“Positive Attitude” Bullshit: On the dangers of “radical self-love”

There is an endless supply of people who are ready and willing to inform us about what we are doing wrong, and how we can alter our behaviour so we can get ahead and inject magic and happiness into our lives. Between modern day guru Gala Darling who believes “positive thoughts generate positive realities,” and you can “manifest” your own destiny, to capitalist public thinkers such as Oprah Winfrey telling us positive thinking can help us obtain “the sweet life,” it is easy to get misled into a muddle of mistruths.

A recent blog by Gala is entitled “Happiness is simple: why too many choices make us miserable and 5 ways to improve your life!” Yeah? Nah. Too many choices are not the issue for a huge majority of the political underclass; a lack of choice is exactly the problem. Whether it be lack of choice when it comes to quality of education, or lack of access to higher education because you were not born into wealth and privilege, or lack of choice when it comes to nutritious food or warm dry housing because wages are often too low in this country, too often, too much choice is not an issue for the growing majority of the 99 percent; restricted choice is.

Gala and magazines such as Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, tell us:

If you just change your attitude and think more positively over time, your life will get easier. Over time, you will land a job that affords you a contract guaranteeing you some security and a pay-check which does not leave you in poverty. You simply have to manifest what you want. Drink a couple of litres of soda pop, add diamantes to your manicure, wear a fake moustache all day long (as Gala really has suggested as a remedy for the blues), put on a nice pink dress and smile a bit more then BOOM! That suicidal depression over the stresses of life such as being unable to buy food because you are on minimum wage, working depressing precarious jobs, and/or the debilitating anxiety over whether your welfare will be cut this week will suddenly melt away.

Middle or upper class young white women seem to be the demographic of the radical self-love movement. It is all well and good to tell them to “smash that class-ceiling” and just work hard to achieve your dreams and the bling and designer shoes will follow, but as Laurie Penny points out in her book Unspeakable Things, there are a lot of women drowning in the basement. In particular women of colour, trans, and queer women who disproportionality suffer from poverty, depression, feelings of alienation, and are discriminated against in the work-place:

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It is hard to “think positive” when treated so negatively based on the colour of skin and/or sexuality, when facing hate crimes, targeted violence, and when there are so many structural hurdles put in your way to success and triumph. Radical self-love gurus do not tend to promote or even really engage in discussions on privilege or the disadvantages people are born into; that shit would undermine the cause of “changing yourself, not the system.”

In a powerful piece for The Guardian, “Oprah Winfrey: one of the world’s best neoliberal capitalist thinkers,” Nicole Aschoff writes,

A stream of self-help gurus have spent time on Oprah’s stage over the past decade and a half, all with the same message. You have choices in life. External conditions don’t determine your life. You do. It’s all inside you, in your head, in your wishes and desires. Thoughts are destiny, so thinking positive thoughts will enable positive things to happen.

I used to watch Oprah when I was unemployed, with no money, and feeling utterly crap about my situation. I even started cycling religiously a few years back because Oprah told me exercise would help to reduce my feelings of worthlessness; my arse got smaller but my anxiety and panic attacks over my future, and how I was ever going to pay back my student loan, did not. I even read O Magazine for a while until I realised I was not an idiot and my situation was not my fault. I saw that there are external factors which can offer some pretty challenging barriers to success which no number of pictures of green meadows and calm beaches and deep breathing and kitchy “nick naks” can elevate.

What Nicole suggests in her piece is that Oprah just reinforces the focus on the “individual,” which hides the role of political, economic, and socio-economic structures in our lives,

O Magazine implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, identifies a range of problems in neoliberal capitalism and suggests ways for readers to adapt themselves to mitigate or overcome these problems.” She advises us to turn our gaze inward and reconfigure ourselves to become more adaptable to the vagaries and stresses of the neoliberal moment.

Changing your attitude is not going to change or help to dismantle structural injustice and a failed and unstainable economic model which serves only the elite rich of this world, and exploits the rest of us, particularly the working class and those living in poverty. As far as I am concerned positive thinking will fucking ruin your life.

“Just think positive” is a precursor to “it gets better,” and the hard reality is it is only going to get much, much worse for our most vulnerable. With social bonds being introduced into our public welfare state, life for those who have a disability or mental health diagnosis who need support from the state is only going to get more grinding and unmanageable.

My friend, who suffers from a generic connective tissue disorder, pointed out to me when I told him I was writing this blog,

“When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter how positive I think, my joints are still going to dislocate and I’m still going to be in constant pain. Work will still be hard to find, my options will always be limited and I’ll never have the full capacity and range of freedom in this area as someone healthy.”

Multiple WINZ (Work and Income New Zealand) case-managers have told me to think “positively” over and over again, often in response to my having told them “The reason why I am struggling to find any work is because we have a flooded job market with countless over-qualified graduates.” Often the message to “just think positive” is not only divorced from reality, it is an unhelpful and patronising statement to say to someone who is struggling to secure work and to stay above the poverty line, especially if they have a disability or other barriers that may regularly prevent them from obtaining a job or better quality of life.

“Positive thinking” and “affirmations” are now being used as a form of psychological coercion against beneficiaries. A first research paper by Hubbab titled, Unemployment being rebranded as psychological disorder expands on what exactly this coercion looks like.

The authors documented the physiological toll on beneficiaries in London who are subject to these practices, “from unsolicited emails extolling positive thinking to attitude changing exercises, with people looking for work frequently perceiving such interventions as relentless, humiliating, and meaningless.

Attitude changing exercises and similar strategies that people like Oprah and radical self-love promoters such as Gala Darling use to ‘lift people up’ are now being employed by state workers to harass and demean people who are struggling to find work.

Perhaps this is why I find it so hard to stomach people who tell me to think more “aspirationally” as some kind of solution to a stagnant job market, where any work I can get is underpaid and stressfully precarious. These positive attitude advocates remind me of WINZ case-workers who would phone, without warning, to grill me about what jobs I had applied for, and how many. One in particular spent a good twenty minutes telling me how I needed to “change my attitude” and that I should take any job, even cleaning toilets at minimum wage. I got off the phone crying, not because I think I am above cleaning toilets, but because I felt harassed and humiliated. It was a defeating experience.

I understand people like Gala are trying to help; in fact I know Gala personally. She gave me a job many years ago at Lush Cosmetics. She was, and I am sure still is, a very caring and generally lovely and a kind hearted person. As Gala has said on her own blog site, radical self-love helped her overcome an eating disorder and depression, and she continues to help other women. Some of the help and advice Gala has on offer comes free of charge but she also charges a mint for her “Radical self-love Boot Camps” which cost a staggering $197. Unless you are a high income earner this amount of money is unaffordable.

Gala’s position that she just wants to help women transform their lives does not negate the fact what she and so many others are selling is a flawed ideology which preys on feelings of insecurity and isolation for a lot of women, and especially women who sit a little or a lot lower on the privilege ladder and do not benefit from being in a higher social class. Offering solutions to these feelings of disconnection and discontent, such as looking “inwards,” and changing how you behave, is reductionist, over-simplistic, and problematic.

The disenfranchised, poor, and working class need to collectively band together to restructure the systems, and to expose the neoliberal policies and thinking which has helped create feelings of disconnection and discontent in the first place. Adherence and adaptation will further exasperate the situation, endorsing solutions built on neoliberalism to solve the very problems it has helped to create—which is exactly the thinking that people like Oprah and Gala promote—is truly next level insanity. It doesn’t even make sense!

My spiritual guru advice to you is:

Think revolutionarily. No amount of “positive thinking” can fill the bellies of the 280,000 children living in poverty in this country. I fully support declaring mutiny against governments who pass welfare reforms that push people further into crippling poverty, instead of waging mutiny against ourselves. Radical self-love and positive attitude advocates such as Oprah and Gala are more about adapting to a world “gone mad” and systems that do not serve you, than really improving your life.

It really is your choice: adapt, or disrupt?

Fight for a different paradigm! It might be a tad more productive than trying a green tea diet to purify your body, or rearranging your stationary draw so your pens are in harmony with your paper clips. Fighting for a new paradigm may bring you enemies and some deeply negative reactions but would you not rather seek out that brutal truth than live endlessly on in someone else’s brutal fairy tale? It is a fairy tale which tells you:

If you change your attitude and enough of yourself maybe someone might love you. If you work hard enough and want it badly enough maybe you will land some dream job which pays you enough to afford both rent and food and a bit of financial security. If you just play by the “rules” and adapt to a brutal capitalist system while changing what colour lipstick you wear and your “negative” thought patterns, your life will become easier and better.

If radical self-love and all that glitter and sequins and pink bows and “positive thinking” has worked for you and you have managed to manifest your dream life, then cool, I am stoked for you. But for many of us it is not the answer we are looking for: it part of the problem, not the solution.

You can follow me on Twitter!

A version of this essay also ran on Open Democracy

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440 thoughts on ““Positive Attitude” Bullshit: On the dangers of “radical self-love”

  1. I define Radical Self-Love in a different way than described here. For me, Radical Self Love means taking good care of yourself, standing strong for yourself, and not feeling selfish for doing so. Too many people spread themselves too thin, including activists and caretakers. They need to take good care of themselves so they can continue to support others and live their values.

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  2. I couldn’t agree more that self-help bullshit, i.e. bad advice not based on truth but spun for self-serving purposes (or perhaps through ignorance and lack of research), is damaging. Healthy, informed skepticism is a good thing and so is calling bullshit on ‘manifesting’ and the pink bows and sparkles stuff you mention. However, in the name of truth and balance, I think it’s also important to call bullshit on the trend for slating self-help capitalist neoliberalists. Labelling self help as a damaging anti-revolutionary load of positive thinking crap that can’t fill the bellies of 280,000 children living in poverty isn’t taking the bigger picture into account. Regardless of whether their style is my cup of tea, or yours, or not, the likes of Tony Robbins is currently on a mission to provide 100 million meals to families in need; and Oprah donates millions to charity. Creating personal wealth and giving back isn’t everyone’s path, but it shouldn’t be dismissed off hand; nor should touching the lives of millions, including saving people from suicide and helping them out of poverty. Incidentally, both Tony and Oprah came from backgrounds full of abuse, neglect and prejudice.

    So I believe we should call bullshit on bullshit self help, but be careful to differentiate the self help that actually saves and improves lives in a genuine and meaningful way. Otherwise we risk jumping on a new bandwagon that’s rife with its own sort of anti-capitalist, anti-self-help, over-generalising bullshit. There’s room for self-help and revolution – they aren’t mutually exclusive; perhaps quite the opposite.

    Fighting for a different paradigm, thinking revolutionarily and declaring mutiny against governments all sounds great; but taking a leaf out of Oprah’s book in terms of putting meat around the bones, i.e. helping people understand HOW they can do these things, would be very helpful to people who are struggling. If you succeed it might just be the new self help.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It is done unto you as you believe. A bigger dose of gratitude for what you DO have can assist you. If you don’t buy this, fine. I’m just sayin’…. I wish you well and hope that you attract many benefactors and donations. Blessings to you, dear one.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for sharing. You have stated my every feeling, emotion and thoughts very profoundly. It disturbs me when I here people say “oh well, we all have choices”. Do we??? The starving child in Africa or any extremely poverty stricken area of the world has no choices. While he sits in the dirt with his distended belly and skeletal frame protruding he has two choices at best. He can roll to the left and lay down and die or roll to the right and lay down and die while the vulture perched a few meters away awaits his plight.

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    1. Thank you so so much for your comment, Bebehindy1!! You’ve so eloquently summed up my feelings about this. Keep being awesome, smart, and insightful!

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  5. If you live in north america you have the greatest amount of choices.
    You have basically won the lottery and even though a capitalistic society isn’t perfect,
    You have way more choices than the rest of the world.

    No one owes you shit. You can only change your attitude.
    When you accept that life is hard, then you realize that thinking positively will get you further than being a pessimist.

    I can tell you are defeated with your bullshit attitude.

    I bet you won’t even have the courage to post this comment up. I’ll call out negative thinkers any day.

    Suck it up. Life is hard. Get over yourself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know what, bitch?! It’s fuckin’ ironic that you told the author of this article to suck his hardship up when you can’t seem to accept the benefits of negativity. Like it or not, there will always be negative thinkers in the world. So don’t think that you can go around and take all negativity away in this world.

      If you can’t stand negative thinkers, just suck it up and get the hell away from them. Honestly, that Pollyanna attitude will get you nowhere in life. By callin’ negative thinkers out, you’re no better than they are.

      As the old saying goes, you have to take the good with the bad.

      You know? You’re pretty hypocritical in tellin’ the author of this blog to suck the hardness of life up when you can’t seem to do that. She can be negative all she wants. I mean, would you want rainbows and sunshine throughout life?

      It’s YOU who needs to get over herself and learn to be negative once in a while. Too much positive thinking is unrealistic. Plus, this webpage is only for negative thinkers. So quit whining like a baby and shut the hell up about your anti-negativity bullshit!

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  6. Dude I am on board, have been tossing this over all day. This shit is pervasive in the mental/chemical health world it is absurd (in the US anyway). It nurtures the pain, keeps it alive. Those of us who are in some kind of psychic pain have been wronged, there’s a reason for misery. We’ve experienced some kind of maleficence and trauma. And that shit ain’t anything we should be “accepting,” or ignoring by focusing on the “positive.” Absurdity. “Acceptance” doesn’t make shitty shit go away, it condones it. “Experts” want us “ill” ones to sit down and shut up. Or at least they’re stupid enough to not notice that that’s what they’re saying. Sure, I can accept that a hurricane tore my home apart, whatever. That’s life. But cruelty and intentional violence? Fuck that. Not acceptable.
    Shit… we need to call out what is fucked, actively reject it. If we “accept” cruelty and inexplicably horrible human behavior, we are going along with it, which ain’t good for you, me, or anyone else. How are rogue states begun?
    To feel better we gotta take a stand somehow, if even it’s sitting down with a pen and paper and writing down: “It’s fucked up my dad calls me a faggot and I’m not gonna deal with it because it’s killing me. So shut the fuck up, Dad.” And then distance yourself somehow, literally. Get away as fast as you can from your oppressor. He’s killing you.
    We don’t gotta think positive, we just gotta fuckin THINK. Be logical, not blindly accept whatever the “experts” say. The “experts” are generally privileged robots who like power, and have all kinds of self-interest. Your misery –> their paycheck.
    Thanks for your thoughts –

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  7. Dude I admit I am drunk and only read 25% of your inane clichéd rambling damn the man post. Here’s the deal: the poor stay poor. The rich get richer. If you are living above survival mode you’re among the blessed of the earth. Rhetoric is meaningless without action. Most bloggers are loudmouth pussies who lack the courage of their virtual convictions. Everyone has an agenda yet no one knows how to make money or cares about making a difference. Humanity is not f**cked….. yet. But we’re close. Don’t like what I have to say? Go on the Internet and complain. There’s a club. It’s called “the wealthiest 1%”. And you aren’t in it. Until we stop worshipping MONEY, there’s no way out of the Matrix. Time to grow up. Or perish. We’ll see which comes first.

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      1. Well said Delilah! I agree it’s ridiculous to see positivity as something negative (?!), given that staying positive is sometimes all people have if they’re in dire circumstances. Unqualified, self-interested people faking it as self help gurus may well irritate people, but that’s just a fad that has little to do with positivity in its truest sense. Positivity begets self belief and that’s the primary determinant of whether you can achieve anything, including survival, in extremely bleak situations. It seems reeling against positive thinking can only come from a place of solipsism and entitlement… not uncommon these days in the West given our life has been so cushy for so long, in relative terms.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Chloe, I hope you will see this comment, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t, seeing that this post was published last year.

    I think you completely miss the point of self love and positive thinking. I was born in a third world country where there are a lot of fucked up shit going on, but lucky enough to have education, food and roof above my head. But you know what? Despite that, I was probably one of the most ungrateful little shit in the universe? Why? Because I live in a little plastic bubble wrap called depression and self hate. It got worse to the point where I almost commit suicide.

    The thing is, I have a realist almost pessimist attitude, so when depression kicked in, I beat myself up for having it.
    One thing that finally save me is a group of friends who have positive attitude and spread their positiveness so it can help people. Yes, positive attitude ALONE can’t help people who live in survival mode. But with positive attitude, come gratefulness, and desire to help people around you, including those who live in survival mode.

    Giving food to the people who were struggling may not decrease the number of poverty if you are the only one who did it. But if we did it together, it can make a lot of difference to people who are struggling. This can only be done if we have a positive attitude and gratefulness.

    That being said, I agree that having positive attitude doesn’t mean that we should close our eyes to tragic circumtances of people around the world. In fact, it shoudn’t be called positive attitude, it should be called ignorance.

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  9. positive thinking just means thinking about things in a proactive light. its not a complicated couple of words. it will vastly improve your life if negativity or cynicism is keeping you from seeing solutions. if you can keep a level head, and you arent unrealistic it works well.

    the way it reads to me the sentiment you make is like saying anti seizure medecine will hurt you. Yeah, if you dont have seizures. you arent talking about positive thinking anyway you are talking about obliviousness and irrationality.

    state your problem. accept it. find a solution.
    for that last part, the solution: positive thinking will ALWAYS cause you to come up with more solutions. but then again im just talking about thinking about the future positively. i dont know who considers “positive thinking” arbitrarily thinking about every situation in the present as positive. do you?

    the fact is it works. you are probably just not understanding it.

    cars crash but they get you places too so are you just not going to drive? we all die so are you just not going to live?

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  10. Interesting article!! I personally am someone who believes in the power of positive thinking. I am a 28 yo latina/apache native from Colorado living in l.a. I am from a family with very little money. I was never afforded the oppourtunity to go to college. I became an anti capitalist when i was 16 and left my parents house and school to live on my own. I never got a g.e.d. because I don’t believe in the school system i was in. I have always questioned the system and lived for my visions of a new society which respects nature and benefits all people. I have zero desire to be wealthy, because i think it energetically disconnects you from a huge portion of humanity and stunts your ability to consider them. I also think extreme wealth is dangerous and debilitating. I think power causes brain damage. I have always worked extremely hard with a smile on my face. I have cleaned toilets daily with enthusiasm and love and appreciation for the oppourtunity to do so. I have always had a postive outlook and people telling me to keep it up has always helped me. People who complain and have bad attitudes will ALWAYS struggle no matter how much success or money they have or don’t have. I think they very fact you wrote this complaint is an indication of how life treats you based on your attitude. No i am not happy with the system. And i don’t complain about it. I am a living example of a different way to be and i am part of the beginning of a new system. Complaining will not help this cause. Having a positive attitude and continually focusing on new ideas and ways to be while smiling is giving me a lot of momentum and success. I make more money than my parents ever have now and use it to help society in the best ways i can. We need more people like me and less like you. Because humans are naturally more trusting and more likely to help listen to and physically be around postive people with positive vibes. My cause cannot afford negativity. Oprah and Gala are absolutely right. If you would like to be alone and struggle, continue to complain.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Im not complaining Im pointing out structural oppression and the methods in which these systems are perpetuated. And ok we need less people like me? WTF. I run my own Hospitality campaign in which I advocate and rep hospo workers for free and give out free legal advice. I advocate for people on welfare and help tp get their basic entitlements. Ive volunteered for Unions and now St Johns Ambulance. I have dedicated my life to social justice and next year Im undertaking a Masters in Human rights. So nah. whatever you think of me we need more people like me willing to point out just how awful neoliberal thinking is. And christ Im not alone Ive got a loving whanua and friends who support and love me and a real strong activist community around me. wtf with your assumptions.

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  11. this article has a gross misunderstanding of “radical self-love”, which is completely different from “positive thinking” (google sonya renee taylor, whose work this article disregards terribly). i’m a mentally ill queer woman, and the former helped me unequivocally while the latter was damaging. calling out privilege is important. but attacking others’ way of navigating mental ill isn’t the way to do it.

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  12. Reblogged this on floatingdrumbeat and commented:
    It seems vey much that the politics of New Zealand are very much like those of Trump’s United States, and these self-help, spiritually-governed, self-servingly theocratic quasi-philosophies quite unquestioned, wholesale-bought, and subscribed to for no reason …

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