April 18, 2005
The Myth of Positive Thinking
Reverend Linda Yates
In a world that places the highest value on the young and healthy, having to negotiate the maze of double binds in our world can be exhausting for a woman living with incurable cancer. The positive thinking double bind is probably the most pervasive. By positive thinking I mean a train of thinking that denies death, is sure of cure and never pays attention to the pain and suffering of living with metastatic cancer.
When a woman is first diagnosed with cancer she is usually inundated with volumes of just think positive stuff by well-meaning family and friends. People do this for several reasons. They really do care and want to do something to be helpful. There exists, however, more subconscious and insidious motivators: the need to blame and to silence.
After all, following the positive thinking logic trail, if someone with cancer gets sicker we can just believe that they didn't work hard enough at their own mental recovery; that is, they made themselves sicker by being too negative. This relieves observers of having to deal with the very random and capricious reality of the disease. If we can find a reason for someone getting metastatic cancer and then dying of it, we don't have to deal with the possibility that it might strike anyone of us next. As well, if we feel compelled to help and as such advise someone to just think positive, this essentially tells them that although we might be physically present to help, we don't want to hear anything negative, thus silencing the woman with cancer when she might really want to tell you about the absolute misery she may be feeling.
Women with cancer need the help of others. They know this. Therefore, they don't want to make people angry or disappointed in them. We are socialized to be nice as it is. It is often terribly difficult to share the not nice topic of the sufferings inherent in living with cancer. It is almost impossible to do so with a listener who can't hear it.
When an observer says, "She has a really good attitude," I often wonder if the sufferer knows that the speaker does not or can not deal with hearing about the rotten side of life with cancer. A curious thing can happen during these types of situations. Sometimes when a patient intuits that a visitor only wants to hear positive things and thus feeds the listener what they want to hear, the visitor will often then tell me that the patient is in denial and not dealing with the reality of the disease.
This seemingly contradictory thinking has always puzzled me. I have come to believe that it is another component of the blaming phenomenon. If a person gets sicker and then dies, never having talked to the visitor about the progress of the disease, the observer can say to themselves that the patient's course worsened because that person was in denial. It is a matter of feeling in control when an out-of-control event is happening to a woman you care about. So women with cancer are always in a double bind. They must always be thinking positive about the disease, but if they do as instructed they are also considered to be in denial.
If you have said any of these things, don't feel guilty. As a caring person, you did the best you could with the information you had at the time. You have new information and now can walk a different path.
People who offer the just think positive advice rarely think about the impact this has on a sufferer. The crazy-making reality of living with this advice is that if you do get sicker it has got to be your fault - you just didn't think positive enough. Since it is inevitable that a woman with metastatic breast cancer will die, it is also inevitable that she will therefore fail at thinking properly. Not only is the advice cruel in this aspect but it is also faulty in its assumptions. There are some very well done, recently published studies that have proven acquiring the think positive attitude has no effect on longevity.
Positive thinking has a palliative effect on those around a suffering woman. In essence, often the woman is doing what women are socialized to do: take care of others. All of us within the Praying Our Goodbyes group described feelings of loneliness that arise from this. There were very few people in our lives who could hear the spiritual and psychological pain of having to live with this illness. That is why I believe support groups are so essential for quality of life for women living with metastatic cancer.
An alternative to positive thinking is an intentional gratitude model. I do not know if it extends life, but I believe it certainly improves one's quality of life and have experienced the beneficial effects that arise from this stance.
Just Wait... There's More: Surviving Cancer