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:
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.
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A version of this essay also ran on Open Democracy
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