(trigger warning for self-harm)
Back in 2004, I went to see a movie called What the Bleep Do We Know!? with a friend of mine. It was a weird combination of quantum mysticism (along the lines of The Secret and other ‘law of attraction” books that claim to grant you all your dreams if you put them into words with intent) and pseudoscience that sounded good. I remember leaving the theater thinking, “It’s all my fault.”
That every bad thing that had ever happened to me was because I brought it into being with my thoughts. Every goal I failed to achieve, every dream I shelved, was all my fault because I didn’t believe in it hard enough.
Holy Tinkerbell, Batman.
The notion didn’t stick with me for long. I had some real issues with the movie–not the least of which was the fact the main character was depicted popping anti-depressants like candy and then chucking the whole bottle in the trash in the end. No, no, and no. That’s not the way anti-depressants work and you should NEVER stop such medication cold-turkey unless directed to do so by your doctor.
But in 2006, The Secret came out, sold millions, and generated a brief revival in the law of attraction theory. If you’re not familiar with it, the law of attraction is the theory that positive or negative thoughts bring positive or negative experiences into your life. There’s nothing new about this concept. Normal Vincent Peale popularized it in 1952 with bestseller The Power of Positive Thinking. Like The Secret, this book was received poorly by the scientific community, and touted changing your life through positive affirmations, but with a Biblical twist.
I wrote about this same subject last year (ironically, about this time), and many of my thoughts on the subject are the same–though I am laughing like a hyena right now at the memory of my sister’s astrologist’s predictions for the coming year… Suffice to say, I think her astrologist might not want to give up her day job.
But back to this philosophy: these books have a powerful attraction for us as consumers (see what I did there?) because they promise something that is within our control: we can achieve our wildest dreams if we only believe in them hard enough.
Failure only means you didn’t believe hard enough. It’s not the fault of the philosophy itself. It’s yours.
I have a real love-hate relationship with this kind of thinking. On one level, I think it’s all bunkum. It doesn’t matter how much I want to be an opera singer–if I can’t carry a note in a bucket, I’m never going to perform at The Met. I might dream of being an astronaut, but be incapable of performing the upper level mathematics. And so on.
On the other level, I do believe in “putting it out there in the universe.” Of stating a desired goal, be it ever so seemingly out of reach, in the hopes of putting wind beneath the wings of that desire. I believe in making affirmations. Each December I enjoy picking a word to be my intention for the coming year. I believe in making talismans for myself.
Where I differ from the quantum mystics is that when I put my desire out there in the universe, I do so because articulating it makes it clearer in my own mind. Stating a specific goal makes it easier for me to take the steps necessary to achieve it. Many times, left unspoken, the desire remains unformed as well. It’s difficult to race toward a finish line you cannot see.
When I create talismans for myself, they serve as reminders to focus on the word I want to be my motto for the year, be it fearless, or audacious, or persistent. The power isn’t in the bracelet or charm itself. It’s in the reminder its presence serves. Sometimes glancing at the particular talisman offers a kind of mental grounding. It’s not magic. It’s a means of creating focus.
But there are times when I can point to something I did with the law of attraction in mind and my results exceeded expectations. Was it because I clearly imagined the outcome I wanted over and over again until it came true? Possibly. Who knows. I certainly don’t discount the law of attraction entirely as a result. But I am so skilled in self-sabotage there are many times when I don’t want the law of attraction to hold any validity. Otherwise we’re back to how I felt leaving the movie theater in 2004. All my failures are as a result of my negative thinking.
One thing I can say is that I firmly believe we assimilate what we tell ourselves over and over again. Even more so if this internal statement has received outside validity. It’s one of the reasons we get trapped in the stories we believe about ourselves: if someone important to us told us we weren’t smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough, good enough, chances are we’re continuing to tell ourselves these things, whether or not they’re true.
I struggle with this because if you ask me to write down positive affirmations about myself, I can’t do it if the affirmation seems too out there. I have to change the wording to accommodate my beliefs, which kind of defeats the purpose, I think. It’s hard for me to “dream big” (which is one of the reasons I include these words when signing a book). I’m far too good at coming up with negative things to say to myself–that ugly soundtrack plays 365 days a year and I have a lifetime of ‘unlearning’ the lies I’ve told myself.
I know this to be true: you are what you tell yourself.
So a cold shock ran through me when I recently caught myself with a new “negative-speak” I must erase. Just this past week, I realized there were two things I needed to stop saying, both to myself and aloud.
The first is started out as a self-defense mechanism when I got challenged by anyone for taking the pandemic seriously. I’d explain that I had high-risk family members, but too often people in my area challenge our decision to remain curbside service only and to wear masks. So I began saying I was high risk as well, and that if I got Covid, I would die. As an argument, it tended to shut people up. But what a terrible thing to be telling myself!
I’m moderately high-risk, I’m definitely high-stress. I’m not in the best of health. But a 113-year-old pensioner has survived while people in their thirties have died. There are so many factors that determine mortality–including virus load at the time of exposure–that my contacting Covid isn’t an automatic death sentence. Not unless I go around thinking it is.
My response these days to people who scoff at my mask-wearing? “I’m a scientist. I know how viruses work. I want the people in my community to live.”
The second thing I have to stop saying is, “This job is killing me.” While it’s true that most days I feel like I’m at the breaking point, that I’m on the flash-point of burnout, I need to STOP SAYING THIS. Because I don’t want to bring that repetitive thought into reality.
And the funny thing is, if I can point to these extremes and recognize the harm I’m doing when I tell myself these things, it becomes easier to recognize the much smaller nicks and lacerations I’ve been inflicting on myself for as long as I can remember. Some people cut themselves with actual blades. Others do it with thoughts and words.
I’ve always been one for words.
I need to wield them with more care. We all do.
Be safe. Be well. And most of all, be kind to yourself right now.