When looking for ways to improve my body image, I was inundated with advice to “think positive.” Many postpartum fitness folk told me I am a “product of my thoughts” and that these thoughts must be positive (The thinking was very circular…you get positive thoughts by having positive thoughts).
How was I supposed to mold my thoughts out of this positivity clay? Some women told me to say affirmations over and over. Others told me to picture my body as I would like it to look, supposedly as some sort of motivation. In other words, I was supposed to imagine a world of happy thoughts and then bask in my renewed body image.
Does this work? Umm, I don’t know. Maybe for some women. However, it definitely did not work for me.
Positive Thinking Isn’t Always a Positive
I am suspicious of blanket positive thinking. I cringe when someone tells me to banish negative thoughts, to see the bright side, or “to turn that frown upside down.” This is not because I am morose. Rather, I don’t believe contentment with our bodies comes through sheer positive thinking willpower.
Most of the Motherfigure body image exercises — scales, compliments, downward comparisons, coping cards, rewritten appearance assumptions, future advice — do not indoctrinate positivity. They don’t discourage it, yet the goal isn’t unflinching glee.
The border between rational and positive thinking may blur, but it exists. A rational thought is not always a positive thought. A negative thought is not always an irrational thought.
You’ve probably noticed that I use the word “rational” much more than I use the word “positive.” I don’t believe rational thinking is a cure-all. However, neither do I believe that negative emotions are a disease. We are allowed to have complicated feelings about our bodies, feelings that aren’t always positive. The negative feelings aren’t a problem until they become persistent and entrenched. And when this happens, I’m more likely to approach these feelings from a place of gentle (and yes rational) analysis. Often rational analysis reveals a way to work with the feelings, rather than paint over them with a brightly colored “positive thinking” brush.
Positive thinking requires the self to become an antagonist, complains the writer Barbara Ehrenreich in Bright-Sided. I imagine she might lob the same criticism against rational thinking because introspection always requires some splitting of the mind. But, as Ehrenreich herself writes, “the point is to acquire the skills not of positive thinking but of critical thinking.”
Critical thinking requires no emotional alchemy. Plus, sometimes “thinking negative” is a good thing. For example, gratitude is itself a form of negative visualization. We like to frame it as a purely positive emotion, but to be grateful — to practice downward comparisons — is to imagine losing what you love. A feeling of loss allows for appreciation of what is present.
Sadness and happiness and anger and joy and all range of emotions add to life. Therefore, I say stop the unyielding pursuit of the positive. Instead, think rationally. Think critically. Think for yourself.
Ironically, positivity may become a byproduct of rational thinking, but it is not a prerequisite.
Return to Week 13
- Ehrenrich writes, “A curious self-alienation is required for this kind of effort; there is the self that must be worked on, and another self that does the work.” Found in Barbara Ehrenrich, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America, New York: Metropolitan Books, 2009,91, 199. ↩
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy also discourages the active pursuit of positive thinking. Pearson and Heffner write, “Inherent in this reaction is the belief that anxiety, depression, or other unpleasant emotions need to be abolished before action is taken. With ACT, you suggest the opposite: that clients change their behavior while experiencing the uncomfortable emotions. Be anxious and socialize at the same time, carry sadness with you as you attend work and take care of your children, and so on.” Found in Adria Pearson and Michelle Heffner, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy for Body Image Dissatisfaction: A Practitioner’s Guide to Using Mindfulness, Acceptance & Values-based Behavior Change Strategies, Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2010, 45 ↩