Thursday, January 24, 2013

Being positive versus positive thinking and starry-eyed claptrap

I'm re-reading Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America by Barbara Ehrenreich.  I like this book because it helps me to remember the difference between being positive and being foolish (and foisting that on everyone).

She talks about some of the positive thinking out there--the insistence that all you need to do in order to achieve health, wealth, or happiness is to visualize it, the victim-blaming that people engage in when someone isn't successful (her experience with breast cancer was particularly illuminating), and the often tyrannical insistence that corporations have in employees showing "positivity" which, apparently means, being absolutely giddy at the prospect of going to work.

The thing is, positive thinking got morphed into something unrecognizable and obscene.  I don't want to trash the very idea of it--I think that being upbeat, putting your game face on, and knowing when to stop complaining is a good idea.  If you're always complaining and never have anything good to say, people will tend to avoid you.  It's one thing to roll your eyes with a friend over something that is exasperating you (be it a jerky boss or a terrible ex or a current love's terrible ex or your awful neighbor or your job situation), it's another thing to carp on it endlessly and to revisit it every time you have a conversation to the exclusion of everything else.  It's exhausting to be around someone who never has a good thing to say about anyone or anything.  Years ago, I worked with a guy who only complained about things--nothing was ever good, people would offer to help him and he'd refuse (and then complain about the thing he had refused help for and say no one was helping him). It could be a mild, breezy sunny day outside and he'd complain about skin cancer or the city or the people who walked to slowly when he was trying to get to work. After a while, no one wanted to work with him.  It was exhausting to be around him.

Yes, I know.  Venting is good for you.  But sometimes people stop venting and they start feeding into it; it becomes a self-perpetuating thing.  And it's tiresome.

Also, if you only think bad things will happen to you, if you only see the worst happening, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Why bother trying, or taking opportunities right in front of you (or that friends and colleagues offer you) when you know it isn't going to work?  When you've decided that the entire world is against you, you're going to prove yourself right.

However, there is a difference between keeping some perspective and being self-aware and being stupidly positive and optimistic.  Optimism is a great thing, as long as it's based in reality.  Being sure riches will just come to you is stupid.  Being sure you will get your dream job is dumb unless you're taking active steps to get there.  And then, quite honestly, you also need a dose of pessimism.

Yes. Pessimism.  I love pessimism.  It is not exactly negativity.  When I was laid off, I was optimistic.  Not that I would get a job in my field--though I did everything I could to get one, not that I would make more money than I made at my old job--though I did everything I could to try and make that happen (it didn't, by the way).  I knew I would be okay because I took a few days to freak out, get my head together, and figure out what resources I had and what I would do in the worst-case scenario.  I knew I would be okay.  I didn't know for sure that I would get a job in my field, getting paid what I got paid before.  I was realistic.  I wasn't exactly pessimistic about my chances, but I had some pessimism.  I knew I had gotten laid off when thousands of others in the region had also lost their jobs, when hundreds in my field (and with more experience) were looking for work.  I had to embrace reality. I had to develop a Plan B and a Plan C and decide when I would do it.  I didn't spend time complaining outside of one or two short gripe sessions, though I wanted to. Here's a confession to my friends who were amazed at how positive I was during that time: there were days when I was really, really bitter about the layoff.  But I couldn't afford to bathe in that, I had to put my game face on.  I had to use all avenues open to me.  If an employment agency I tried to work with was clueless, I didn't spend all my time complaining about then and write off all employment agencies, I worked with other agencies.  If one prospective employer was stringing me along, it irritated me, but I didn't throw up my hands and decide that I wasn't going to try anymore.  I kept working my contacts, applying for other jobs in other organizations, setting up informational interviews, and basically doing everything I could to get employment.  People were helpful--when they see you doing everything you can and you don't trash any suggestion they have, they tend to be more receptive to helping you.

Sometimes, in the quest to avoid negativity, people eschew pessimism and any sort of critical thinking--and in some organizations, pessimism and critical thinking is actively discouraged.  This can be disastrous.  If you don't have anyone looking for the weakness in a plan, things will not go well when the plan falls through.  If you don't have anyone looking at what could go wrong, you can't plan for it.  That's not asking the universe to send negative things your way, that's being clear-eyed.  When I thought of the possibility that I would have to go for jobs that may pay less, and that may not be in the field I'd been working in, I wasn't being negative or pessimistic.  I was being realistic. And so my optimism wasn't "I will be working in my dream job!" My optimism was "I'll be okay.  I'll get through this.  I'll survive. I have friends and family and colleagues who want to help me.  I have skills.  I will do what I have to do to keep myself solvent, and I'll learn what resources are out there in case I can't find any work at all whatsoever and I run out of savings.  I will be okay." I knew I would be okay because I knew what the worst case would be, and I planned for it.  I wasn't thrilled about it, but I was okay.

You have to have a dose of pessimism to have any sort of realistic optimism.


  1. Yippee! Now I get to go scrub the shower! I should be so lucky to have a shower to clean! Not everyone in this world can claim a shower of their very own! -- Now my family will have me committed.

    Seriously, I try to be positive, but I also have to add in a dose of reality from time to time, else I miss a possible looming problem.

    What I find is most effective, is to try and find the silver linings to my clouds. Sure, there will be tough times ahead, but there will also be some good in those tough times. It's not that the tough times don't exist, but I can find something to be grateful for in them.

    1. Exactly! (Lord do I get snarky when it comes to housework. Come sit by me, Lili.)

      Though once, when I was going to complain about my sore arm from getting a vaccine, I remembered that vaccines are AWESOME and that illness is TERRIBLE and so I sang the praises of my sore arm, lol.

  2. I just, on your recommendation, signed this out from my public library. I had read the author years ago with her Nickel and Dimed but haven't read anything by her since so can't wait to start!

    I love your post because I think very much the same as you do. When I got laid off during the recession (at the same time my husband also got laid off), we had to go to plans A, B, and C rapidly. There was no room to sit by and wait for something perfect like others I knew who were easily discouraged and took a lot longer to find positions.

    My family has always had the, "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst" mentality and I grew up with it. I find that it has helped me a lot in life when bad things do happen since I can maneuver around the bad things much quicker.

  3. Hi
    I read your post with great interest as I have been in the same situation. A job I was in and had been for a longish time were offering redundancies, I decided not to apply. However a collegue was always compaining about the job so I suggested she looked into the package. She said no as she wouldn't like the drop in her standard of living. A year later there was a rumour of another package so I decided that I would do something about about my situation and did a home study course in the field I was interested in. I was still studying when the next package was offerd, I applied and got it, with what I saw as a nice pay out. In the mean time this person was still complaining so I turned around and told that I also didn't enjoy the job but was positive cahnges. She is still there, I didn't get a job in the field I studied for but still worked until I became a carer.
    I'm now looking at my current skills and how they will adapt to a CV and what kind of volunteering will fill the gaps for when I start looking for employment again.