitute, suffering people agree to play? Go to the inner cities and ask the urban poor if they chose this system. Ask the children of poverty-stricken Appalachia, or the third-generation crack babies, or the descendents of former American slaves if they were ever offered an opt-out. Go ahead and blame these victims if you can prove to me that they agreed to play the capitalism game, on this playing field, with this unbending set of rules, all for a chance at the glory of winning big. When were they presented with this “law of attraction”, shown the parameters, and given a choice? Show me, because I really want to know. When was the buy-in?
I beat the odds and won at capitalism, a disappointing, conventional victory I realized later I didn’t want–but that’s a story for another day. Having amassed a wealth of personal development knowledge and valuable life experience, it was natural that my thoughts would turn toward helping others overcome challenges in their lives as well. I rolled my eyes at the thought of having to spend a coaching career distinguishing myself from peddlers of metaphysical snake oil, but I think I can safely say that’s become a non-issue.
I’m not here to help you achieve a dream. I’m here to wake you up.
OK, so I promised you a secret:
Negative emotions are normal and good, and are just as useful as positive ones. In fact, negative emotions may actually be more useful than positive ones. When we’re not feeling positive, or “bad” things happen–and they inevitably do–the negative emotions that arise are there for a reason. We certainly don’t want to wallow in them, because that wouldn’t accomplish much, but we absolutely cannot afford to ignore or dismiss them. Negative emotions can drive us upward and onward in ways that positive ones can’t, once we learn how to use them. In fact, we would not be able to change anything or create anything positive in our lives without negative thoughts and emotions.
The idea is to channel the negative thoughts and emotions, using them as motivation and energy for taking appropriate action: to change something that no longer serves us, or to build something we want for your lives now. The negativity dissipates as it becomes part of a creative process. Think of it as “constructive negativity.” This is how we effect positive change in our lives and the lives of others.
I have had self-help gurus link to this blog, indicating to their readers that Occupy Wall Street protesters shouldn’t be focusing on problems since we’re only “attracting” more of what we don’t want. They hold us up as an example of what not to do if you want to create positive change. They’re dead wrong. What we are doing is telling the long-overdue truth about the unfair playing field of corrupt American capitalism, and using the pain and righteous anger of millions as the building blocks for a world where everyone can be happy, secure, and productive instead of just a privileged few. Some of us have a special mission to bring a piece of the people’s suffering and outrage home and truly Occupy our lives in a holistic way. Because of the collective energy of Occupy Wall Street, still reverberating throughout the Universe, the potential to create change is absolutely unprecedented.
There. I didn’t make millions on a best-selling book with dozens of chapters, or charge people hundreds of dollars to get their feet burned on hot coals. I did build a meaningful life from practically nothing, and I can honestly tell you that actively solving problems and using negative emotions in constructive ways is absolutely critical. Don’t let anyone charge you money to tell you otherwise.
And question everything.