There’s been a whole lot of negative talk about positive thinking lately. I picked up Barbara Ehrenreich‘s new book in the book store the other day. It’s called Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. In The Week magazine I noticed a small blurb on how positive thinking is damaging to people who are depressed because thinking positive thoughts only magnifies how not-positive they feel. To me, the positive thinking movement is like looking at a frozen lake. If you’d never seen one before you’d think “Cool! There’s this cold slippery surface that I can stand on, walk on, slide on. This is gonna change how I get from one place to another!” If you don’t know what’s underneath, understand its depth, accept its dangers, you could end up, well, dead in the water. But if you understand and accept the totality of the frozen lake, if you learn that in spring the ice cracks, in summer frogs call and fireflies buzz, in fall leaves skitter to the surface when the wind whistles, then that lake can be a place of beauty, renewal and inspiration year-round.
In other words, I think a lot of the teachings around “positive thinking” are inadequate and skate dangerously over the fragile ice of our psyches. There has to be room for the complexity of who we are. There has to be acceptance of where we are in our journeys, the lessons we are learning, the challenges we are encountering and the imperfections that make us human. There has to be space for sadness, anger, and pain. The great teachers know this and encourage us to start our growth from where we are, but in these days of instant experts and self-made gurus trying to make a quick dollar on people’s dreams, there are serious cracks in the ice.
I realized while getting my Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology that I had been mildly depressed on and off through most of my adult life. Not seriously. Not all the time. But enough that there were plenty of days when it was a struggle to get off the couch. My chosen profession didn’t help. As an actress in Vancouver, then Hollywood I was too tall, too old, too fat, not pretty enough, and definitely not funny enough. You name it, I was or wasn’t what I wanted to be/thought I should be/was told I needed to be. Oh sure, I tried to “think positive”. Told myself I was good enough. I was miserable. I knew I had a few redeeming qualities since I had good friends and a loving family, but my self talk was 90% negative and my best skill was beating myself up.
Fast forward to 2010. I am a changed person. I still have my imperfections, my challenges, my room to grow, but in general I am happy, motivated, inspired and incredibly grateful to be me. That feels a little cheesy to write. I’m afraid sometimes that I’ve turned into one of those people I used to roll my eyes at. Then I remember one of my favorite sayings from theater school – “Narrower, go deeper”. I know that my waters run deep, that I have value, that my cynicism was a shell full of cracks and I don’t need to hide behind it anymore.
So with the caveat that this is my journey and anyone who needs to should seek professional help (I did), I thought I would share the key events that changed my life and made me a fan of positive thinking – of the “narrower, go deeper” kind.
1. I realized I was miserable. I took stock of my life and career and realized that something had to change. I asked all the questions you’re supposed to (what did I love as a child? what makes me happy?) and trained to be a Pilates teacher. After a couple of years, I realized it wasn’t the job for me but as my therapist at the time said, it saved me from my acting career.
2. I got married. And the only reason I count this as such a big part of my growth is that at 5 months, my marriage imploded into what could have been a black hole of negativity, self-hatred and “why me?”. Instead I finally understood that many of the men I’d chosen to spend time with triggered the same issue and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I decided that I loved my husband and I wanted to do the work it would take to grow out of my patterns, with or without him. I am grateful he made the same choice and for the last five years, we have grown together.
3. I went back to school. I decided to get another degree but in my mind, education can happen anywhere, anytime. I chose a school that offered written evaluations instead of grades because I wanted to hone my creative thinking not worry about the letter next to my name. I also chose a school that was founded on an ethos of social justice and it was worth every penny I am still paying paid . In making my decision, I chose to be kind to myself (something I started to learn in the marriage collapse). I told myself I would follow the path as long as it felt right in that core-of-my-being way I began to listen to again.
4. I had a baby. Life changing. Anyone who is a parent knows it. I didn’t want to pass along my crazy thoughts, my unhappiness, my affinity for fear and my special talent for negativity. By this point I thought I was pretty far down the growth path but in reality, the journey was just beginning. I wanted to be able to love and accept my daughter’s whole being, which meant I had to hold space gently for my own. I also discovered that being a mama is something I was born to do. It is a huge part of my journey and helping others parent compassionately is part of my soul’s purpose.
5. I turned off the TV. Some people can live very fulfilled lives and spend a decent amount of time in front of the television. I cannot. When I started acting for the camera instead of the stage I made the excuse that I needed to watch so I knew what was out there, what I could be auditioning for. Then I’d find myself eating ice cream in my 7th hour of Law & Order reruns and the cycle of self-loathing would kick-start. Television also played into my fears, my scarcity mentality, my uneasy feeling that the world was not a safe place. When my daughter was old enough to see the screen, I went cold-turkey and began to live my life again. And then…
6. I started a business. Talk about a kick in the pants. My family consists mostly of artists, scientists, professors and dairy farmers. Business is not in my blood. All I knew when I started was that I had to get over myself if I wasn’t going to fail…again. I had to stretch so far out of my comfort zone I wasn’t even sure I knew who I was. It turned out that the business wasn’t the right one for me – and some days I feel like I failed – but mostly I see it as this incredible gift that forced me to grow into the woman I am now. To use a time-worn cliche, that half-empty glass suddenly started to look half-full, without me having to wear rose-colored fun house glasses.
I still have moments where I beat myself up, or get scared, or call myself names, but they’re moments now instead of months. I’ve learned to let the negative self-talk go, to stop the endless tape that played over and over in my head. I can use affirmations and positive thinking as part of what helps me create the life of my dreams because I can see the bottom of the lake. I know there’s fish poop there and I know it will get stirred up from time to time. I just don’t get stuck in it now. I climb out, sit on the shore and watch the sky. It’s a beautiful, messy, life-affirming place to be.